How Much of Kirk Cousins' Production Comes From Garbage Time?

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

Over the past three years, we’ve heard plenty of explanations for Kirk Cousins‘ propensity to irk Minnesota Vikings’ fans. Whether it be his contract, his inability to win the big game on the road, or his record on Monday Night Football, Minnesota pigskin skeptics have no problem coming up with reasons why Cousins deserves a place closer to the rear of the NFL quarterback hierarchy. While some of the narratives have changed over the past couple of years, at least one still lingers: garbage-time production.

With the San Francisco 49ers’ recent blockbuster trade to move all the way up to third overall in the draft, likely to select a quarterback, Kyle Shanahan’s reported infatuation with his former Washington signal-caller has resurfaced. Despite Cousins’ passer rating of 68.6 and his 1-3 record as a starter during Shanahan’s stint as Washington’s offensive coordinator from 2011 to 2013, the San Francisco head coach continues to shower his former quarterback with praise any chance he gets.

The Cousins adulation has only been compounded by Pro Football Focus’s recent announcement that he received their highest grade of any quarterback in the fourth quarter since 2019.

Contrary to Shanahan’s praise and PFF’s grading system, there’s still a fan contingent who feel certain Cousins is a garbage-time stat-sheet stuffer. Meaning, when the game is already out of hand and the only thing standing in the way of a Vikings defeat is the remaining minutes on the game clock, THAT is when Cousins comes alive. He tacks on some meaningless statistical production that obscures a less-than-stellar performance in the rest of the game.

Today we’re going to look at Cousins’ quality of play when the game is still hanging in the balance versus how it stacks up to his play when inevitable defeat gives him the freedom to let it loose. It’s important to note that, for the sake of this piece, I define garbage time as whenever the Vikings face a three-possession deficit at any point in the second half of a game. Below is a table of the times the Vikings found themselves in garbage time last season and what Cousins’ production from that point on looked like.

Game & Scenario Completions / Attempts Yards Touchdowns Interceptions
Week 1 – vs. Green Bay

Vikings trail 10-29 with 00:09 remaining in 3Q

13/15 193 2 0
Week 2 – @ Indianapolis

Vikings trail 3-25 with 14:00 remaining in 4Q

5/6 54 0 0
Week 6 – vs. Atlanta

Vikings trail 0-20 at halftime

16/22 241 3 0
Week 14 – @ Tampa Bay

Vikings trail 6-23 with 10:14 remaining in 3Q

14/22 128 1 0
Week 16 – @ New Orleans

Vikings trail 27 – 45 with 4:00 remaining  in 4Q

7/13 88 1 0

When you compile all of Kirk’s production in garbage time from 2020, his numbers are:

  • 55/78 (70.5 completion%)
  • 704 passing yards
  • 7 touchdowns
  • 0 interceptions
  • 128.36 passer rating

After looking at the numbers, there are definitely some legs to the narrative that Kirk has an ability to take his stats to another level when the game is essentially already decided. While Cousins ended last year’s campaign with a passer rating of 105, which ranked eighth among quarterbacks, his passer rating only fell to 100.85 when you remove his garbage-time production. Without removing the garbage-time production for the other quarterbacks throughout the rest of the NFL, Cousins’ 100.85 passer rating would have ranked 11th in 2020.

You’ll never catch me scoffing at a quarterback with a triple-digit passer rating. Passer rating is the easiest way to define a quarterback’s level of success, as it incorporates their completions, attempts, yards, touchdowns, and interceptions into a single metric. It’s no coincidence that the best quarterbacks are always league leaders in passer rating.

Judged by passer rating alone, Cousins has demonstrated an ability to operate as a top-10 quarterback in the NFL, and last year was no different. Were his numbers inflated as a result of the five instances in which his team was trailing by three scores in the second half of the game? Absolutely, but not nearly to an extent that warrants any level of concern compared to his non-garbage-time scenarios.

Honestly, how many quarterbacks in today’s NFL don’t benefit from such accommodating circumstances?

Cousins has done a commendable job of putting a major dent into a handful of the narratives that have dogged him since he landed in Minnesota. Hopefully, after today, the garbage-time stat-sheet-stuffer narrative can finally be put to rest. Since taking over the starting job with the Vikings in 2018, Cousins’ 103.6 passer rating should silence any doubt that he at least belongs in the conversation as a top-10 signal-caller in today’s NFL.

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