EAGAN — There was a stark contrast between Kirk Cousins’ comments about his win-loss record between the first time he talked about it and the most recent.
On the day he officially signed an $84 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings, he was reluctant to put the 26-30-1 mark in Washington D.C. on his shoulders.
“There are many reasons that you win or lose in this league, the margin for error is so small,” Cousins said.
His former head coach Jay Gruden took a different tone prior to Cousins’ official departure saying that the 2017 squad’s 7-9 record was “reflective of our quarterback play.”
Just over one year later, Cousins tweaked his position on his win-loss record. During a minicamp press conference he was asked to react to GM Rick Spielman’s comments about taking his game to the “next level.”
“I think the next level really is all about winning,” Cousins said. “I’m pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career so far, and I don’t think that’s where you want to be. That’s not why you’re brought in or people are excited about you.”
The Vikings’ quarterback didn’t entirely change his tune, pointing out who outsiders will judge his performance by wins and losses might not exactly have it right when it comes to analyzing his play.
“If I don’t play well, if I don’t have gaudy statistics but we win multiple playoff games this year, the narrative will be I went to the next level,” Cousins said. “I may not walk off the field every day feeling like I did, but if we win, that’s the life of the quarterback, is you are then at the next level. If I have my best year yet in 2019 but we’re eight and eight, I didn’t go to the next level. That’s the reality of it.”
The interesting thing about Cousins is how remarkably consistent he’s been over his four years as an NFL starter. He’s played all 16 games each year since winning the Washington job in 2015, posted between seven and nine wins, thrown between 25-30 touchdowns, between 10-13 interceptions, registered ratings between 93.9 and 101.6 and finished with Pro Football Focus grades from 70.0 to 80.6.
So he might be right to suggest that his play and a postseason appearance won’t 100 percent correlate. After all, the Vikings were last in the league in field goal kicking in 2018 and lost a surprisingly high number of fumbles. His team also did not provide him with an adequate offensive line, running game or an offensive coordinator that fit.
This time around the Vikings have attempted to amend those things. Dan Bailey has one of the highest field goal percentages in history, the Vikings signed one and drafted two offensive linemen and brought in Gary Kubiak to support new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who was Cousins’ quarterbacks coach last year.
“One of the first things that he said to me when we talked back a few months ago when I got here, he said, ‘Coach, I’ve had some good things happen in my career, and had some good numbers, but I want to win,'” Kubiak said.
But circumstances aren’t everything when it comes to wins and losses. After all, the winningest QBs since 1990 are also the best QBs. Tom Brady (207 wins), Brett Favre (186), Peyton Manning (186), Drew Brees (155) and Ben Roethlisberger (144).
These quarterbacks have wide variations from year to year with their traditional stats but they also have many things in common — things that lead to winning. And Cousins hasn’t always done some of these things that the winningest QBs do well. So let’s have a look at five areas that Cousins can take his game to the “next level” this season in order to mitigate the impact of circumstances and improve his chances of winning .
Third and long
One of the most telling stats about the Vikings offense last season was Pro-Football Reference’s “Expected Points Added,” which ranked Minnesota 22nd in the NFL just behind the San Francisco 49ers, who played the majority of their year with No. 3 QB Nick Mullens. The reason the Vikings’ EPA ranked much lower than their total passing yards (13th) was that EPA compares performance to situation. The Vikings struggled on third-and-long throughout the year ranking 25th in conversion rate on third-and-6 or longer. That led to stalled drives and was one of the contributors to the Vikings finishing 19th in points.
While there are plenty of explanations for Cousins’ shortcomings on third-and-long in 2018 — of which ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky explained on Twitter — the issue of converting third-and-longs has not been isolated to 2018. Of 20 QBs with more than 250 pass attempts on third-and-long since 2015, Cousins ranks 16th in yards per attempt. To demonstrate the importance of third-and-long performance, we present the top five QBs in those situations:
Ben Roethlisberger (8.7)
Aaron Rodgers (8.7)
Tom Brady (8.5)
Matt Ryan (8.3)
Drew Brees (7.9)
Cousins’ 7.2 YPA ranks only ahead of Cam Newton (7.1), Eli Manning (6.5), Joe Flacco (6.4), Blake Bortles (5.9).
When you account for yards lost to sacks, Cousins only averages 6.0 yards per attempt on third-and-long compared to Roethlisberger’s 7.7 YPA with the sack adjustment.
Failure to convert on third-and-long leads to a high number of three-and-outs. Last season the Vikings had the most three-and-outs (that ended in a punt) of the past four seasons (via Pro-Football Reference).
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they ranked in the top half of the league in conversion percentage on third-and-6 or longer in 2015.
When you put the Vikings offense in big third down situations up against some of the top offenses, you can also see the impact. The Los Angeles Rams, for example, had just 18 three-and-outs in 2018.
Circumstances could certainly help Cousins on third-and-long. Playcalling was an issue last year in addition to offensive line play and a the team’s inability to find a No. 3 option. But Cousins will have to take advantage of those upgrades in order to win more games and thus reach the “next level.”
Risky throws to Thielen/Diggs
Connecting the what to the how: Throwing more risky passes in the way of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs could help Cousins reach a higher level in important situations. Last season he threw the third fewest throws into tight coverage, per NFL NextGen stats. That is despite Stefon Diggs ranking No. 2 in the NFL in contested catches per PFF.
When throwing in Thielen/Diggs’ direction, Vikings quarterbacks have had an outrageous amount of success since they both emerged as elite receivers in 2016. Last season Cousins had a 115.4 rating when targeting Thielen and 107.9 when throwing the ball Diggs’ way.
Case Keenum, who was much more apt to force the ball toward his No. 1 and 1A receivers posted a 116.7 toward Diggs and 95.2 when aiming for Thielen. In 2016, Sam Bradford looked like a strong NFL QB when targeting Diggs (106.2) and Thielen (121.9).
While much of the talk has been about getting Irv Smith into the mix and throwing more often to Dalvin Cook, on big-play downs, teams go to big-play receivers. Opposing teams have been gameplanning for the Vikings’ stars for three years with little success, so it’s possible that going against his usual grain and forcing the ball into them more often would result in successful plays.
There’s a bit of a misnomer when it comes to pressures: We generally only connect them to offensive lines when quarterbacks should be part of the equation. Throughout his four years as a starting QB, Cousins has never cracked the top 10 in time from snap to release and he’s only once been in the half of the league which allows the lowest pressure rates. Here’s time in the pocket rank and percentage of drop backs with pressure rank (per PFF) for Cousins’ starting career.
In 2016 Washington had an incredible offensive line that allowed Cousins to spend more time in the pocket. His offensive scheme included a high number of bootlegs (as this year’s will) which might have played a role as well. But last year’s offensive line ranked 29th in pass protection by PFF and Cousins held the ball a similar amount of time as when Trent Williams was his left tackle (2.54 in 2018 vs. 2.68). Compare that to Sam Bradford in 2016, who had a similarly poor line and ranked seventh with a 2.36 time.
Holding onto the ball at times has played a role in sacks and pressures. Cousins is second in the NFL over the last two years in yards lost to sacks with 624, only behind Russell Wilson. Drew Brees has 270, Roethlisberger 308 and Tom Brady has 338 yards lost to sacks in the same time span.
Nobody would ever ask Cousins to become the next DeShaun Watson when it comes to running the football but he only gained two first downs on third-and-2 or longer by using his legs. Thirteen QBs had at least five and only Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Joe Flacco and Derek Carr had fewer (at least 75 drop backs).
Last year ESPN’s Expected Points Added for QBs via the run ranked Cousins dead last, meaning he added the least running value to his team of anyone in the NFL. PFF also graded him last in running and he was 24th in total rushing yards among QBs. He hasn’t always struggled that badly to create on the ground for his team. Here’s his EPA rushing rankings since 2015:
2015: 17th of 33
2016: 17th of 30
2017: 16th of 30
2018: 33rd of 33
ESPN’s stats estimate the Vikings lost 5.1 points because of Cousins’ running. The league leader Josh Allen gained 24 points for his team on the ground.
When Cousins says that the next level will be decided by outside narratives concerning his win-loss record he’s not wrong but there are areas where he has historically had space for improvement that directly connect to winning. Improvements in these areas are somewhat dependent on supporting cast. However, the quarterback is not a flag blowing in the wind of the team’s roster strength and play caller. Making big-time throws on third-and-long, finding his ace receivers at key times, avoiding sacks and pressures with a quick release time and making good running decisions are all things that can be controlled by the person with the football. If Cousins is even percentage points better in these areas, he will reach the “next level” that he seeks.