When the Minnesota Vikings signed Kirk Cousins to a three-year contract with $84 million, it sparked a debate over the former Washington quarterback’s statistics and win-loss record.
While he has three straight 4,000-yard seasons, Cousins went just 24-23-1 with one playoff loss after winning the starting job in 2015.
In a recent piece grading NFL teams’ offseasons, ESPN’s Mike Sando quoted several NFL executives talking about the Vikings’ decision to go all-in on Cousins.
One NFL executive said:
“He was not a finisher at Michigan State and he is not a finisher in the league.”
The comment brings about an interesting question: How would we go about defining someone who is a “finisher?”
Does that cover all important situations? Does it mean he gets his team to the finish line when they are ahead? Or that he rises to the occasion when his team is losing?
First, we can toss out the Michigan State part of the equation. With three years of NFL experience, there’s no reason to use data points from that long ago.
Now, if you are a baseball fan, you might have learned long ago that the idea of players being “clutch” is rather hard to prove. With the quarterback position, however, you can point to a number of different statistics in key situations that show the best quarterbacks rising to the top in key situations like third-and-long and when the team is down in the fourth quarter.
For example, according to Pro-Football Reference, Ben Roethlisberger has a 121.7 quarterback rating over the past three years when his team is trailing by one score in the fourth quarter. He’s followed by Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Tom Brady and Drew Brees in those situations.
Many of the quarterbacks with the best all-situation stats remain excellent when trailing close games in the fourth quarter. But a higher number of quarterbacks see worse numbers when the opposing team is gearing up for passing situations.
In close fourth quarters, Cousins has thrown 190 passes since the beginning of 2015, completing 62.1 percent with eight touchdowns, seven interceptions and an 82.8 rating.
The only quarterbacks with lower ratings (with at least 90 throws when down one score in the fourth since 2015) are Sam Bradford (78.8), Andy Dalton (78.7), Brock Osweiler (77.1), Marcus Mariota (73.3) Tyrod Taylor (69.5), Phillip Rivers (68.4), Josh McCown (65.1), Joe Flacco (61.8), Case Keenum (59.9) and Blake Bortles (53.5).
Those numbers probably tell us that we can can eliminate Cousins from the Roethlisberger/Brady/Brees category of all-time great QBs whose teams are never out of any game simply because of their presence.
But there are some problems with drawing too many conclusions over fourth quarter stats. For starters, sample size is a major issue. Cousins averages 563 attempts per year. So his sample of 190 late/close throws equates the about one-third of a season. He doesn’t have years upon years of situational performance to draw from like Roethlisberger/Brady/Brees.
Another issue is how heavily QB rating is impacted by touchdowns. Cousins led the NFL in game-winning drives last season with four, but only one of those GWDs included a touchdown pass. He also had four GWDs in 2016 without a TD pass.
Against the Vikings on November 13, 2016, Cousins led a drive from his own 8-yard line to Minnesota’s 32 with completions of 21 yards, 17 yards and 14 yards to set up a Dustin Hopkins go-ahead field goal.
Being a “finisher” could also mean sticking a dagger in teams when the opportunity arises.
Cousins did not do that when he had the chance against the Green Bay Packers in the 2015 playoffs. Washington was up 11-0 in the second quarter and 17-11 at half, but fell victim to an Aaron Rodgers comeback and lost the game 38-17.
That game would be an example that detractors could point toward when making the case against him as a big-game QB. Cousins threw for 329 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions by lost by three touchdowns.
In situations where Cousins had a one-score lead in the second half or was tied,his numbers also dipped, but not as much as in our fourth quarter scenario. In 267 passes, Cousins completed 66.7 percent of his throws with 10 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 92.5 rating. Unsurprisingly, Brees was the top QB in these spots with a 115.7 rating.
Of course, defense plays a major role in holding leads and finishing games, but Washington’s defense was neither great or terrible when trying to hold a close lead. Since 2015, they allowed just 14 touchdowns in 30 games in which they held a lead from 0-8 points in the second half. The Vikings’ top-ranked defense gave up 12 TDs in 31 games.
So it might be hard to conclude that Cousins is bad at “finishing” teams off when his club gets ahead. As far as Cousins’ ability to make plays that give his team a chance to win in any quarter, ESPN’s QBR statistic, which takes into account circumstances, ranked the Vikings’ new franchise QB sixth in 2015, sixth in 2016 and 17th in 2017.
Pro Football Focus’ data might give us more of a window into the executive’s main point.
For example, in spots where defenses would be putting their entire focus on defending the pass, Cousins wasn’t as effective as when he could use play-action. With play-action (which Cousins ran 21 percent of plays), he managed a 118.7 rating, without play-action that dropped to 87.4.
Cousins’ numbers also dropped significantly when he wasn’t getting blitzed. He posted an 88.7 rating when opponents did not blitz him. His rating also dropped to 77.5 when he was given more than 3.0 seconds from snap to throw. Opponents wouldn’t intentionally give him more time to throw late in close games, but they might be more apt to have fewer blitzes, more defensive backs etc.
PFF ranked Cousins the 30th most accurate passer of 41 on tight-window throws. Those would be required more often when opponents were playing in deep zones.
Cousins does also have a penchant for turning the ball over. Last year, PFF ranked him 22nd in turnover-worthy plays. He’s No. 1 in fumbles over the last three years and the eighth most interceptions.
His red zone performance over the past two seasons hasn’t been inspiring either, as PFF’s Steve Palazzolo points out on Twitter:
Cousins ranked 39th out of 46 qualifiers in red zone accuracy percentage last two seasons https://t.co/ySSvuKe32U
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) May 31, 2018
Cousins went went 36-for-68 with 17 touchdowns, three interceptions and an 83.8 rating in the red zone.
Keenum had a knack for finding the right man inside the 20. In the red zone, Keenum went 34-for-54 with 15 touchdowns, zero interceptions. His gaudy numbers may have been impacted significantly by play calling and personnel considering that in 2016, Keenum went just 19-for-41 with six TDs and one INT in the red zone.
The weapons argument, however, doesn’t justify Cousins’ 2016 struggles in the red zone. He had a terrific group of playmakers and still went 40-for-89 with 14 touchdowns, two INTs and an 82.4 rating.
So it is plausible that opponents have been able to take advantage of some of his weaknesses in certain spots. But there are many factors involved in whether he will actually finish games as a Viking.
Last year we saw Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs make special catches in huge moments to boost Case Keenum from career backup to top-10 quarterback by QB rating and PFF grade. We saw Dalvin Cook pound New Orleans into the ground in the fourth quarter of Week 1, killing any chance of a Saints comeback. We saw the Vikings’ defense smother opponents, making up for any offensive stutters.
It should come as no surprise that Cousins’ QBR dipped following the departure of key receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.
Keenum also had some of the same statistical indicators. His rating went down when he had more time to throw, his numbers weren’t as good when he didn’t use play-action and his third-and-long stats were underwhelming. The biggest difference during the regular season was that Keenum had only one fumble.
One conclusion you could draw is that the all-time great quarterbacks will remain all-time great through thick and thin, but most of the league’s franchise QBs’ narrative and win-loss records are shaped by the quality of their team. That seems to be the case with Cousins. There is an equal chance that his weaknesses cost the Vikings a big game that his ability to read defenses at the line of scrimmage, operate play-action and make throws against the blitz turn into leads that his excellent defense holds.
Whichever way it goes this year will be the way that some decide is the truth. But far too many good players have changed the narratives throughout their careers to be certain that any quality quarterback is or isn’t a “finisher.”