As the Vikings head into their off-season program, I thought I’d start an occasional series over the next couple months on key veterans the Vikings are counting on to help deliver a Super Bowl victory.
I’ll start with the lightning rod himself: Quarterback Kirk Cousins.
All Stats But Nothing Super
Kirk Cousins has completed four seasons as a starter in the NFL. If you’re looking for reasons to like Cousins’ game, just look at his stats: He’s averaged 4,368.5 yards passing/year over those four seasons. He’s completed 67.8% of his passes. He’s averaged 27.8 TDs a season, vs. 11.5 INTs. He also holds a 98.1 passer rating over that period. All of these are very similar to Tom Brady’s (aka the GOAT) career averages.
Except win-loss record. And that’s where the criticism of Kirk Cousins starts.
He’s never been more than an average QB because he’s basically a .500 winning percentage QB. And in four seasons his playoff record is 0-1. And he never wins big games. Or beats good teams. Or makes many clutch plays. He’s dependent on the team around him, rather than carrying the team. He’s a game manager, not a leader.
These criticisms are valid, to the extent he contributed to the results. The same is true of his passing stats.
All of the above was on display last season for the Vikings.
He threw for 4,298 yards, 30 TDs and 10 INTs, 70.1% completions, 99.7 passer rating.
Meanwhile the Super Bowl winning QB last year threw for 4,355 yards, 29 TDs and 11 INTs, 65.8% completions, and a 97.7 passer rating.
But rather than winning the Super Bowl, the Vikings finished a disappointing 8-7-1, going 1-6 against winning teams. The Dolphins were the only winning team (at the time) they beat.
And then there’s this about the Vikings’ 2018 season:
Washington, at the end of the Kirk Cousins Era, loved Cousins the person and wasn’t entirely sold on Cousins the player. The Vikings, after one year of Cousins as the franchise guy, understand the reticence. His numbers were exquisite—70 percent passing, 4,298 yards, a 30-to-10 TD-to-interception ratio. But the Vikings, as it turned out, needed to win three of their five December games to make the playoffs. They won two. In the three losses, they fell behind New England 10-0, Seattle 21-0 and Chicago 13-0 … and Cousins led three touchdown drives in 32 total possessions in those games. - Peter King, NBC Sports - Football Morning in America
Every year since Cousins has been a starter, despite his passing stats, he’s faced the same criticism and mediocre winning record.
So What Changes?
Cousins will turn 31 before he begins his fifth season as a starter. He’ll have a new offensive coordinator and scheme - his fourth in five seasons. His first two were under Sean McVay, then Matt Cavanaugh, and last season John DeFilippo. This season he’ll be officially under Kevin Stefanski, but running Gary Kubiak’s offense.
So, from a coaching/scheme standpoint, this season begins the same as most of the others for Cousins: learning a new scheme and working with new coaches. Cousins has always played in different flavors of a west coast offense, so what difference will a new one make?
Maybe this year the offensive line is better, so that could make a change. But Cousins has played behind better offensive lines in Washington - with the same results.
He’ll have largely the same players as last year at the skill positions too. And pretty much the same defense.
Looking at it this way, there is little to suggest anything but the same old, same old from Kirk Cousins - and another .500 season.
And yet there are prospects for change.
A Different Approach?
One could argue that with Kevin Stefanski, Cousins is working under yet another unproven offensive coordinator with little to no track record. But the truth is that Cousins will be running Gary Kubiak’s scheme, with largely Gary Kubiak’s staff, and with Gary Kubiak advising both Kevin Stefanski and Mike Zimmer on all things offense. And Gary Kubiak and his scheme does have a track record- and a successful one at that.
One of the features of Kubiak’s brand of west coast offense is a greater emphasis on the run. As an offensive coordinator he’s almost always been in the top 10 in both rushing attempts and yards. The 2017 Vikings were also top 10 in both rushing attempts and yards.
Kirk Cousins has never played in an offense with a running game like that.
Not even close.
During those past four seasons, the running game part of Cousins’ offense has never been good, and has gotten steadily worse. It’s gone from ranked 20th in yards in 2015, to 21st, then 27th, and finally 30th last year in Minnesota. Rushing attempts and run/pass play percentage has gone back and forth- but never very high - while rushing yards have gone from bad to worse.
But with Mike Zimmer making it clear he wants to run the ball more, and Gary Kubiak having a well established commitment to running the ball, I expect the Vikings will run the ball more, come hell or highwater. In particular, I expect the Vikings to run the ball about 45% of the time this season, compared to about 35.5% last season. This would be more in-line with the 2017 Vikings season - and Kubiak’s average as a head coach or offensive coordinator.
The other mainstay of Kubiak’s offense has been the play-action pass.
Kirk Cousins has been the best play-action passer in the NFL over the past four years. His
passer rating on play-action passes, beginning in 2015, has ranked 1st, 11th, 2nd, and 4th over the past four seasons among QBs with at least 100 play-action attempts, according to Pro Football Focus. His play-action passer rating has averaged about 116 over that span, vs. 98.1 overall.
And yet every year, he’s well down the list in the percentage of play-action passes run. In 2015 he ranked 18th, 15th in 2016 and 2017, and 20th last year.
That is likely to change this season as Gary Kubiak favors play-action, and so have the Vikings for most of Kevin Stefanski’s tenure on the offensive staff. Starting in 2012, the Vikings have ranked 2nd, 3rd, 8th, 3rd, 9th and 2nd in percentage of play-action passes, beginning with Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator, to Norv Turner, and ending with Pat Shurmur. That percentage dropped to 20th under John DeFilippo last season.
Given all of the above, I would not be surprised to see play-action passes account for somewhere close to 30% of a passing plays - vs. 20.8% last season.
Last season Cousins’ passer rating was 116.1 in play-action vs. 95.2 without it. Yards per attempt (YPA) was nearly 2 yards more in play-action (8.6 vs. 6.7), and his completion percentage was 77.1% vs. 68.2 without it. Given those differentials, it stands to reason that if play-action passing increases, so too will Cousins’ passing efficiency.
MORE UNDER-CENTER PASSING
Similarly, Cousins’ career passer rating under center is 109.1 vs. 90.1 in shotgun- a relatively large differential. And yet last season, 78% of Cousins’ passing attempts were from the shotgun formation. Last year his passer rating under-center was 114.6 vs. 95.5 in shotgun.
Gary Kubiak has preferred his QB to be under-center, but strayed from that with Payton Manning- who preferred shotgun- while head coach in Denver. Other than that, Kubiak’s QBs have operated mostly under-center. Matt Schaub, who played most of his career under Kubiak, was under-center about two-thirds of his passing attempts. Brian Griese, John Elway, and Joe Flacco were all primarily under-center passers under Kubiak as well. For Flacco, it was a severe change - going from 15% to 62% under-center after Kubiak took over as offensive coordinator in 2014. Flacco’s passer rating jumped from 73 to 91 that year - his highest to-date since 2010.
Given all that, I would also expect the percentage of Cousins’ pass attempts from under-center to double from previous years. In the past, Cousins’ has averaged only about 27% of passes from under-center. Again, looking at passer rating differentials between shotgun and under-center, you would expect a significant increase in under-center passing to have a positive effect on Cousins’ passer rating.
Football Is A Team Game
All that may be well and good - and may help Cousins’ stats - but the question remains: can Cousins win more games - big games, prime time games, road games ?
The answer is both long and simple.
In the past Cousins has been the focal point and lightning rod. He’s been expected to carry his team - because his team has never had a good running game - and only last season a good defense. So, when the chips are down, and the lights are brightest, all eyes point to Cousins.
And when the QB is expected to carry the team, without a good running game or defense,
the results are somewhat predictable. Not only with Cousins, but with other top QBs as well:
- Cousins is 32-30-2 since becoming a starter in 2015, with a 98.1 passer rating.
- Aaron Rodgers, with the all-time highest career passer rating, but who has suffered from the same problem in Green Bay in recent years, is only 30-24-1 since 2015, with a 98.2 passer rating.
- Another future first ballot Hall of Fame QB - Drew Brees - suffered the same problem from 2014-2016. He went 21-26 over that span, despite a 99.9 passer rating and averaging over 5,000 passing yards a year.
- Russell Wilson went 9-7 in his only season (2017) without a top 10 defense and/or running game in Seattle.
- Other QBs with top 10 all-time passer ratings haven’t done well either when asked to carry the team. Philip Rivers, who had a good defense for a few seasons, went 60-68 between 2010-2017, with a 94.4 passer rating. Tony Romo went 24-23 between 2011-2013, despite a 96.1 passer rating over that stretch.
All of these QBs, Cousins included, are top 10 career passer-rating QBs all-time, among QBs with at least 1,500 passing attempts.
By contrast, the GOAT - Tom Brady - with the 4th best 97.6 career passer rating - has had only 3 seasons in his 17 playing years without a top 10 defense, and only 5 without a top 10 running game. 13 times the Patriots made it to at least the AFC Championship during that span, 9 times to the Super Bowl, and six times world champions.
In the 17 consecutive years Joe Montana and Steve Young started at QB for the 49ers (not including the strike-shortened season) they had at least a top 8 or better defense every season but one. And only 5 years did they not have a top 10 running game. 10 times the 49ers made it to at least the NFC Championship, and 5 times they won the Super Bowl.
Football is a team game.
So, can Cousins break out of his mediocre winning ways? Sure he can. Just give him the defense and running game that Brady, Montana and Young had most of their careers.
Getting Back to 2017
The last time the Vikings put together a top 10 defense and top 10 running game - in 2017 - they went 14-4 and made it to the NFC Championship with a backup QB that hadn’t done much before or since. Case Keenum won against winning teams, in the post-season, on the road, and in prime time. His previous career passer rating of 78.4 jumped to 98.3.
But in 6 of those 18 games (33%) they had 100 or fewer rushing yards - including both post-season games. They lost 4 of those games, and nearly 5 if not for the Minneapolis Miracle. Case Keenum’s average passer rating in those games was 76.0.
Last season, while still having a top 10 defense, the Vikings had 100 or fewer rushing yards in 12 of their 16 games (75%). They went 4-7-1 in those games. Cousins’ average passer rating in those games was 101.3.
For comparison, Tom Brady and the Super Bowl champion Patriots had 7 games with 100 or fewer rushing yards last season - none in the post-season. They went 2-5 in those games. Brady’s average passer rating in those games was 90.4.
The Patriots defense was ranked 7th in points allowed last season, the Vikings’ 9th.
Since Gary Kubiak has been either an offensive coordinator or head coach- running his scheme- there have been 11 seasons where he’s had a top 10 defense in points allowed. Only one of those seasons did he not have at least 10 wins.
The Vikings have had a top 10 defense in points allowed the past four years running.
As an offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak has had 100 or fewer rushing yards in 57 of 208 games, or 27.4%. That’s a little over 4 in a 16 game regular season. If that rate were to continue next year, along with the Vikings win rate in both 101+ and under-100 yard rushing games, the Vikings - and Kirk Cousins- would go 13-3.
Signs of Improvement
Beyond the question of supporting cast - run game in particular - there is also the question of how Cousins performs in key situations.
Last year showed some signs of improvement in a couple key areas.
First, Cousins has been improving when under pressure. Last year he had his best passer rating (83.1) and ranking (7th), among QBs under pressure with at least 400 pass attempts. That’s nearly a 20 point increase in passer rating under pressure over 2017.
The other area of improvement has been in the red zone. Cousins had struggled in the red zone the previous two seasons, with an 83.3 and 83.8 passer rating. Last year Cousins improved to 114.7 - a 30 point improvement and career high.
He also improved on 3rd down, going from a 86.5 to 92.6 passer rating, although he did better in this area in 2015 and 2016 - with a 100.9 and 97.0 passer rating respectively. A better offensive line in those years likely had an impact.
Kirk Cousins has always been an accurate passer, but this past season he improved in this area as well, improving his adjusted completion percentage (completions + drops) / (attempts - throw aways, batted passes, spikes, hit while throwing) to 79.5%. That was 2nd best in the league last season.
His 70.1% completion rate was also a career high, and also 2nd best in the league.
BIG GAME PERFORMANCE
The other area worth mentioning is how he fared against good teams, on the road, in prime time. Here are Cousins’ seven best games last season:
Week 2: On the road against the Packers. 118.8 passer rating.
Week 4: On the road against the Rams. Prime time. 117.2 passer rating.
Week 5: On the road against the Eagles. 109.6 passer rating.
Week 8: At home against the Saints. Prime time. 107.7 passer rating.
Week 11: At home against the Packers. Prime time. 129.5 passer rating.
Week 12: At home against the Dolphins. 112.2 passer rating.
Week 15: On the road against the Lions. 137.9 passer rating.
Every one of those games was either on the road, in prime time, and/or against a team with a winning record. The Vikings went 4-2-1 in those games. Generally, if a QB’s passer rating is north of 100 in a game, he’s doing his job.
On the other hand, Cousins’ worst five games were:
Week 12: On the road against the Patriots. 70.4 passer rating.
Week 10: On the road against the Bears. 76.5 passer rating.
Week 17: At home against the Bears. 79.4 passer rating.
Week 3: At home against Buffalo. 83.4 passer rating.
Week 6: At home against Arizona. 87.0 passer rating.
1-4 record. 3 home games, 2 road games, one in prime time. 3 against playoff/winning record teams. In the four losses, the Vikings averaged 12 rushing attempts for 48.5 yards.
LATE GAME PERFORMANCE
Career-to-date, Cousins’ average passer rating has declined as the game goes on. 105.7 in the first quarter, 95.5 in the 2nd, 93.1 in the 3rd, 89.1 in the 4th, and 71.4 in OT.
But last year his 4th quarter performance jumped to 100.4, and his OT performance to 106.0. Those passer ratings are behind only his 1st quarter passer rating, which was 112.1 last season.
Similarly, Cousins’ career-to-date passer rating when trailing late in a game (less than 2 and 4 minutes to go), has been poor - averaging only 76.9 in those situations.
But last year his average passer rating in those situations spiked to 108.6 - a 40% increase going from bad to excellent.
There is nothing that suggests Cousins, with the aid of a top 10 defense and running game, can’t substantially improve his winning percentage in any type of game, or win a Super Bowl.
His career passer rating currently ranks 9th all-time.
Looking at the other top 10 QBs in all-time passer rating - Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Dree Brees, Tom Brady, Tony Romo, Steve Young, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan - all but one has struggled with mediocre winning percentages any time they did not have a top 10 defense and/or running game. The only exception has been Peyton Manning, who is the only player in NFL history to win the NFL MVP award five times.
The main difference between Cousins and the QBs on that top 10 list that have won a Super Bowl is that they’ve had a top 10 defense and running game to work with, while Cousins never has.
The media tends to lionize those QBs with multiple Super Bowl victories, hailing them as heroes for carrying their team to victory, but the truth is that is seldom the case. The reality behind sustained success - as the Patriots have enjoyed in the 21st century, the 49ers in the 80s and 90s, and the Vikings and Steelers in the 70s, is a combination of top 10 defense, running game, and a good quarterback. If all you have is the latter, history shows you’re unlikely to be a Super Bowl contender.
For the Vikings, the reason for the decline between 2017 and 2018 wasn’t Kirk Cousins, who outperformed 2017 Case Keenum by most key metrics. The small decline in the defense contributed to the disappointing season, but it was the running game dropping from 7th to 30th in league rankings that had the biggest impact. 2018 saw the number of sub-101 yard rushing games spike to 75% from 33% in 2017. And given the Vikings haven’t lost a game in three seasons when they’ve rushed for over 100 yards, but win only about a third of the games when they rush for less than that, that spike in poor rushing games was the difference.
For Cousins, he improved in several aspects of his game last season, including key areas where he had been weak in the past - under pressure, red zone and late game performance.
That, combined with a renewed commitment to improving the run and Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme, are reasons to be optimistic about Cousins and the coming season.
Which Team (with a top 10 all-time passer rating QB) will win the most games this coming season ?
This poll is closed
Vikings (Kirk Cousins)
Packers (Aaron Rodgers)
Saints (Drew Brees)
Patriots (Tom Brady)
Chargers (Philip Rivers)
Seahawks (Russell Wilson)
Falcons (Matt Ryan)