EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — As Kirk Cousins backpedaled in the pocket with Minnesota on the move late in the first half last week, Adam Thielen broke for the back corner of the end zone.
Cousins had to make an off-balance throw to beat a fast-approaching Michael Bennett, and Thielen had little room left in bounds to secure the catch with two Philadelphia defenders a step behind him.
The ball floated just over the outstretched arm of cornerback Jalen Mills and neatly into Thielen’s hands in time for him to hit both feet on the turf and give the Vikings a two-touchdown lead on Sunday. Mills was flagged for holding to add to the degree of difficulty on the play.
But about one-third of the way through the first season for Cousins in Minnesota the fact that the pass was completed was hardly a surprise.
“He does such a good job of just making it easy on us,” said Thielen, who leads the NFL with 47 receptions and is second with 589 yards. “We just worry about getting open, and he’s almost catching the ball for us. We just have to continue to make sure that we’re doing the little things to be at the right depth and the right timing of things, because it’s so important when you have a guy that’s as talented as him to be in the right spot at the right time.”
With a quickly formed faith in Thielen and the rest of the Vikings receivers, Cousins has repeatedly succeeded in threading pinpoint throws into tight windows with “a little guts and a little bit of arm talent,” as coach Mike Zimmer put it recently.
Cousins ranks fifth in the NFL with a 71.2 percent completion rate that doesn’t tell the full story of his precision. He’s been under pressure as frequently as any of his peers, with 35 hits taken (tied for seventh most in the league) and 14 sacks allowed (11th most) by the Vikings that could easily be more if Cousins didn’t have a quicker release.
The tying touchdown pass to Thielen in the final minute of the fourth quarter at Green Bay on Sept. 16 was the most memorable example to date. Cousins, as he was about to be hit, somehow zipped the ball between two converging defenders into the arms of Thielen for him to fall backward into the end zone while maintaining possession. The Packers couldn’t have covered that much better.
“If it was an inch left or an inch higher or an inch lower it gets knocked down,” Thielen said.
Sometimes, there’s a little luck in play, too.
“If that was a random second down in the middle of the second quarter, I would’ve been like, ‘Hey, that one’s a little tight,’” Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. “But if you’re trying to drive down and win the football game, there’s less than a minute to go in the game, those are the chances you have to take.”
Even if the quarterback himself isn’t sure the pass will reach the target.
“It’s a fast game, and if you think you’re going to throw every throw with great vision and a great understanding of where the ball is going, I think you’re fooling yourself,” Cousins said. “There’s a lot of throws that I make, especially last Sunday, where I’m trying to listen to the crowd’s reaction to decide if it was complete or incomplete because I’m looking through peoples’ shins to try to see what happened. That’s the nature of this league.”
There’s no more important trait at this position than being able to consistently put the ball in the right place, even as a youth. In the opening credits for the TV show “Friday Night Lights,” high school quarterback Matt Saracen is shown throwing into a tire hanging in his front yard in fictional Dillon, Texas. For an NFL standout like Cousins, that accuracy was always there. He’s been able to develop and improve it.
“It’s innate. You either have it or you don’t,” Cousins said.
Some of his counterparts who were more runners and scramblers in high school and college have had a harder time with pro-style precision.
“I was actually pretty slow as a kid, wasn’t a great athlete, so I had no choice but to stand in there and find a way to throw the football from the pocket,” he said, “and I think in the long run that’s served me well.”