Because the Minnesota Vikings won in Week 1, Kirk Cousins’ debut was a success.
After all, on a team in which nearly every other position is stacked with Pro Bowl talents, the only way he will be judged this season is on whether he wins. But if there is was one area to nitpick about Cousins’ first game in purple, it’s that he left the door open a crack for the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth quarter.
In the final period of the Vikings’ 24-16 victory, he went 0-for-7 passing and nearly had one throw into the flat intercepted.
On a team that has Super Bowl aspirations and a Super Bowl-caliber defense, but also is facing off with plenty of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks i.e. Rodgers/Brady/Brees/Wilson, there will be a hyper focus on how Cousins plays in big situations, both in come-from-behind spots and as a Mariano Rivera-style closer when his team has built a lead.
Over the course of Cousins’ career, he has the lowest quarterback rating of any quarter by far in the fourth. He has seven more interceptions in the last quarter than any of the first three. In the first quarter, he has eight career picks, compared to 22 in the fourth.
But that doesn’t exactly tell the story on Cousins’ late-game play.
Those interception numbers have largely been accumulated when Cousins was attempting to lead a comeback. When ahead or tied in the fourth since becoming a full-time starter in 2015, the Vikings’ quarterback has a 102.9 rating. When trailing in the fourth, his rating drops to. 87.0.
Per Pro Football Reference, Cousins ranks between Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees when ahead or tied in the fourth. Playing from behind, his rating is similar to Jay Cutler and Josh McCown.
One thing you could take away from those numbers is that Sunday’s poor fourth quarter performance when playing from ahead is likely more an outlier than the norm. He has been a closer when given the opportunity.
And head coach Mike Zimmer also points out that many things can lead to a quarterback being known for his late game play. There’s no better example than Teddy Bridgewater doing everything he could to lead a game-winning drive against the Seahawks in the 2015 playoffs, only to be undone by a missed kick. Or in the case of Cousins last week, he was helped by Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith interceptions.
“Some quarterbacks make it so that they don’t really have to do it in the fourth quarter,” Zimmer said. “A lot of times it’s opportunities. A lot of times it’s the team around you. There’s so many variables and I know everybody makes a big deal about all of those and it’s great reading, but at the end of the day it’s trying to win football games.”
With all that in mind, we can still make the assumption that Cousins will get a lot of help. And even if he doesn’t, Vikings fans and the national media will be analyzing every close game in a win-now season.
So how can we project whether he will be able to finish games?
One quick way to get a snapshot is that Cousins has gone 13-7-1 in games separated by one score since 2015. Last year he went 4-1 — though he was helped in one contest by three Blair Walsh misses.
We can also look at “situational football.” Of course, there’s different ways to interpret those two words for everyone — whether it’s an offensive coordinator, head coach, defensive back, punter etc.
For a QB, it could loosely be described as playing the right odds the most often. Former Vikings, Chiefs and Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon more eloquently dove into “situational football” on the Mackey and Judd show this week. He said:
Situational football is everything. You think about how you have different rooms in your house, living room, dining room, kitchen and how you do different things in those areas. It’s the same thing with situational football. You need to be a really good red zone team, what happens when things shrink down in that part of the field, things happen quicker, you need to get the ball up and down quicker. Two minute offense, third down is a completely different animal in the National Football League. All these defensive coordinators spend all their time on Tuesday night and Wednesday game planning and scheming, trying to find ways to get off the field on third down, to bring pressures and different looks.
Here’s an example from Sunday: In two separate occasions in the fourth quarter of the Vikings’ win over San Francisco, Cousins threw deep incompletions on second-and-long and then threw short incompletions on third down. In those two three-and-out drives, the Vikings took a total of 43 seconds and 53 seconds off the clock, opening the door for a potential 49ers comeback.
The end of the first half was equally as frustrating. Zimmer took responsibility for the Vikings’ failure to produce points despite getting to the San Francisco 40-yard line with 0:34 left in the half, but Cousins threw an ill-advised screen pass for a six-yard loss that ran the clock down to 12 seconds and then he threw a 2-yard pass to Laquon Treadwell.
But there were plenty of other key situations where Cousins made the right move. With 3:00 remaining, he attempted a head-first dive for a first down. He was short on the play, but Zimmer appreciated the effort to stick a fork in the 9ers.
“Hey, when the game is on the line we’re trying to get the first down,” Zimmer said. “Go for it. I’m all in.”
“You know we always talk about sliding and protecting yourself but in that situation, right at the chains, I think you got to do something,” Cousins added. “Maybe the right move wasn’t to dive but if you try to make him miss, do something. You want to take a hit because at that point if you get the first down you change the whole game. We had played too hard to that point to just slide and give up on that. I think you do need to in the situation to change your approach and try to go for it.”
Gannon said making the right plays in the right situations often comes down to smarts and preparation. There’s a story from Jimmy Garoppolo’s short time in New England in which Bill Belichick prepped him on what to do if the ball was knocked out of the air back into his hands. And then it happened in his first start.
“You think about Rodgers and Brady and Brees and those type of players — and I think Cousins is very cerebral as well, smart guy, you’re not going to fool him, his preparation is fantastic,” Gannon said. “I think he sees throws, he’s rarely fooled by something that a defense will do. I think he knows where his quick-answer throws are. He knows how to get out of bad situations. To me it’s a big reason this guy has succeeded in our league. It’s not because he’s going to overwhelm you with his arm talent or his athleticism, he’s just a smart player who makes good decisions in critical situations.”
The question about Cousins, however, is not whether he’s smart, prepared or had previous success. It’s whether he can play “situational football” well enough to take the Vikings deep amidst enormous pressure from both expectations and his $84 million contract.
“I think there’s two types of quarterbacks: Those that feel pressure and those that apply pressure. I certainly think Kirk is one of the ones that applies it,” Gannon said. “It doesn’t matter where the game is being played, it doesn’t matter what’s at stake, this guy’s been in enough big games. He has that big game confidence and mentality. Just from studying his career going back to when he was picked by the Redskins and had to watch and wait behind [Robert Griffin III] the players really respect him. He’s got that swag and confidence that players really feed off of. In critical situations, fourth quarter, those types of things, I anticipate he will play his best football.”
If Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers plays this week in Lambeau, we can assume there will be a second test right away to see whether Cousins can indeed play his best football in critical situations — because the reality of his big-picture situation is: The success or failure of Cousins’ time in Minnesota will be judged by his situational play, even if there are many other factors that determine how far the Vikings go.