Checkdowns Continue to be Vikings Fans’ Worst Nightmare

Fourth-and-8. One minute 51 seconds left. Vikings ball on the Minnesota 48-yard line. No timeouts left. Down by seven. The season is on the line.

The ensuing play left Vikings fans confused and angry. It was a play that Vikings fans have seen plenty of times before: the checkdown. Cousins dumped the ball off to T.J. Hockensen 3 yards past the line of scrimmage. The defender, Xavier McKinney, was playing somewhat off Hockenson, protecting the first down marker, the one thing that mattered. Once Cousins got rid of the ball, McKinney easily closed out on Hockensen and ended the Vikings’ season. It was a painful way to cap off a season full of promise.

What is Wrong with Checkdowns?
Checkdowns can be a valuable option for teams and quarterbacks around the league. Look at Austin Ekeler and the Los Angeles Chargers. Ekeler ranks 48th in receiving yards this year and 2nd among running backs with 722. He also ranks first in the NFL in yards after the catch with 863. This means that Ekeler catches the ball behind the line of scrimmage a lot, and if you watch the Chargers play, you know that the checkdown to Ekeler is a large part of their offense. Ekeler is a great weapon for Justin Herbert when his space in the pocket collapses and has nowhere else to go with the ball. That is the idea of the checkdown, you keep a receiver or running back in the flat as a lifeline for the quarterback when all else is covered.

In theory, the checkdown is a hard-to-defend, easy-to-complete option for quarterbacks with the potential for a big gain. However, the checkdown has become the primary or secondary option for a lot of quarterbacks around the league. This should never be the case. As soon as the checkdown becomes a top option for a quarterback, it dilutes its effectiveness. The defense starts to protect the checkdown and easily neutralize it. Now, this may create one-on-one matchups for the offense to exploit, however, having that back run an actual route and draw defensive attention that way feels much more valuable.

The checkdown is most valuable on early downs because it allows for the possibility of picking up a few more yards before third down. Checkdowns on third or fourth down may be the most frustrating thing to witness as a fan because it hardly gives your team a chance at the first down. Sure, a broken tackle or two might get you that first down once in a blue moon, but I would much rather take my chances throwing the ball past the first down marker. Teams like the Vikings and Chargers are betting on their receiver or back to make a great move in the flat to grab the first down rather than throwing it past the sticks where their best weapons live.

Kirk Cousins: the Checkdown King
Cousins gets accused of being a lot of different things and after the latest debacle, he is being accused of being a quarterback with an affinity for the checkdown. The media is quick to throw labels on players based on just one instance. This time the media might be right. The checkdown to Hockensen to end the game is certainly not the first time Cousins has opted to go the conservative route on third or fourth down that came up short. Cousins seems to have a penchant for doing this and by doing so, he is taking the ball out of the hands of Justin Jefferson, the Vikings’ best player. Jefferson is the guy you go to when you absolutely need to get it past the sticks. He is the guy you go to in the biggest moments because you would rather put the game in his hands past the first down marker rather than short of the marker with Hockensen. Cousins has to recognize that and be aggressive when the game is on the line. He has to get the ball to Justin Jefferson if all other options are covered and the pocket is collapsing in big moments like that. Ordinarily, you never want to force the ball to anyone, however, Jefferson is too good at making game-changing plays to not even give him a chance. Jefferson proved he could do it on fourth-and-18 against the Bills earlier this season, so how could you not give him the chance to do it again? Giving Jefferson the chance to go up and make a play feels a lot better than a checkdown to a tight end.

There are plenty of other factors that contribute to Cousins checkdowns that I would be remiss not to acknowledge. Play calling certainly contributes to the issue as well. T.J. Hockensen should never have been short of the sticks. Hockensen had been Cousins’ most reliable target all day, so why call a play that left him short of the line to gain? After the loss, O’Connell took the blame and acknowledged that it may not have been the best play call. Additionally, the offensive line had not done a great job of protecting Cousins all day, allowing three sacks. Cousins cited the possibility of an impending sack as the reason for checking the ball down. This may be a fair excuse since Leonard Williams and company had been wreaking havoc on the quarterback all game. Overall, the “Checkdown King” moniker may not be solely Cousins’ fault, but he will continue to be the one taking the brunt of the heat.

Vikings fans will be reeling from this loss and specifically that play until the Vikings take the field again in September. It was painful to watch the season collapse due to a checkdown. Of course, other factors like the defense (goodbye Ed Donatell) and the playcalling contributed to the loss, however, the checkdown is what ended it all. Big moments like these seem to keep haunting Cousins, it begs the question of how far he can take the team if he cannot show up when it matters most.

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8 months ago

Pain. Nothing more, and yet nothing more expected

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