About a week ago I wrote an article titled ‘Was Sunday Cousins’ Best Game as a Viking? Does it Matter?‘ and the point of that piece was that it did and didn’t really matter. It didn’t matter in the narrative, or rather the mostly online narrative, of whether or not Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was performing up to the wide-ranging and subjective standards set by writers/fans.
It did matter in that they needed him to step up and put the team on his shoulders to come back and win that game (a game that increased their odds of making the playoffs to nearly 93%). After spending about 30 minutes on Vikings Twitter last night before/during Monday Night Football, I realized that a similar argument can be made for the debate as to where Cousins lands in the MVP race. I want to warn you though, this article is long and thorough because I want to make this my final article on the subject and also cut off any potential “Yeah, But…”s before they can hit our message board. So strap in as we delve into the abyss that is debating football online in 2019!
I’ll make this clear from the jump. Lamar Jackson, as of the writing of this piece, leads the MVP race by about as wide of a margin as the marging that’d exist if he was being chased by a defensive tackle. Also, whether or not someone is in the MVP race does matter and doesn’t matter not unlike the above debate. It doesn’t matter in terms of who lands where, really, but it does matter especially in Cousins’ case as the Vikings secondary is not playing well and if not for Cousins (and running back Dalvin Cook) the Vikings wouldn’t be an 8-3 team (I’d also argue that if not for Cousins’ hot start in 2018 the Vikings wouldn’t have been anywhere near a ~ .500 team, nor would they been a win-and-in team in Week 17).
That having been said, I want to address some of the points people use to diminish what Cousins is doing in terms of the MVP race as it’s similar to what people are saying about his performance period. I’ve said many times that there’s a contingent of Vikings fans who never wanted Cousins and have been bent out of shape about it since. I’ve explained why I think that is before and this article is long enough, so let’s just get right into it.
Now, I don’t spend a whole lot of time debating the Vikings on Twitter or Facebook. We do have our own internal Vikings social media platform, VikesGeist, that recently was launched and that has a goal of providing a place for Vikings fans to debate with writers/content creators (and create content of their own) in a message board, a Twitter-like global activity wall, to create User Groups and much, much more. But, the goal there is to provide a relatively laid back but in-depth platform for Vikings fans who are tired of the trolls and personal negativity that creeps into other Vikings/football debates online.
The reason I don’t is partially clear. A lot of the time people turn to personal attacks when debating football (or anything) online. Beyond that, I feel like I’m perpetuating a lot of the negativity that makes football players hate the internet, and I also don’t want to appear to be the guy who argues with readers who disagree with his/my takes.
That having been said, I did venture onto Twitter last night as one of our writers/social media managers, DeShawn Vaughn, had posted a question prior to the Monday Night Football game between the Rams and Ravens. The question was whether Cousins would be the front-runner in the MVP race should Lamar Jackson have a bad game. The answer was a resounding no, but it didn’t end up mattering as Jackson threw for FIVE touchdowns and essentially won the MVP-race with another quarter-plus of the season remaining.
I never thought that Cousins would really end up as a top candidate for the MVP (in terms of votes) this season, for the same reason that I didn’t think that Dalvin Cook would. Because the two of them cancel one another out. I also will say that if it came down to choosing which player was the MVP of the Vikings, my vote would be for Dalvin Cook as I’ve called him the “Heart” of the Vikings offense on multiple occasions. That having been said, some of the reasoning as to why Cousins didn’t deserve to be mentioned at all was so outlandish that I wanted to write an article about it.
I won’t say who said what, as I don’t want to put people on blast that way. But I have seen people use the similar refrains this season when Cousins/the Vikings started to get things together and emerge from their 2-2 start. I’m sure you’re all familiar with those arguments as well, that Cousins hasn’t beaten any “good” (or > .500) teams, that he is a “stat padder”, that he only gets his stats during garbage time, etc. Now, those arguments have fallen to the wayside one-by-one since Week 4, but luckily those “Never Cousins-ers” (as I’ve dubbed them) have come up with all sorts of new explanations for Cousins’ performance (or lack thereof).
For example, the Dallas game has been pointed to by both sides as a game that either proves that Cousins can beat good teams when he has, some you know, time (and a run game, and some consistency from his offensive coordinator), or that he didn’t actually deserve any credit for his 220 yard, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, a 71% completion-rate, 111.5 QB-rating outing. Why? Well, because over 140 of his 220 yards came from yards after the catch. I’m not joking.
While the person behind that argument mockingly said that he was blown away that I was dumbfounded by the idea of “contextualized performance”, this definitely wasn’t that as there was no other breakdown of the YAC in each of his other games this season, nor was there an average YAC-number for other quarterbacks in the league or even quarterbacks that are being considered as the MVP. Luckily, I’ve provided that context below. Again, I’m not really trying to harp on one point or one Twitter interaction, however as it was the first time in a while I delved into the Cousins Twitter debate, I felt like it was a really perfect microcosm of the entire Never-Cousins movement.
Now I do understand that that argument was more about individual performance than team performance (as the context was whether Cousins would be the MVP favorite should Jackson lay an egg on MNF). But to grab that stat from one game, again without explaining what the baseline for other quarterbacks, or especially other MVP-candidate quarterbacks, is the opposite of contextualized performance and instead is cherry-picking one stat from one game with zero context as to what it means or why it happened that way. Beyond that, people point to the Packers/Bears/Broncos game without explaining the context of those games (was it his performance or the game plan?).
That seems to be the modus operandi of the people who strangely love the Vikings but would rather Cousins suck than he perform up to or beyond expectations because they really don’t want to be wrong about a 2018 off-season take. That, to me, really shows how these debates can ruin the football experience for people, and I’m hoping that by pointing this out people can take a step back and realize being wrong isn’t the end of the world. Who am I kidding, this is the internet. That’ll never happen.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah.
The Packers game is on Cousins, that’s an objective truth. The Bears game, though, is murkier (as the line was getting just decimated, as is apparent from Cook’s numbers from that day). The Chiefs game was another example of the Vikings coaches getting “too cute”. While Cousins didn’t play well in those games, missing an open Thielen early in the Bears game that could’ve shifted momentum and other throws in the flat against the Chiefs, his QB-rating in both games was still above 90. Not exactly god awful, just not MVP-level.
But the same could be said about another favorite MVP-candidate that people point to, Dak Prescott. Dak has over three times the interceptions that Cousins does with 10 (vs. 3), including six in the first five games (including a three INT game in the Week 5 loss to the Packers), an average QB-rating of 100.8 (vs. Cousins’ 114.8), a completion percentage of 66.8% vs. Cousins’ 70.6%, and has two more losses on the season. He also has a much better offensive line and a pretty darn good running back in Ezekiel Elliot behind him. So, perhaps Cousins benefits more from yards after the catch, but he’s also a lot more accurate in an offense predicated on just that.
As for yards after the catch, the Vikings were pretty awful at that last year:
It’s something that they clearly focused on this off-season and the benefits are laid out in this article from Sports Illustrated. In that piece, which is talking about the Giants game, there are examples of Vikings players like Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook massively over-producing in terms of expected YAC vs. the YAC they produced. However, the piece also goes on to say things like:
“Cousins completed 81.5 percent of his passes, despite having an expected completion percentage of 61.5. His +20 Completion Percentage Above Expectation was the highest in the NFL in Week 5. For the full season so far, he is fourth in that category at +5.7.”
“Kirk Cousins’ two touchdown passes to Thielen had completion probabilities of 25.2 percent (15-yard TD in first quarter) and 27.5 percent (9-yard TD in third quarter). That makes those plays two of the 12 most improbable completions of Week 5. Credit goes to both Cousins and Thielen for connecting on those two scores.”
Credit? Cousins? What?!?
As for those pesky “Next Gen” stats. Guess who is the leading passer overall? I’ll give you a hint, it rhymes with Dirk Dozens. Those stats come in handy for moments like this as they do actually provide context. Let’s check out the average completed air yards for some of the MVP-candidates. That’s the average yardage actually thrown (eliminating any YAC). Lamar Jackson has 6.6 yards per completed throw, Cousins? 6.2. Hmm. Dak does have 7.7, but is his average attempt is 1.9 yards over his completed pass (vs. Cousins’ 1.8). That means that the Cowboys simply attempt deeper throws on average than the Vikings do, something that comes down to game planning. Lamar Jackson has a 2.4 differential, as his average intended air yards is 9, against his 6.6 average.
When it comes to the Broncos game, those same Never-Cousins-ers will point to his first-half as proof that he is still the bust they’ve spent a lot of time and internet credibility (if there is such a thing) saying he is. Sure, he went 11-of-12 in that half, but that’s because he was attempting to sneak another YAC game past those voting for the MVP, I’m sure. Not that, you know, players are beholden to a game-plan that typically is put in place in an attempt to either avoid or exploit a strength or weakness.
That’s what happened in the Dallas game. Sure, Cousins did throw a lot of misdirection screens in that game, and so he wasn’t picking up a lot of those yards through the air. But that’s not why quarterbacks play the game, and that’s not how football works.
Depending on the quarterback, they’re either beholden to a game plan period or they’re beholden to a gameplan they had some hand in crafting. Some quarterbacks are allowed to call plays themselves, a la Peyton Manning, while others are allowed to audible based on the adjustments the defense makes to their post-huddle formation.
Either way, the Dallas game was proof positive of Cousins executing a game plan to near perfection against a top-10 defense and while the score was relatively low (by new NFL standards), it still was essentially a shoot out in that Cousins and company had to answer the Cowboys’ somewhat successful attempt to come back after the Vikes came out on fire, putting the ‘Boys down by 14 early in their own stadium.
Should Cousins’ have audibled out of the gameplan and thrown every ball into the end-zone so every yard was “earned”? Are those yards more earned or valuable than the yards picked up via the screens that Cousins stood tough in the pocket, allowing time for the screen to develop, taking some big shots in the process?
The answer to that is, or at least should be, obviously not.
What matters in this league at the end of the day is winning games. And while the point of MVP-debates is to compare the individual performance of each player, taking one stat from one game in order to explain away eight-of-eleven games in which Cousins has had a QB-rating of 111.5 or better, isn’t the way to do it.
What truly is contextualized performance is whether or not (and how) Cousins executed the game plan on that Sunday/Monday/Thursday. As no quarterback does anything on his own, and while that is a sliding scale, by Twitter’s logic Patrick Mahomes didn’t deserve to win the MVP in 2018 as he had a TON of talent around him that, again by Twitter logic, did most the heavy lifting for him.
It’d be like saying that Tom Brady didn’t deserve the MVP in 2007 because Randy Moss was often wide open. So while I understand that, again, the debate was individual performance vs. team performance, the reality is that there seems to be a lot of people who are bending over backward to explain away Cousins’ great season in a very binary way. Rather, that he’s either he’s the MVP or he’s garbage. Football doesn’t work that way, either. Nor does making predictions about football.
The NFL, more than any other league, is a season-to-season and week-to-week league (right, Joe Oberle?) and because of that people that spend time making predictions will be wrong more often than they’re right. If we can’t admit when we’re wrong we’ll end up losing any credibility that we have in the first place, as who can believe someone who spends that much time explaining away reality because they think any admission of being wrong will ruin their credibility more?
I’ll admit that after the Bears game I made a post-game video about being off the Cousins band-wagon. I believed that with the talent this Vikings team had and has, Cousins would flourish. He had Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson in 2016 and he was about 80 yards short of a 5,000 yard passing season. Imagine what he could do with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, I thought. People said “If he was so great why was he available?” and I said, “Because the ‘Skins are the worst run franchise in Pro sports?”.
After his hot start fizzled in 2018 I blamed the lack of investment in the offensive line, the injury to Dalvin Cook and the whole John DeFilippo situation. However, during the off-season, with the investments that they had made in the line, I did say that he wouldn’t have any excuses in 2019 and I believe I stood by that after laying an egg in two of the Vikings’ first four games.
However, I do feel like Cousins has shown since that everything I’d hoped was true. That now that the Vikings have had time to see what works and what doesn’t with some semblance of protection/an amazing run game and an offensive coordinator who has the help of one of the most brilliant offensive minds in NFL history (in Gary Kubiak), that Cousins was able to become the elite system guy I’d said he always could be.
Now, I’m aware that that sounds like I’m calling Cousins an elite game manager which is an oxymoron to some. But, my point was and always has been that while Cousins may not put the team on his shoulders and win the way that Brady or Brees have, in the right system he could not only put up monster stats but that he could become the franchise quarterback we Vikings fans have been looking for since Fran Tarkenton.
I was wrong about that. Though. As Cousins has shown that he’s been able to beat an elite defense without his number one receiver (in Adam Thielen) or a monster game from Dalvin Cook in the Broncos game and that he’s able to at least offset the bend-and-break (at times) Vikings secondary by putting a copious amount of points on the board. We all thought after 2017 that if the Vikings could have an offense that was even half as dangerous as its defense that this team would be nigh-unbeatable. Now we’re essentially hoping for a secondary that’s half as good as it was in 2017.
So, Cousins does deserve credit for that just as post-Week 4 malcontent Stefon Diggs said last week. Does that mean he’s the MVP? No. But it does mean that he’s performing at a level that’s higher than any Vikings quarterback perhaps outside of Favre in 2009 or Culpepper in 2004. That’s exactly what we hoped he’d do, not that he’d win the MVP, but rather that he’d bring this Vikings offense to the next level and with the defense this team has had under Zimmer, that might be enough to get over the 50+ year hump this franchise has been crashing into full speed.
So, now that it’s clear that Lamar Jackson is going to win the MVP, perhaps we can focus on what really matters and that’s, you know, winning games by any means necessary and not rooting against our own quarterback for the sake of social media credibility. I, for one, am glad that our quarterback is adaptable enough to do just that and that this Vikings team is quasi-dimensional enough to win games in a variety of ways and that I was wrong after Week 4 when I said … I was wrong about Cousins.