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Kirk Cousins: Most Underrated QB in the NFL

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And why QBs ‘carrying their team’ is more hype than reality

Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Kirk Cousins has never been a darling of the media, and seems to be a largely underwhelming player for many fans. That reputation was built over his years in Washington, and continues into his tenure with the Vikings.

But is that reputation deserved? Let’s take a look.

Quarterback of a Bad Team

In Washington, he was their 4th round pick in 2012 - the same year they bet the farm on Robert Griffen III being their star franchise QBOTF. Cousins wasn’t a QB they ever expected to become their starter, and so when head coach Jay Gruden declared the Redskins “Kirk’s team” at the end of training camp in 2015, with RGIII still on the roster, it was a bitter pill for the organization to swallow, and put Kirk Cousins in a rather unenviable position.

The Redskins team Cousins inherited hadn’t won a playoff game in 22 years, and amassed a .404 winning percentage over that time - almost exactly the same as the Detroit Lions over the same period to use a more familiar reference. The Redskins were the 2nd worst graded team in the league in 2014, according to PFF, and finished the season 4-12 - last place in the NFC East.

Needless to say, it wasn’t a winning culture. Owner Dan Snyder had made numerous blunders over the years, and head coach Jay Gruden, replacing the fired Mike Shanahan, still had everything to prove after going 4-12 his first year as head coach.

Cousins helped turn things around the following season, his first as a starter, going 9-7 and completing a worst-to-first turnaround in their division. The Redskins’ defense still gave up the 28th most yards, and the 2nd most yards/rush, while the Redskins’ running game was terrible - 30th in yards per attempt. The only aspect of the team that was inside the top 10 in league rankings was Cousins’ net yards/attempt (6th), 3rd down conversion % (5th), red zone % (8th), passer rating (5th), completion % (1st) and QBR (2nd), game winning drives (T-7th), and comebacks (T-9th).

But this was also a season where Cousins was often criticized during the Redskins’ 2-4 record to open the season, leading to what coach Jay Gruden called a ‘code-red’ situation week 7 against Tampa Bay, possibly meaning Cousins could be benched, or perhaps his own job would be lost, if things didn’t turn around against the Bucs. Cousins led the biggest comeback in Redskins franchise history that game, down 24-0 but winning 31-30, leading to his famous, “you like that!!!” rant walking past reporters after the game:

That proved to be a turning point in Cousins’ first season as a starter, as he went on a tear the last half of the season, averaging a 126.1 passer rating over the last 8 games, including a key 4 game win streak - with 3 road wins - to end the season and make the playoffs.

But despite taking a team with a bad running game and defense from worst to first in their division, Cousins remained a polarizing player, more often criticized for his bad games, while seldom lauded for his good ones.

The underlying general belief, or lack thereof, that emerged about Cousins during this time is that his ceiling is an above-average quarterback, and not an elite or top-tier one. That sentiment was expressed prior to the 2016 season, when Neil Greenberg writing in the Washington Post called Cousins one of the most likely players in the league to disappoint that year. He wrote:

In the history of the NFL, there have been 15 quarterbacks, including Cousins, to throw 500 passes with a touchdown percentage higher than 5 percent combined with an interception ratio that ran 2 percent or lower. Only five did it more than once: Tom Brady (five times), Aaron Rodgers (five), Peyton Manning (four), Drew Brees (two) and Tony Romo (two). Those five are likely headed to the Hall of Fame, making it doubtful Cousins joins that group of repeat performers.

Note: Cousins repeated that feat both seasons with the Vikings, including post-season.

But Cousins didn’t regress that season - it was very similar to the previous one - the Redskins defense was still bad - 28th in yards allowed and 27th in yards/rush allowed, but Cousins and the passing game continued to be pretty much the lone bright spot. Cousins was 3rd in net yards/attempt, 2nd in passing yards, 8th in completion percentage, 7th in passer rating, 6th in QBR, T-5th in game winning drives, T-4th in comebacks. The Redskins had the 5th fewest rushing attempts that year, so most of the Redskins’ offense was via Cousins’ right arm.

The season ended 8-7-1 - pretty much as expected based on pre-season predictions - given the holes on defense and poor running game, neither of which improved.

That off-season, Cousins was once again franchise tagged, saying he “wasn’t at peace” with signing a long-term deal at that point. The reasons were clear. First, the Redskins seemed luke-warm in their commitment to Cousins, and secondly the organization was once again going through changes. Offensive coordinator Sean McVay left to become the Rams head coach, leaving an undistinguished Matt Cavenaugh in his stead. Defensive coordinator Joe Berry was also fired, while Cousins’ top wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon were both lost to free agency.

All that, combined with half the offensive line going on IR during the course of the season, and injuries to key running backs, led to a down year for Cousins, who was under pressure on many more of his dropbacks, and had lost his best receiving threats. His passer rating for the season was still a respectable 93.9 (12th), and he was top 10 in most passing yard metrics, and tied for the most game winning drives. But he was also sacked 41 times for the most lost yardage in the league, had 13 interceptions, and 9 lost fumbles.

At the same time, the Redskins defense was even worse than the previous two seasons, giving up the most rushing yards in the league, 29th in yards/rush allowed, 27th in points allowed. They finished the season 7-9, which again was as expected according to pre-season betting lines, given the player losses and changes the previous off-season.

It was clear the Redskins were continuing on the road to nowhere and so were any contract extension talks with Cousins, who was clearly ready to move on, while the Redskins still weren’t prepared to pay market price to retain Cousins, settling on a cheaper Alex Smith instead.

The Redskins were a .500 team over the three seasons Cousins was their starting quarterback, and many blamed Cousins’ inability to carry the team for their not being more successful. But after Cousins left, the Redskins’ league ranking on offense plunged from 16th to 29th in points in 2018 with Alex Smith at QB, and 32nd in 2019. It was ranked 10th and 12th in Cousins’ first two seasons as starter.

Comparing Cousins to Aaron Rodgers, one of the most lionized QBs in the league for his ability to “carry his team” and “will them to victory” is an interesting study. In 2015-16 and 2018 (he missed most of 2017), he had both scheme continuity and similar, but slightly better defenses than the Redskins, but won only one more game a year than Cousins.

Huh. The hype surrounding those two quarterbacks could not have been more different in those years.

Does the Team Make the QB, or Does the QB Make the Team?

Cousins’ performance in Washington is polarizing in some ways because of how you answer this question. If you feel the QB makes the team, then Cousins is a disappointment because the Redskins were a mediocre team with Cousins at the helm.

On the other hand, if you feel a QB needs a good team around him to win more than average, then you could argue that Cousins did the best in a bad situation - with a poor defense and running game putting him in bad situations for success.

But the truth behind the question is pretty clear: it’s the team that makes the QB.

Let’s look at the reality.

Piercing QB Myths and Legends

A good or elite quarterback is widely viewed as an essential ingredient for a Super Bowl contender. And what makes a good or elite quarterback is the talent they bring to the table: that special talent to carry the team, make a play, or however you define the stuff of legends.

But the reality is that football is a team sport, and a quarterback depends on having a good team around him if they’re to have a 10+ win season, or get very far in the playoffs. It’s the team that makes the quarterback, and not the other way around.

Fran Tarkenton

Perhaps the best example of this is the Vikings’ own Fran Tarkenton.

Tarkenton had two stints with the Vikings: the first from 1961-1966 and the second from 1972-1978. He was traded to the Giants for five years in between his years in Minnesota.

But if you were there in 1961, when Tarkenton first started, and someone from the future came back and told you he would be the greatest QB in Vikings franchise history, you would’ve called that someone a liar six years later.

That’s because his record after six seasons with the Vikings was 27-46-4. That’s a .370 winning percentage. Only Christian Ponder has a worse winning percentage among Vikings QBs with at least two seasons of starts. Tarkenton threw for 113 TDs and 95 INTs over that span, had one winning season, never made the playoffs, completed just over half his passes, and was about league average in passer rating over that time - 78.0 over that six year span. Hardly the stuff of legends.

Of course as an expansion team, the Vikings were one of the worst teams in the league in those years. Most of those years their defense was at or near the bottom, and so was their passing game. They had a decent running game, which was more important back then, but turnovers - much higher overall back then - were a killer. Including Sir Francis’ interceptions - averaging just over 1 per game.

And then Tarkenton was traded to the Giants, and remained in New York for five seasons.

But when he came back, in 1972, the Vikings were a much better team. Bud Grant was there, the Purple People Eaters were fully assembled, Ron Yary and Ed White had joined Mick Tingelhoff on the offensive line, and Gene Washington and John Gilliam were wide receivers. The Vikings had an .833 winning percentage over the past three seasons, were a perennial playoff team, and had one of the best defenses in the league.

And with the re-acquisition of Sir Francis, they went... 7-7. They missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.

The following season, they drafted Chuck Foreman, went 12-2 and made it to the Super Bowl three of the next four years. Overall, Tarkenton went 64-27-2 during his second stint with the Vikings between 1972-1978 - a .703 winning percentage - despite only a slightly higher 81.5 passer rating compared to his first stint with the Vikings.

Tarkenton wasn’t any better, but the team around him was.

Tom Brady

What if Tom Brady had been drafted by the Cleveland Browns instead of the Patriots? Would he still be the GOAT? We’ll never know, but it’s a pretty good bet his road to success in Cleveland would have been a lot steeper and rockier than it was in New England.

For example, in Brady’s 19 seasons in New England, he never had a bad defense. Only 3 of those seasons did he have a defense outside the top 10 in the league in points allowed. Twice they were 17th and once 15th - league average. Brady went 9-7 the first time that happened, missing the playoffs. The second time they went 10-6, and one and done in the playoffs. With only an average defense, Brady seemed a lot more average too.

The third time they went 13-3, losing the Super Bowl to the 9-7 Giants. Somehow the Patriots were able to go 13-3 during the regular season that year without beating a team that finished the season with a winning record. The only winning team they beat was the Ravens in the AFC Championship 23-20. Brady “carried” his team with a 57.5 passer rating in that game, throwing 2 INTs and no TDs.

So, in the few seasons with only an average defense, Brady wasn’t able to carry his team any more than Kirk Cousins. And Brady is the GOAT.

Other Elite and HoF QBs

Go through the list of elite and Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and you’ll see the same pattern as Tarkenton and Brady repeat itself, time and again.

Joe Montana, Steve Young, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, and Bob Griese were similar to Brady in never having a bad defense, but once or twice an average one - with similar results.

There is a longer list that resemble Tarkenton: double-digit wins when they had a good team around them, particularly a top 10 defense, and single-digit wins or one-and-dones when they didn’t:

Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, John Elway, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Aikman, Tony Romo, Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson... the list goes on.

The Exceptions

No pattern in football is without exceptions, it is a game after all and not a scientific proof, but in the case of quarterbacks carrying their mediocre or worse team, those are few.

Peyton Manning was able to achieve double-digit win seasons on multiple occasions without the benefit of a top 10 defense, including his Super Bowl win with the Colts, but he did benefit from some pretty good players on offense: Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, and an offensive line that allowed an average of one sack per game for 9 of his 13 seasons in Indianapolis.

Aaron Rodgers in his two MVP years - 2011 & 2014 - undoubtedly carried his team to more wins in those years - he had 45 TDs and only 6 INTs in 2011, and the still current single-season record for passer rating - 122.5. But while he didn’t have a top 10 defense in points allowed, in 2011 they were #1 in takeaways, which helps a lot. Those were also years where he had a pretty strong supporting cast on offense - one of the best pass blocking offensive lines, and receivers Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and Randall Cobb. But in both cases his ability to carry the team was limited as he crapped out both times in the playoffs.

Kenny Stabler also had a number of good seasons with the Raiders in the 1970s without a top 10 defense, but most years it wasn’t too much worse than that, and he had a good offensive supporting cast with Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikov, Mark van Eeghan and Dave Casper, Art Shell and Gene Upshaw.

There may be others, here or there, but seldom repeated over multiple seasons, and often with the benefit of a pretty solid supporting cast on offense - as was the case with those above.

Bringing It All Back to Cousins

At the end of the day, even though quarterback is a more important position than others, it’s just like any other in terms of evaluating the quality of the player. You don’t evaluate left tackles, wide receivers, running backs, or edge rushers based on their win-loss record, or how many Super Bowls they won, or whether they were able to carry the team, you evaluate them on how well they do their specific job.

No one would mistake Trent Dilfer as a better quarterback than Dan Marino because he won a Super Bowl and Marino did not. Similarly, it’s difficult to argue that Joe Flacco is a better quarterback than Kirk Cousins, despite the former’s SB ring, based on quarterback-specific metrics.

Using passer rating as the most comprehensive and objective quarterback metric, here is how Kirk Cousins ranks:

There are other measures that essentially point to the same thing: Kirk Cousins has been one of the top 5 performing QBs in the league, and in elite company.

A few of them:

  • 2nd most accurate passer all-time
  • One of only six QBs with 5+ consecutive seasons of 93+ passer ratings
  • Top 10 in deep ball (20+ yards downfield) passer rating last 4 years, 3rd last year.
  • 3rd most 20+ yard TD passes since 2015

And also some efficiency charts (upper right corner is better):

All of these metrics put Kirk Cousins in the same company as future first-ballot Hall of Famers like Brady, Brees, Wilson and Rodgers, and deservedly so.

But there is one big difference:

Those other quarterbacks all have notably better win-loss records than Cousins since 2015, despite largely similar quarterback metrics.

Why is that?

Answer: Because their team did a better job of carrying them when they had bad games.

Once Again - Winning is About Team

Below is a chart of top quarterbacks in the league over the past five seasons in passer rating, broken down into passer rating range by game, along with their respective win-loss record in those games.

The average NFL quarterback passer rating in a given season is roughly 90, so I grouped passer ratings into six categories around that average:

Under 70 being poor, 70-85 below average, 85-95 average, 95-110 above average, 110-130 good, and 130+ being elite.

For the most part, there isn’t much variance between each of the quarterbacks in terms of how many, or what percentage, of their games fall into each passer rating category.

But there is a very significant difference in win-loss percentage when the quarterback passer rating is either poor or below average, which I highlighted:

All the quarterbacks have won between 7-10 games when they’ve played either below average or poor, with the exception of Cousins, who’s never won a game when his passer rating has been below average.

The other quarterbacks had teams that were able to rally despite their quarterback having a

bad day, but Cousins’ teams were not able to pick up the slack. Not even once.

Indeed, Tom Brady has a higher winning percentage when he sucked (.571) than Cousins has overall (.545). Brees, Brady and Wilson have roughly the same winning percentages as Cousins overall when they’ve played below average.

There’s only one conclusion to be drawn from that: the other quarterbacks had teams that could carry them, but Cousins did not.

It’s one thing if Cousins had a lot more poor or below average passer rating games than the other quarterbacks, but he didn’t. He just didn’t have the team around him to rally when he wasn’t having a good game - like the other quarterbacks did.

Collectively, the other quarterbacks had a .440 winning percentage in games when their passer rating was below 85. Cousins’ was .000. Had Cousins had the same winning percentage as the other quarterbacks in below average or poor games, he would have won roughly 10 more games over the past five seasons (9.68 to be exact). His winning percentage would’ve jumped from .545 to .675 - better than all but Brady. Undoubtedly that would also have led to more playoff games as well.

Looking at the other end of the passer rating scale - the good or elite games when quarterback play is clearly a big positive in the game outcome - Cousins outperformed both Brady and Rodgers, while only 5 or less percentage points behind Brees and Wilson.

Indeed, Cousins is tied with Brees for the 2nd most 110+ passer rating games in the NFL since 2015 with 31 - behind only Russell Wilson with 35.

Bottom Line

Kirk Cousins has performed in the top-tier of all quarterbacks in the league since he became a starter in 2015, and has improved since joining the Vikings, but is seldom if ever included among the top-tier quarterbacks despite having top-tier stats.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the slight is his winning percentage since becoming a starter. But as shown time and again, winning in the NFL is about more than quarterback performance. Quarterback is clearly the most important position in football, and having a good one is therefore also an important ingredient for a successful team.

But without a good team around him, just about any quarterback will struggle to win games. That doesn’t make the quarterback less good at his job, it simply puts him in more difficult situations for success than those with good teams to support them.

Cousins himself acknowledged that in his victory speech over the Saints in the playoffs last season:

“Hey, that’s how we’ve won all year - team right. You held them to 20 points and gave us a chance at the end. I got three words for you: You like that!!!”

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Is Kirk Cousins a top-tier quarterback ?

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