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The Monday Perspective detours to the NFL and the curious case of Kirk Cousins

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Is Kirk Cousins all that bad?

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

I am taking a little detour from writing about the Gophers for a moment here. My fandom is not limited to just college sports and I’ve also been a lifelong Vikings fan (even had a fairly sarcastic Vikings blog before TDG back in the day), probably like many of you. So as we find out officially today that Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman have been fired, I wanted to unravel the very complicated discussion around Kirk Cousins. This exercise is probably much more for myself than it is anybody else, but follow with me here.

Probably more than anything with this current iteration of the Vikings, Kirk Cousins is the most polarizing person associated with this team. The spectrum of how people feel about Cousins leads to some fairly heated debates. But it really is a complicated and nuanced discussion. There are the stats, you have the team’s record and you have to factor in his contract. All are important to the discussion. But I am a data and analytics guy by trade. So when I hear the arguments and the discussion, I am prone to go and look at the numbers. Can we quantify or verify the common complaints or praises of Kirk Cousins?

But first there has to be a little common ground. I don’t care if you like Kirk Cousins or hate Kirk Cousins, we can all agree on two things. One, he is not an elite quarterback. He is not going to be confused with Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes. If someone is arguing that he is a game-changing quarterback who can elevate a mediocre team to a championship level, then quickly abandon that conversation because it is pointless. Nobody is arguing this or they are delusional. Two, everybody wants one of those type of quarterbacks but simply wanting one is not enough. Also, if the quarterback conversation starts comparing Cousins to Rodgers, I also will choose to back out of that one. Because of course I’d rather have Rodgers leading the Vikings. But it isn’t reality and finding a quarterback at that level is incredibly difficult.

These two premises are paramount to any conversation regarding your team’s quarterback.

After that, your team searches for the best possible alternative and you go from there.

So let’s dive in.

THE STATS

I’ll begin with the simple and obvious. Cousins, for back-to-back years, and really his entire career, has put up very good numbers. Taking a look at active quarterbacks, ranked by their career passer rating, Cousins ranks 5th. He’s 4th if you back out DeShaun Watson. But that is ahead of names like Tom Brady and Dak Prescott. If you include retired quarterbacks, he is right behind Drew Brees and ahead of Peyton Manning and Philips Rivers. That’s just QB rating, which isn’t an ideal metric.

Over the 4 seasons as being the Vikings starting quarterback he ranks 7th in total passing yards, 5th in touchdowns 2nd in completion % and tied for 4th in fewest interceptions (starting at least 50 of the possible 64 games).

Those raw stats are undeniably very good. Those basic passing stats put Cousins right around a top 5 quarterback in the NFL over the past 4 seasons.

And I’ll throw in a quick nod to durability. Yes, he missed last week’s Packer game due to Covid, but he has started 63 of the 65 regular season games as the Vikings quarterback. There are 3 quarterbacks who have started more games in the last 4 seasons.

I will readily acknowledge that these raw stats are very old school, often not reflecting the total picture. They are certainly not meaningless, especially as you add years to the discussion. But they are not the single source of truth for this discussion, and these numbers are not even the most important part. But not only do these numbers belong in this conversation, they are significant.

BUT HE CHECKS DOWN...or other reasons for the numbers

We need to take this to another level. There are additional levels of stats that we can dig into. Can we figure out how good he is at throwing downfield? Is he just racking up meaningless 4th quarter yardage? Is his production simply tied to having a couple great receivers? The most common criticisms I hear related to Cousins are that he racks up a lot of gaudy 4th quarter stats in meaningless situations and that his completion % (and low interception numbers) are really just a function of consistently checking down to the safe, short throws.

Looking at his stats by quarter during his 4 years with the Vikings it is a bit interesting, though not entirely telling. Consistently, Cousins is very good in the 1st quarter. By nearly all metrics. Over 4 seasons his cumulative 1st quarter stats are a 73% completion percentage, 29 touchdowns and only 2 picks. When you break down stats per attempt his interception rate, TD rate and yards per attempt are all best in the 1st quarter.

But then the 4th quarter is his second best quarter. Not just in raw stats due to more attempts. But his TD ratio, INT ratio, completion % and yards per attempt are all top 2 (by quarter). Cousins does put up big numbers in the 4th quarter, but they are efficient.

  • Touchdowns thrown on 6.7% of attempts (ranks 1st by quarter, 1st quarter ranks as 2nd best)
  • Yards per attempt 7.97 (1st)
  • Interceptions thrown per attempt 1.77% (2nd)
  • Percent of completions that result in a 1st down 57.9% (1st)

Cousins doesn’t just wilt in the 4th while hitting chunk plays that result in additional stats. When trailing or tied with less than 4 min to go he has 19 touchdowns to 7 interceptions (zero interceptions this season in those situations, which were plenty). But we’ll get to records in close games in a bit.

What about the types of throws he’s making? Is Cousins only checking down to Dalvin Cook and the tight ends while not taking advantage of his elite receivers downfield?

I first took a look at intended air yards per attempt. How far downfield is KC throwing the ball and how does it compare to the rest of the league?

2021 - ranks tied for 8th in the NFL with an average depth of target at 8.1 yards downfield. Cousins is tied with Brady, Joe Burrow and Dereck Carr. Tied for 8th in downfield yards attempted, ranks tied for 5th in completions downfield. So a top 10 QB in attempts downfield, top 5 in actual completions. Average yards after the catch (basically how much additional yardage help is he getting from his receivers after the completion)? Ranks 21st.

2020 - Cousins was 15th in downfield yards per attempt and 8th in completion.

2019 - 24th and 16th.

2018 - 27th and 18th.

So I guess, if anything, he’s gotten better at throwing the ball downfield over his 4 years with Minnesota.

But those numbers in 2021 and 2020 are quite good. Clearly an indication that he is indeed taking shots downfield and trusting his very talented receivers.

Looking deeper, what about the types of throws he’s making? The accuracy? Under pressure, etc?

According to Football Reference advanced stats, here are some interesting numbers and ranks in 2021.

  • Bad throw % - 18th - but worth noting that his 16.7% is better than Brady, Rodgers, Stafford and Mahomes. In 2020 he ranked 4th in the league. Tied with Rodgers at 13.8%. He was 8th in 2019.
  • On Target % - 10th - 73.9% in 2021, right behind Rodgers and significantly ahead of Brady, Josh Allen and Mahomes. He was 1st in the NFL in 2020! 5th in 2019. This metric of tracking his on target throws is clearly a strength.
  • Pressure % - 7th - this is just a metric of how often was Cousin under pressure on a pass attempt. Ranked 4th in 2020. This is simply an indication how often he was throwing under duress. It’s often.

Ok, Ok, so the stats really aren’t that bad. Certainly not indicative of a quarterback who sucks. Raw numbers, more advanced numbers are all very good. But what about the fact that team has had back to back losing seasons.

BUT THE RECORD

It is undeniable that the Viking’s record in the 4 seasons with Cousins as the starter has not been great. A 4-year stretch of going 33-31-1 and one road playoff win. And the quarterback taking a larger share of the blame for losses is very common in football. They are the most important player on the field and the one guy who is making key decisions with the ball on every single play. No doubt, the quarterback is capable of winning or losing a game for you more than anybody else on the field.

But does this always mean that he is the reason for a loss? Or does he get all of the credit for wins?

I remember seeing a stat mid-way through the 2020 season that Cousins had orchestrated something like 6 game-tying or go-ahead drives in the 4th quarter and the team was 1-5 in those games. Which is really a remarkable stat. And we all know how many close games were lost by the Vikings this year. Having lead by 7 or more at one point in almost every single game and ended with a losing record.

There is going to be a fine line here that I’ll be walking. It could be rather easy to be making excuses and easily blame plenty of losses on anybody but Cousins. On the other hand there are plenty of examples where there are very clear reasons for a loss that were in spite of the quarterback’s best efforts. Let’s go game by game (losses only) over the last 2 seasons. This exercise may be painful, I’d appreciate thoughts & prayers...

2020

  • Green Bay 43-34 - Mixed bag as we try to assign why we lost. On the one hand, the defense game up 43 points and Rodgers threw for 364 and 4 TDs. Cousins wasn’t great, but he didn’t lose this one either. I’ll chalk this one up to losing to a better team and an indication of where our defense was heading.
  • @Indianapolis 28-11 - The offense sucked, Cousins threw 3 picks. This one was on him.
  • Tennessee 31-30 - The Justin Jefferson breakout game...and a loss. A 4th quarter go-ahead touchdown pass from Cousins to Jefferson, Dan Bailey missed a FG. This is losing to a better team.
  • @Seattle 27-26 - Well, this was the infamous 4th and 1 from the Seattle 6. Mattison has a huge hole to get the 1st down or touchdown to end the game. Russell Wilson goes 94 yards for a game-winning touchdown. An earlier 77-yard go-ahead touchdown drive in the 3rd and a 97-yard touchdown drive in the 4th are both to the good for Cousins. This one is on Mattison and the defense.
  • Atlanta 40-23 - Mostly on Cousins. Another 3 interception game and this game wasn’t even that close.
  • Dallas 31-28 - A Cousins to Jefferson TD pass with 9:37 left to take the lead. He had 314 yards and 3 TDs. This one was not on the quarterback.
  • @Tampa Bay - 26-14 - Dan Bailey with a missed PAT and 3 missed FGs! The strip sack with 2:14 left ended any hope of a comeback but it didn’t really matter against the eventual Super Bowl champs.
  • Chicago - 33-27 - Two failed 4th down conversions were pretty critical. The interception was really a meaningless deep pass from the Bears 40 with 10 seconds remaining. Mixed bag on the blame here. Cousins was OK, the offense failed the 4th down conversion but also you gave up 33 points to a Mitch Trubisky offense.
  • @New Orleans 52-33 - Um, the defense gave up 52 points and it wasn’t due to the quarterback throwing interceptions.

So for the 2020 season, Cousins had 2 really bad and costly games. We didn’t go through the wins to give him credit for the OT drive against Jacksonville, the game-winning 75-yard drive against Carolina, his 405 yards at Detroit in a win and a 4th quarter game-winning drive at Chicago.

2021

This is when it gets funky.

  • @Cincinnati - 27-24 (OT) - Cousins leads 2 drives in 4th quarter to erase 10-point deficit. Leads OT drive to win but Cook fumbles while in FG range. Cousins with 351, 2 TDs and no INTs.
  • @Arizona - 34-33 - Greg Joseph missed a PAT and missed the game-winning 37-yard FG. This one is on the kicker.
  • Cleveland - 14-7 - Really I give this as a win to the Browns defensive line. Certainly more was needed from the offense, but I’m not blaming any particular player in this one.
  • Dallas - 20-16 - Really this is on the defense losing a game with Cooper Rush as the opposing quarterback. Cousins did lead the go-ahead FG drive (10 plays, 69 yards), taking the lead with 2:51 left. The two-minute defense let us down.
  • @Baltimore - 34-31 (OT) - A clutch, game-tying touchdown drive late in the 4th to force overtime. Also a 3-and-out in OT after the Barr interception.
  • @San Francisco - 34-36 - a team loss. Couldn’t get the running game going, couldn’t stop Elijah Mitchell from rushing for 133 yards. Also a missed PAT prevented what would have been a FG difference late in the 4th. Cousins didn’t exactly elevate the offense.
  • @Detroit - 29-27 - Do we have to talk about this one? Cousins had 340 yards and no picks, also had a go-ahead touchdown with 2:11 left in the game. This one was largely on the defense.
  • Los Angeles Rams - 30-23 - An early pick inside the Rams 10 hurt, as did the 3rd quarter punt return for a touchdown.
  • @Green Bay - 37-10 - Covid Cousins was out and it was clear this offense stood no chance without him.

Credit for the Carolina OT win after 2 missed FGs and the defense giving up a 10-point lead in the 4th quarter. Seattle win where he was 30/38 for 323 and 3 TDs. And two long drives for touchdowns late for the win at the Chargers.

That was a time-consuming exercise to arrive at the conclusion that not every loss is the fault of the quarterback. Especially in 2021 and those first two games of the year. Not every win is due to his arm either.

Overall, 6 game-winning drives over the last 2 seasons. Defined as a 4th quarter drive that put his team ahead for the last time. Rodgers has 4, Josh Allen has 3 and Mahomes also has 6. Not really an ideal stat, but certainly an indicator that the notion that Cousins is incapable of a key drive when it matters, is not accurate.

BUT THE CONTRACT

This is absolutely a fair argument and a key component of the Cousins discussion. As we stand today, Cousins is going to be the 3rd highest paid quarterback in terms of salary cap hit. By the time we get to August of 2022, he likely won’t still be 3rd. After free agency and potentially a restructuring of his contract, it will be a lower rank (perhaps a lower number).

But the point is that we can all agree that for being paid as the 3rd highest quarterback in the league, the Vikings are not getting the 3rd best quarterback in the NFL. The % of the salary cap that he is eating up is significant and you absolutely need to be getting that value.

The NFL finances is one that really works great for teams who have a dynamic quarterback on a rookie contract. Those quarterbacks account for a small part of the salary cap pie and the team can invest in other areas more heavily. Once that rookie contract is up and the quarterback takes up a larger share, then this QB better be elite at raising everyone else up or the competitive advantage is long gone. You’re seeing this with Kansas City after they had to pay Mahomes. You’ve also seen this with the Packers, New England and New Orleans as they paid their quarterbacks handsomly but those quarterbacks were/are on another level.

Kirk Cousins is not on that level.

His 2022 number is way too big. The only saving grace is that after an unheard of salary cap reduction in 2021, the cap takes a big jump in 2022. Not enough to offset the bump in Cousin’s cap hit. but most likely something gets restructured and extended over another year or two.

BUT THE ALTERNATIVES

This is really what it comes down to. Landing Drew Brees, Rodgers or Brady is obviously ideal. Especially if you are going to be paying top-5 money.

You have 2 options. Draft that next Hall of Fame quarterback or sign him in free agency.

Drafting such a guy, well yes we should do that. Also, good luck with that. I mean, Fran Tarkenton was a great draft pick. The other 25 drafted quarterbacks in the franchise history? Not so much. But in the context of this discussion, this has nothing to do with Cousins.

So what about signing one in free agency? It worked for Denver, New Orleans and Tampa Bay in recent years. Well, again that is much easier said than done. You may recall that Brees was basically down to New Orleans or Minnesota when San Diego was willing to let him go. We weren’t too sure about his shoulder injury, but talk about a significant change in the course of the NFL had Brees donned purple.

I digress.

It didn’t happen and when quarterbacks of that caliber are available, they are incredibly particular about where they will land. Do we think Tom Brady had 0.1% interest in coming to Minnesota? If you think about, for not drafting a viable quarterback since Daunte Culpeper, the Vikings have done rather well at cobbling together that position. Brett Favre was a gift. Case Keenum was a miracle (see what I did there).

Kirk Cousins has really been very good in all areas except for winning. A losing record since the 2019 season where he orchestrated a road-playoff win over New Orleans. But this leads me to my final point.

BUT THE DEFENSE

The following tweet really may have been what got my mind to thinking about this novel post.

While one may look at that stat as an indictment on Cousins, I see it very differently. Also this tweet...

Again...is this an indictment on Cousins? Or is this the point where we realize that there are still 21 other players on the field. And maybe the record is more indicative of this...

2020 was basically the same. The Vikings this offseason invested heavily in the defense.

I fully understand that some quarterbacks elevate everyone. Favre in 2009 certainly did. Rodgers does this annually. Also, that 2009 defense was 6th in yards allowed and gave up 19.5 points per game.

Maybe, just maybe, Cousins isn’t the problem.

As always, it comes down to what is your alternative? Drafting a quarterback in hopes that he’s better the Cousins is actually unlikely. A quarterback should be drafted every year at some point in the draft. But this year appears to be a very weak QB draft, so don’t expect an early QB this year. And to be honest, give me a great CB or DE or OG.

Personally, I’m perfectly comfortable with extending Cousins this offseason and reducing his cap number. He should not be accounting for a $45M hit to the cap. We can complain about his current contract, but that’s on the former GM.

We can argue about his value, but his numbers are hard to argue. The minute I’m presented with a viable solution that makes the Vikings better by replacing this quarterback, I will be right on board with you. Currently Cousins is a consistent and accurate passer, a quarterback who can read defenses and make good decisions with the ball. I suspect whomever is hired as the next head coach will be pleased to have a quarterback of this caliber on the roster.

I also expect he’ll be here for another 2 years, maybe 3. The Vikings, like every other franchise, need to be working towards that franchise altering quarterback. Kirk Cousins does not fit that bill, but he’s what we have now and he is not nearly as much a part of the problem as he’s made out to be.