I did a piece a while back on Kirk Cousins that looked at all his stats and how his game will fit with Kubiak’s offense. Part of that piece discussed Cousins’ reputation for coming up short in big games, and against winning teams.
Recently Brett Kollmann put together a very extensive video of Cousins’ performance against winning teams games last season- showing Cousins was not to blame in all but (perhaps) one of those games.
This video goes a long way in dispelling the notion that Cousins was to blame for the Vikings losses to winning opponents last year, and includes a lot of detail.
That corresponds in large part with his stats in those games, although in a couple with interceptions that didn’t effect the outcome of the game, or weren’t his fault, his stats looked worse than his tape.
Kollmann wraps up the video with a positive outlook as most of the issues plaguing the Vikings last season - poor offensive coaching, coordinating and offensive line - have been addressed effectively this off-season.
Turning A Page ?
Beyond that, there are some perhaps subtle changes in Cousins’ demeanor that bode well this season, as he embarks on what many are calling a make or break season for him.
The changes include a mix of self-awareness, comfort in his situation, and trust that he didn’t have in Washington, and was still unsure about last year in Minnesota.
Cousins was drafted in the fourth round the same year the Redskins bet their draft pick farm on RGIII, so was really meant to be a backup there. But after RGIII went down, Cousins took over as starter, but never really seemed to have a good relationship with the Redskins front office, the Washington media, or even his teammates. The franchise tags and failure to reach a new contract deal only seemed to make things worse - especially as the Redskins struggled and didn’t make the playoffs. The Redskins have never been considered a well-run organization under owner Dan Snyder, and it shows.
All that, from the outside looking in, appeared to lead to an often tense and sometimes acrimonious situation for Cousins, with what often appeared as tepid support at best from the Redskins for their supposed franchise quarterback.
A lot of that has changed in Minnesota, where stability and competence have characterized the front office and ownership for many years. The organization stood behind Cousins, despite taking heat for his unprecedented $84 million fully guaranteed contract, and again after the season was over - despite the 8-7-1 result. Players didn’t appear to turn on Cousins either, or Cousins on them.
All that appears to have given Cousins more confidence in the Vikings organization than he ever had with the Redskins. That confidence likely increased this off-season, with substantial investments in the Vikings offensive line, and by hiring an experienced, successful offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak, along with his staff, to implement an offensive tailor-made for Cousins’ skillset.
That added confidence also may have helped him improve his self-awareness, judging by a comment earlier this summer which drew some media attention:
“I think [getting to] the next level really is all about winning,” Cousins said, via Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press. “I’m pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career so far and I don’t think that’s where you want to be and that’s not why you are brought in or people are excited about you.”
A lot of quarterbacks with similar win-loss records (or worse) tend to talk around the issue, and Cousins had done so in the past at times with criticisms of his play of one sort or another. But this summer Cousins was fairly blunt in his self-assessment, which is a sign of self-awareness that bodes well.
Cousins also seems to have developed more trust in his teammates since he was acquired last year, in part just from the process of working together and building chemistry, but also support on and off the field.
Cousins mentioned he regrets not having more trust in Kyle Rudolph last year, in terms of throwing him the ball more when he appeared to be covered, given his ability to come down with the ball in those situations. He also seems to trust the talent around him, judging by his comment recently that he needs to distribute the ball to his play-makers, which is a change from feeling the need to make a play himself - often pressing or forcing the ball in the process.
Even in training camp last year there were times in red zone drills (which was a weakness until last year), he appeared to be pressing and tense - trying to make a play. He even blew up one time while I was there after a string of failed TD conversion attempts. So far this training camp that hasn’t happened.
All of the above, combined with a scheme that seems better suited to his skill-set, appear to make Cousins more comfortable in his role with the Vikings. Not being asked to stand in shotgun 30 times a game and make plays behind a mediocre offensive line may be a big part of that, but also just being in his second year in Minnesota also helps.
Rick Spielman has often noted that with free agent acquisitions, it can take a year for them to really get acclimated to their new situation. That stands to reason as a player must acclimate to a new location, new teammates, new scheme, new coaches, new organization.
It doesn’t happen overnight.
Cousins has mentioned he feels more comfortable this year, having had a season to get used to his new situation, build chemistry with teammates, and having fully moved in.
Still Not Elite
But while Cousins may be improving his game above the shoulder pads to some degree, he still has more to do before he could rightly be considered an elite quarterback.
Cousins enters this season 9th in career passer rating among quarterbacks with at least 1,500 passing attempts, and 6th among active quarterbacks meeting that minimum threshold. He had the 10th best passer rating last season as well.
But he’s still not an elite quarterback.
In order to go from a statistically very good quarterback, to an elite one, Cousins needs to show an ability to make ‘unscheduled’ plays. That is, deliver when a play breaks down.
Aaron Rodgers worked on that ability, often practicing a scramble drill, working on his footwork in those situations, communicating with receivers after their route broke down, and practicing unconventional throws with both feet off the ground, audibles, among other things.
That paid off as he began to excel in those situations, which got to be the de facto Packers offensive scheme in Mike McCarthy’s last years.
Mike Zimmer has mentioned that Cousins has begun working on those skills as well this off-season, practicing more outside the pocket situations - which will be more a part of the Vikings ‘scheduled’ offense this year too.
We’ll see if he improves this season in that regard, or not.
Cousins need not be an elite quarterback for the Vikings to win a lot more games, against winning teams, or win the Super Bowl. But he does need to be a high-level game manager who delivers accurate throws, makes the right calls, and limits mistakes and turnovers.
He improved in all those areas last season - with fewer total turnovers and better accuracy (which was already a strong point).
But he’ll also need to show more grace under pressure, particularly when trailing in a game. That may help his ability to make some of those ‘unscheduled’ plays. He may also be helped in that regard by an offensive scheme that doesn’t require him to make as many plays each game, and that may give him a better chance of doing so when the time comes.
In half of his 18 seasons Drew Brees went 9-7 or worse. Is he an elite quarterback?
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