Kirk Cousins: The last sub-center quarterback

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EAGAN – In the late ’80s, NFL Films produced a feature film called “Quarterbacking by Bill Walsh,” in which legendary Hall of Fame coach and quarterback Joe Montana goes through proper techniques for everything from falling in three stages at third reading in its progression. The room provides incredible insight into how Walsh created the West Coast The San Francisco 49ers offense is working so well. It was all about timing and footwork.

“One of Joe’s great things as a quarterback is that he could get away from center so well,” Walsh told NFL Films cameras.

On throws to the right, Walsh points out that Montana needs to keep his helmet upright until he’s ready to drop the ball to avoid telegraphing the pass. He tells his QB to step as fast as he can on the five-step drop and angle his front foot slightly to the right on the release to get his momentum in the right direction. All of the receivers’ schemes have been built around the depth of throwbacks and Montana’s ability to get just the right thing time and time again.

Every demonstration in the 43-minute video, including Montana’s re-enactment of Dwight Clark’s famous throw to beat the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 playoffs, has Montana taking the shot under center.

Passing the ball under center has largely become a relic in the NFL. By SharpFootballStats, in 2020 75% of passes were thrown from the shotgun. Especially as college quarterbacks come to the NFL after spread offenses, the trend is likely to push Walsh’s subcenter details further into the background.

But Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is old enough to have seen Montana games as a kid, goes against the grain of the NFL when it comes to playing under center. This year he threw 31% of his passes with the traditional look and in 2019 and 2020 that number was close to 40%. After Sunday’s game in which the Vikings opened the game with repeated plays under center, Cousins’ use under center is rising to levels that would make Gary Kubiak proud.

Here’s how Cousins ​​compares to the best quarterbacks under 30 in percentage of pass attempts thrown under center:

As you can see, quarterbacks with a running element to their game barely throw the ball under center, while there’s a flicker of young pocket QBs. But no one except Davis Mills, who came from a sub-center graduate program at Stanford, approaches Cousins.

Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell wholeheartedly agrees.

“We have a lot of things available to us under the center of our attack where we can maximize the deception of what we’re trying to do by marrying running and passing,” O’Connell said. “It’s a lot easier to do that if you’re under center and you can handle more of the workload under center and there are some fundamental things quite honestly these days, quarterbacks just can’t do a lot through extended offenses.”

Since arriving in Minnesota, Cousins’ numbers under center have been nothing short of outstanding.

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The action game, which was used on 17 of Cousins’ 43 comebacks against the Bears, has long been a major Cousins ​​strength and certainly plays into the center’s improved stats. Although the Vikings could still use the game action out of the shotgun, this was particularly effective when using traditional running formations with a tight end and fullback in play, as they did in the Montana era.

“If you have a quarterback that has the ability like Kirk to turn his back on defense and really put that fake in there, sometimes you can get those guys to step up a little bit more and get the guys behind them like want you,” offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said.

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So what makes Cousins ​​a master of the under-center game compared to his peers? If it works for him, why don’t others make it work for them?

Well, that’s because it’s not easy.

“You have to be ready to turn your back on defense on a play pass and then trust when you turn around you can make the same kind of decisions in the pacing and timing of plays just as you would in the gun,” O’Connell said. “Also, knowing that you’re a lot closer to the run, you have to have the ability to get away from the line of scrimmage, especially when we’re backing up, throwing fast, throwing balls in the field.”

Quarterback Nick Mullens, who was under center 29% of the time when he started for San Francisco in 2020, said things looked different when he was backing up with the ball rather than standing up. in the shotgun.

“You move around while you see a picture versus the shotgun where you have more space and you don’t move around as much,” Mullens said. “Some might say the picture seems clearer of the shotgun to begin with. I like to do both. There is a time and place for both in terms of specific play and pacing. he routes are better, some have more tempo and rhythm as they pass below the centre.

Detailed footwork, as Walsh taught NFL Films audiences, is paramount when playing under center. There are few more accurate QBs who throw the ball when on a bootleg or when they put their feet down and throw in rhythm than Cousins, which gives him an advantage.

“If you look at a quarterback’s feet, you can feel how his mind works, if that makes sense,” Mullens said. “If he has calm rhythmic feet he probably plays with a clear and calm mind, that’s what I’ve always believed in. Really good quarterbacks in this league have good arm talent but they also have very good feet, calm feet, very consistent feet, they’re not all over the place.I’m a big proponent of keeping your base so you can always throw.

Just as everything works for Cousins ​​and Vikings to be under center, they can’t lean into it too much because there are a few downsides. If the opposing team has a good pass rush, especially on the inside, they can undo kickbacks pretty quickly. When the opposing teams know it’s a passing situation, they can rush down the field and the game action is not a factor.

That’s why in a passing league, the running game always plays a big role when you have an under-center QB.

“It’s like you can navigate the attack on your terms to where if…we can’t run the ball they know we pass…it’s a situation in which you don’t want to be,” Mullens said. “If you have a good running game, that’s a quarterback’s best friend because it makes everything more comfortable.”

Using the under-center offense will have to be part of the growth process between Cousins ​​and O’Connell. Cousins ​​said last week after the Bears win that his interception came on a play he might have read differently in the past – so it’s not exactly the same as Bill Walsh , Mike Shanahan, Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski from the past. But maybe that’s the key between the Vikings who have a good and excellent passing game.

“It helps us tremendously and it’s something we don’t take lightly,” O’Connell said.

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