EAGAN, Minn. — One of the long-standing debates over Kirk Cousins is whether he has the “it” factor to be a winning NFL quarterback.
Nobody debates his arm. Nobody debates his knowledge of the game or his work ethic. Washington’s indecision surrounding him and ultimate decision to move on combined with a 31-34-2 career record, the question marks largely are based on intangible things.
Prior to the 2018 season, an NFL executive was quoted saying Cousins is “not a finisher.”
In 2017, Washington City Paper put it this way:
“To sum it up in the most gut-feel, non-scientific way possible, he plays well enough to win games in which things go well, but rarely rallies the team to the win on his own. Conversely, he makes regular boneheaded mistakes that can lose a game, or at least severely undercut his team’s chance to win. (He does have a number of successful late-game heroic drives, but his own earlier errors often force those kinds of plays.)”
This debate hadn’t really been a thing over the first nine games of his Minnesota Vikings career, but his 10th game, a 25-20 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday Night Football, sparked a new way for Cousins to be un-clutchified: He fell to 4-12 as a starter in primetime games.
“I think we’d have to go back through all the primetime games I’ve played and talk through them because every game is different,” Cousins said Wednesday. “The previous team I was on won last year on Thanksgiving night and I don’t think I played all that well and we won. It gets a little bit convoluted when you start to look at a stat and pair it with a player and it becomes a more complicated picture than just a win-loss record.”
An investigation into the “not a finisher” claim found it to be very muddy. Cousins didn’t have great numbers in fourth quarters down by one score in D.C. or great red zone stats and he turned the ball over too often. His numbers when needing to put a team away were mid-pack.
But those are some of the natural shortcomings that come along with not being Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers.
The primetime stat strikes a different type of nerve because it hints at Cousins not only failing in “big” games but also not being able to beat good teams. This year the Vikings have not defeated a team with a winning record and have come up short with three primetime opportunities to prove themselves as contenders.
While he didn’t play poorly by any stretch in two of those three games, he did have a key fumble on the final drive against the Rams and pick-six that changed the game at home against New Orleans.
“The primetime game against the Bears, the Saints game, was one of my better games all year,” Cousins said. “The untrained eye is going to look at the final score, going to look at a play or two and say well, that was not a good performance. A trained eye is going to look a little deeper and say, ‘let’s go play-by-play and see how we did.'”
Lucky for us folks who live in the age of Pro-Football Reference, we can look closely at each primetime game of his career.
We can start with his overall statistics. If we throw out anything before Cousins was a full-time starter, we land on a 4-7 record in Washington from 2015-2017 in primetime. Cousins put up a 68.6 percent completion percentage with 3,118 yards, 21 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 100.9 rating. Teams with the better collective QB ratings during that span are quarterbacked by Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady.
That doesn’t always mean Cousins played spectacularly well. If we put his 11 D.C. primetime performances into buckets, you’d find three downright spectacular games — coincidentally one in ’15, one in ’16 and one last year.
In Philadelphia on December 26, 2015, Cousins threw for 351 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-24 win. A 2016 contest with the Packers ended with Cousins beating Aaron Rodgers in a 42-24 shootout and last year the Vikings’ quarterback truck-sticked Oakland by 17 points on a 25-for-30 night with 356 yards and three touchdowns.
Cousins had four very poor games in primetime in which he finished the night with double-digit losses and quarterback ratings between 68.8 and 81.4 and four games where he gave a solid performance with ratings between 88.2 and 116,7 and the game was decided by one score. His club lost three of those four games.
We can look even closer at those tight games. Cousins led a game-tying drive against Kansas City last year in primetime, only to see Alex Smith jet down the field in 0:44 to give the Chiefs the win. He threw a pick-six against the Giants on November 23, 2017, but came away with a solid overall performance and 20-10 win. In a loss the Eagles, he put up good numbers with 303 yards and a 110.7 rating, though those stats were largely compiled while chasing Philly the entire night. A stretch of five punts in six drives allowed the Eagles to run out ahead.
There’s no perfect measure, but here is his QBR (the 1-100 rating from ESPN) and how Pro Football Focus has graded every primetime Cousins start (best games in bold):
There isn’t much in his QBR or PFF grades or traditional stats to suggest Cousins is any different in primetime as opposed to contests that begin at noon or 3:25 CT. Take away the scores and he’s played so well that a loss would be unusual in six of his 14 primetime games, good enough to compete in four and had four where his play was likely the driving force behind the team’s loss. That distribution is about what you’d expect from Cousins.
The more plausible explanation is that the 0-3 primetime start — games that the Vikings had an opportunity to win but came up short — stand out now after a very poor performance against the Bears. He also points out that when your team is playing primetime football, it’s probably against someone good. The Vikings are clearly not as good overall as Los Angeles or New Orleans and were playing on Chicago’s home turf.
“I think if there’s a difference it’s that you’re going to be playing good football teams,” Cousins said. “We got flexed to that primetime last week because we were playing a really good football team. If either of us weren’t good, I don’t think we get flexed. If there is a difference with primetime, I don’t know of any other difference. I certainly don’t treat them any differently.”