It’s the Bye week in Vikingsland which can only mean one thing; relatively pointless debates about individual player performance! I say that somewhat facetiously as clearly individual performance, especially from a position as important as the quarterback position, is important for obvious reasons. However, debating which performance is best is rife with multiple variables that, depending on how you assign weight to them, can come of as looking relatively subjective and pointless.
That having been said, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer did say this week that Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins’ performance on Sunday against the Denver Broncos was “probably his best” as a Viking (while also stating that he didn’t really care about what narratives people had, rather he only cared about ensuring that Cousins continued to play well). Because of that, we’re going to attempt to break down whether or not Sunday truly was the best game (yet, hopefully) from the Vikings’ $84 million dollar man.
First, let’s lay some ground rules.
I am fresh off of the first episode of my new live daily Vikings vlog, purpleUPDATE Live! On that show, I discussed this topic and basically prefaced it by saying that when it comes to discussions like these, context is king. The best way to explain that is to delve into the swamp that can be Vikings Twitter/Reddit to see what the Cousins haters have had to say about some of his more electrifying (from a stat perspective) performances. Cousins, as you probably know, was the first quarterback in team history to have over 4,000 yards passing, 30 touchdowns, a greater than 70% completion rate, and 10 or fewer touchdowns in a season in his first year in purple.
You’d think that that’d mean he came into 2019 with universal love from a fan-base that has longed for a franchise quarterback (under the age of 35) for as long as most any team in the NFL (the Bears notwithstanding). This is, of course, a team that hasn’t had a quarterback play full back-to-back seasons since the Fran Tarkenton era. This is Minnesota, though, and that means that people are never really happy mainly because we’ve never experienced what I can only assume is the feeling of ecstasy that comes from winning a Super Bowl.
That’s not entirely fair, though, as the 2018 season was incredibly underwhelming considering the expectations everyone had following the 2017 season and the addition of Cousins.
The argument against Cousins is and was this: That he’s basically a stat-padder who beats up bad teams and shrinks against real competition, real spotlight, and real opportunities to shine. Considering Cousins’ record against teams with a record of .500 or more, it’s hard not to see where these people are coming from.
Then again, as I said, context is king. Cousins played for the Washington Redskins, which as you’ve seen this season is easily the worst run organization in the NFL if not all of professional sports. An example of their futility can be found in Cousins’ final season, a year after he lit the league on fire by nearly passing for 5,000 yards (4,917), the Redskins essentially allowed his entire receiving corps to leave via free agency.
The following season, his last in Washington, he barely eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark. They also allowed Cousins to leave in the first place which, while used as an example of his futility by those who never wanted him here in the first place (because they thought it’d mean the Vikings would lose one of their core players on defense, which, I’ll point out hasn’t happened), was labeled as something that rarely happens in the NFL. A franchise QB that was under 30 years old at the time, who had passed for over 13,000 yards, 81 touchdowns (against 36 interceptions) and had a > 95 passer rating across three seasons was actually going to become a free agent.
That explains why he was so expensive despite not having the sort of cache as someone like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, because that sort of thing just doesn’t happen in a league that is so hard up for consistent quarterback play that Tarvaris Jackson somehow carved out a decade long career.
So when looking at the following games, it’s important to think about context. I looked at each of Cousins’ performances from the past 27 games and managed to break it down to the following games. I only included wins, which means that his performance against the Rams from last season (422 yards, 3 touchdowns, a fumble and a QBR of ~85) doesn’t make the cut. That’s a rough one because one could argue that Cousins kept the Vikings in that game, which was a major league slug-fest on par with the Cowboys game from last week.
The Vikings defense had no answer for Sean McVay’s Rams, a team that eventually represented the NFC in the Super Bowl, and if any game personified the first half of the 2018 season and the lack of respect or recognition that Cousins gets for keeping the Vikings in the swing of things despite injuries and over-scheming on the defense (and a bad offensive line and lack of a run game), it’s the Rams game.
That game was important, too, as it was a Thursday Night game. One of the other knocks against Cousins, outside of his record against “good” teams, is that he wilts in prime time. So, it’s unfortunate that the Rams game didn’t make the cut. Although, he did perform well against the Packers on Sunday Night later in that same season. He finished that game, his second scorcher against the Packers, with a 76.3% completion rate (29-of-38), 342 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions for a rating of 129.5.
That followed his week 2 performance that also didn’t make this list because it ended as a tie, where he dropped 425 yards on 35-of-48 passing (remember what I said about a lack of a run game?) for a nearly 73% completion rate. He also had 4 touchdowns and 1 pick in that game. But I thought he was dreadful in 2018?
There were a few other games in 2018 that were losses but Cousins had good stats, or rather a good rating (since garbage time stats don’t typically equate into good QB-ratings as you’d have to be otherwise futile up until garbage time and that futility would hurt your rating or completion percentage, etc.). He had above a 100 QB-rating in seven games last season, including both Green Bay games (they went 1-0-1 in those games), the loss to the Saints (with a 107.7 rating), the win against the Eagles (109.6), that Rams loss (117.2), the win against Miami at home (112.2) and the week 16 match-up against the Lions (137.9).
His performances against the Packers were his best performances of 2018 in this context and in general. The week 2 game was especially amazing as he clearly had only been with the team for one regular-season game, and he did everything he could to win that game despite the futility of future Raider Daniel Carlson. I’d argue, though, that he has had more than a couple of performances that have eclipsed those games this season.
To start, he’s already eclipsed his seven games with a QB-rating of 100 or better this season, in only 11 games. He’s had eight games with that rating, and his season average is 114.8 (vs. his average rating last year which was a hair under 100 at 99.7 (which, again, is pretty good for a “stat-padding bust”). That’s why, again, context is king. The Vikings couldn’t perform as a unit last season. When the offense/Cousins was good, the defense wasn’t. When the defense stepped up, the offense fell apart. I wouldn’t necessarily blame the end of the season offensive futility on Cousins, either, as basically everything that could’ve gone wrong around him… Did.
Historically bad offensive line? Check. Lack of a run game because of that and a major hamstring injury to your stud running back that forced him to miss half the season? Check. Major disagreements in strategy between your head coach and new offensive coordinator that lead to him being fired before the Miami game despite being crowned the next up and coming offensive genius in the NFL? Check and mate. Despite that, though, Cousins ended the season with nearly a 100 QB-rating. Considering, I’d say that’s pretty good.
I would also say that it makes sense that he’d have a slow start to his 2019 campaign, considering he was learning his second new offense in as many years and the team was learning how to best utilize him both in terms of that scheme and in general (sure, he played well in 2018 but how could they best utilize him in conjunction with the talent around him?). Beyond that, you had the unique situation of the Vikings bringing in offensive “advisor” and assistant head coach, Gary Kubiak, over the off-season.
Kubiak essentially brought his entire team with him, which meant the team had to integrate a new offensive line and running back coach and system. As we’ve seen from week-to-week, the Vikings are more and more implementing major aspects of Kubiak’s system, whether it’s due to the injury to Adam Thielen (more on that later) or the need to make changes after the disaster that was the Week 4 Bears game. The result has been a Vikings offense that has exploded in ways that even the most ardent Cousins hater has to … Okay, I was going to say admit has been great but this is the internet and no one ever admits they’ve made a bad call.
When you look at the Bears game, statistically, it isn’t as bad as memory serves…. Somehow. Cousins completed 75% of his passes in that game and had a decent rating (for him) of 91.6. It was really the Packers game that is the major blemish on his 2019 game-to-game statistics, as he ended with a paltry 52.9 rating and a completion percentage of 43.8. That was also the game in which the Vikings defense spotted the Packers 21-points across the first quarter (and some change) and the Vikings ended up losing by 5-points. They had a chance to win, but Cousins threw one of the worst interceptions you’ll ever see on first-and-goal. So when you take that, and the 233 yards and 0 touchdowns, 2 fumbles and 0 picks that was the Bears game, it wasn’t hard to see why people started to panic.
I include myself in that group as I made it clear via my Bears post-game show that I was officially off the Cousins band-wagon (until I saw things that I’ve now seen). While that may not seem like that big of a deal, I really try not to be that spastic when it comes to my support for the team (somewhere Joe Oberle is laughing), at least when it comes to major declarations like that. I also was one of the first people to advocate for the Vikings adding Cousins by any means necessary, so for me to react that way it had to be pretty bad (especially considering I’ve felt that Cousins got a bad rap for the 2018 season since … The 2018 season).
That decision may declaw anything I say about the other people who either aren’t on the band-wagon still or never were, but the difference again is the context. My reasons were different than most that I’m addressing in this piece, and with the benefit of hindsight, I’m really starting to believe that those struggles were more based on how the Vikings used Cousins, not so much how Cousins performed (at least not completely). I discussed this and more in my article, Gary Kubiak, QB-Whisperer and his Influence on This Explosive Vikings Offense (click to read if you want to flesh out that argument some more).
So… Before looking at this season I should also mention that sure, the offense was AWFUL at the end of the 2018 campaign as I can already see the comments coming in about how “dreadful” Cousins was when things “mattered” at the end of the season and the team had a good shot to make the playoffs. Yes, the end of the 2018 season was littered with games that started with more three-and-outs than points, but at the risk of sounding like a parrot with a head injury… CONTEXT IS KING.
So let’s look at this season. A season in which Cousins had four back-to-back games with a QB-rating of above 112 (three of which were 138.0 or higher). Those games, though, were against the Giants, Eagles, Lions and Redskins, four teams that have a combined negative 20 wins (if I recall correctly). While his stats were enough for me to attempt to rejoin the bandwagon, most Cousins haters pointed to the futility of the opponent while looking at the discrepancy between Cousins’ (team) record-breaking 2018 campaign and the failure of that 2018 team to make the playoffs and used that to again bolster their claim that Cousins only wins when it matters least.
While I’d argue that this is the NFL and every win is both important and difficult (at least when compared to other leagues, especially the NBA), I understood where they were coming from. If not for a 94.2 rating against the Chiefs, a game in which the Vikings lost by three-points that came as time expired, Cousins would’ve had a streak of seven games with a QB-rating above 110. That was mostly done without his favorite target and arguably the best player on a team that is absolutely overflowing with talent, Adam Thielen.
While I could go through each of those games, I really want to focus on the last two weeks as they counter the typical response that I’ve explained above (stat-padding, etc.) even though those wins by definition didn’t have garbage time and thus Cousins at least was able to eliminate that bullet point from the weekly Anti-Cousins meetings at the Eagan VFW.
The reason I selected those two games should be relatively obvious by now, and that’s because they each check off the remaining talking points that people use to explain away Cousins’ output (or almost all the remaining points, as his salary will forever be a point of contention for people that don’t understand supply-and-demand or the salary cap). The win in Dallas, where Cousins had a rating of 111.5, a completion percentage of 71.9, 220 yards and two touchdowns vs. 0 picks came against a good team in prime time. That game was also sort of a shoot out, or at least a back and forth game, in which Cousins had to hang tough and respond to scores from the Cowboys’ Dak Precott and company.
Cousins also performed very well against a good-to-great defense in the Cowboys’ D. However, outside of the prime time aspect, those things could be said about the Broncos game on Sunday as well. However, the difference is that the Broncos pass defense is a bit better than the Cowboys pass defense (5th and 7th respectively). Cousins also had checked the final box off of his detractor’s list and that’s that he posted a major second-half and 4th quarter comeback without a monster game from his running back, Dalvin Cook.
Cook had 97 yards rushing and a touchdown on the ground as well as 86 yards receiving against the Cowboys. In the Broncos game? He had a 2.4 yards per carry average with only 11 carries for 26 yards. While only mustering 50-some yards passing in the first half, that wasn’t necessarily on Cousins (more the game “plan”) as he completed 11-of-12 passes in that half. In the second half Cousins exploded, with three touchdowns and leading four touchdown drives on all four of the Vikings’ second-half drives, leading the Vikings on a comeback after being down 20-points at the half. That’s not just amazing, it’s the first time EVER in the NFL that has happened.
It’s because of that that I agree with coach Zimmer that Sunday was the best game that Cousins has had as a Viking. Sure, his 133.2 rating isn’t the best, nor is his 319 yards and 3 touchdowns. It’s the how and why that matters (although it’s also kinda fun to see the Cousins haters talk about the Timberwolves for a few days), and the reality is that Cousins did what many said he couldn’t do against the Broncos defense that is as good as any this team will face moving forward. I also agree, though, that what matters most is that Cousins continue to play at this level which is something that shouldn’t be a problem considering he reported that his favorite target, Adam Thielen, would be returning after this week’s Bye.