Kirk Cousins doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation in crunch time.
Delivering when it matters most is a difficult task; there’s no doubt about it. Suddenly, the previous 55 minutes of the game no longer matter. Only this drive and these throws will determine the outcome of the game. For as fundamentally sound as he is passing the football, Cousins has not earned the trust of both NFL fans and experts to drive his team down the field when it matters most.
This isn’t just a made-up narrative. Statistically, Cousins has become less effective in the final minutes of games when his team needs a score.
The above graphic shows the EPA (expected points added) by quarterbacks in the final four minutes of halves in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Notice how Cousins is considerably low on the chart, below the likes of Mitchell Trubisky, Drew Lock, Andy Dalton, and Gardner Minshew, among many others.
But the tide has begun to shift this year. It’s been a wacky start to the Minnesota Vikings’ season, with all but one game coming down to the wire through five weeks. However, when the Vikings have needed a score in the final minutes of regulation, Cousins has delivered on three separate occasions.
In a Week 1 overtime loss at Cincinnati, the Vikings trailed by three points when they started the final drive of regulation at their own five-yard line with 1:48 remaining. Cousins proceeded to complete his six of seven pass attempts, including a 27-yard dart to Tyler Conklin up the seam to set up a 53-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
The following week, the Vikings started their final drive at their own 23-yard line with 2:09 remaining, trailing the undefeated Arizona Cardinals by one point. Cousins calmly completed five of seven pass attempts on the drive for 49 yards to push the Vikings to the Arizona 19-yard line, setting up a 37-yard field goal attempt as time expired. (Alas, the kick sailed wide right.)
In a narrow Week 5 home win against the Detroit Lions, Minnesota held a 10-point lead with under three minutes remaining that inexplicably evaporated thanks to some inopportune mistakes by the Vikings. Suddenly, they trailed by a point with 37 seconds remaining and no timeouts. Comeback Cousins took the reigns, completing all three pass attempts on the drive (two to Adam Thielen for 40 yards) and set up a game-winning 54-yard field goal.
In what has been whirlwind of a season to date, Cousins’ emphatic improvement in clutch scenarios for the Vikings this season has been overshadowed by the chaos in each game. Nonetheless, fans should be excited that their quarterback is starting to earn that trust in crunch time.
When the Vikings signed Cousins in March of 2018, these were the types of drives he was supposed to lead that would make the difference for this team. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened consistently enough in his tenure. The result is only one playoff win in three seasons.
The Vikings are off to a 2-3 start this season and will need some more clutch scoring drives if they are going to make a playoff push. How can Cousins continue firing on all cylinders when it matters most?
For Cousins, it’s all about being able to let it rip. Too often, he gets into these phases where he plays with a something-to-lose mindset, and it appears as if this is coming from head coach Mike Zimmer. When Cousins has found himself needing to produce some fireworks to keep the Vikings’ chances alive, he often delivers.
Unfortunately, the Vikings tend to get conservative in crunch time unless it’s do-or-die. This conservative approach is what nearly cost Minnesota the win against the Lions last week before they were forced to actually turn up the aggressiveness.
And it’s not like the Vikings haven’t been aggressive to put teams away before. Two seasons ago, the Vikings led the Lions by five late in the fourth quarter with a chance to close out the game. Instead of conservatively keeping the ball on the ground, the Vikings called for a play-action deep shot to Stefon Diggs, which resulted in a gain of 66 yards and, shortly thereafter, a game-clinching touchdown.
This is the type of attitude the Vikings need to employ with Cousins this season. Good things usually happen when he’s allowed to let loose. However, Cousins becomes hesitant when Zimmer’s conservative, possession-focused nature seeps into the offensive philosophy.
Cousins has shown promise this season when the Vikings have needed points. As long as the Vikings let him sling it around the gridiron the whole game, they probably won’t need a game-winning drive in the final 30 seconds. Perhaps Minnesota will be able to put away opponents more efficiently in the future.
At any rate, it’s time to trust Cousins in crunch time. He’s earned it with three terrific performances this season. But does the coaching staff trust him? Vikings fans better hope so.