For the third time in four years of the Kirk Cousins era, the Minnesota Vikings found themselves outside looking in on the NFL playoffs in 2021. But unlike in 2018 when the Vikings missed the playoffs with a top-10 scoring defense, Minnesota regressed to one of the league’s worst defenses over the past seasons. The Vikings’ defense ranked 29th in 2020 and 24th in 2021 in points allowed. Despite the shortcomings of Zimmer’s defensive unit, Cousins remained one of the NFL’s most efficient quarterbacks, with passer ratings of 105.0 and 103.1 — ranking eighth and fourth across the league over the past two seasons.
One of the most common criticisms of Cousins throughout the past two seasons is a little something like this:
“Well, if he’s going to get paid that much, he NEEDS to overcome a bad defense!”
We all know by now that Cousins is one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. His cap hit in 2020 was reduced to $21 million following an offseason extension, which was the 22nd-highest in the NFL. But 2021 saw his cap hit rise to $31 million, which was good for the second-highest paid player in the league.
Considering his relatively high level of play compared to the rest of the quarterbacks in the NFL, is it fair to blame Minnesota’s sub-.500 play over the past two seasons on the polarizing signal-caller?
Let’s take a look at all the quarterbacks since 2010 who have eclipsed a 100-plus passer rating while being forced to overcome their own team’s defense that ranked 24th or worse in points allowed. That is precisely what was asked (demanded?) out of Cousins over the past two seasons with the Vikings.
2010 – 2012
There wasn’t a single quarterback with a passer rating of 100.0 or better with a defense that ranked 24th or worse in points allowed.
Aaron Rodgers — 104.9 passer rating — Green Bay Packers ranked 24th in points allowed
- 6-3 with Rodgers, 8-7-1 finish — lost in NFC wild-card round
Green Bay’s season was derailed, and Rodgers was forced to miss time after suffering a mid-season injury. But even when Rodgers returned for the playoffs, Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers exposed the Packers’ defense to the tune of 325 total yards from Colin Kaepernick, who went into Lambeau and beat one of the best quarterbacks of all time.
Drew Brees — 101.0 passer rating — New Orleans Saints ranked 32nd in points allowed
In the midst of a 5-year, $100 million contract, Brees had the fifth-highest cap hit among NFL quarterbacks in 2015. And with a Saints defense that was dead last in points allowed — eerily similar to a Vikings defense that ranked 29th in 2020 — the first-ballot Hall of Famer couldn’t overcome his team’s defensive shortcomings.
Drew Brees — 101.7 passer rating — Saints ranked 31st in points allowed
For the second consecutive season, Brees could only do so much after being hamstrung with yet another Saints defense that was one of the worst in the NFL. Sound familiar? Granted, Brees already had a Super Bowl under his belt at this time. But did the Saints’ pitchfork brigade come for their quarterback following these two anemic seasons from the New Orleans defense?
Matt Ryan — 117.1 passer rating — Atlanta Falcons ranked 27th in points allowed
- 11-5, lost in the Super Bowl
- 2016 NFL MVP
In Year 2, with Kyle Shanahan as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, Matt Ryan had a career year after capturing the MVP. Defensive-minded head coach Dan Quinn’s unit was one of the league’s worst defenses, but Shanahan, Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Tevin Coleman were the engine of this team. Shanahan’s final season in Atlanta propelled him to his first head coaching position with the San Francisco 49ers the following year.
Ryan Fitzpatrick — 100.4 passer rating — Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked 31st in points allowed
- 2-5 as a starter, finished 5-11
Head coach Dirk Koetter played musical chairs with Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston, and the Buccaneers were a complete dumpster fire all year. While Fitzpatrick was the more efficient quarterback, Tampa Bay entered each week with little to no chance of victory with one of the league’s worst defenses.
Matt Ryan — 108.1 passer rating — Falcons finished 25th in points allowed
No longer having the luxury of Shanahan as his OC, Ryan came back to earth just two years after capturing the league’s MVP. Steve Sarkisian, the current head coach for the University of Texas, was a far cry from what Ryan had in ’16 as his play-caller and OC. As has essentially been par for the course for Dan Quinn throughout his career, his defense was near the bottom of the league in ’18. Yet here we are, just three years later, and Quinn is getting interview requests for vacant head coaching positions — including with the Vikings.
Patrick Mahomes — 113.8 passer rating — Kansas City Chiefs ranked 24th in points allowed
- 12-4, lost in AFC Championship game
- 2018 NFL MVP
Two decades after Randy Moss lit the NFL on fire in his rookie season, Mahomes replicated Minnesota’s favorite receiver’s immediate impact on the league during his first season as the starting quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs. Armed with the best offensive head coach that the league has ever seen in Andy Reid, along with All-Pros like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, Mahomes had no problem reverting to his days at Texas Tech with Kliff Kingsbury and winning via shootout on a near-weekly basis. Mahomes won the MVP and officially put the league on notice after throwing for over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in his debut season.
Derek Carr — 100.8 passer rating — Oakland Raiders ranked 24th in points allowed
Carr ranked ninth among NFL quarterbacks in passer rating in the Raiders’ final season in Oakland. But unfortunately for longtime Raiders fans in the Bay Area, the team left town on a sour note after Oakland’s defense held the team back all season.
Matthew Stafford — 106.0 passer rating — Detroit Lions ranked 26th in points allowed
- 3-4-1 as the starter, finished 3-12-1
Limited to just eight games during an injury-riddled 2019 season, Stafford most certainly held up his end of the bargain with a passer rating of 106.0 and dragged his decrepit Lions to close to .500 ball. And when Detroit shut down Stafford for the season midway through the year, the Lions predictably ended the season on an eight-game losing streak.
And with Stafford’s first career playoff win on Monday night with the Los Angeles Rams, his many detractors were forced to eat some serious crow. He had a near-perfect 154.5 passer rating performance alongside Sean McVay, Cooper Kupp, and Odell Beckham Jr.
Derek Carr — 101.4 passer rating — Las Vegas Raiders ranked 30th in points allowed
Just like the year before, the Raiders didn’t fare much better in their inaugural season in Sin City. The Raiders improved to 8-8 despite Las Vegas’ defense regressing to 30th in the league, and Carr’s steady play was the biggest reason why.
Kirk Cousins — 105.0 passer rating — Minnesota ranked 29th in points allowed
The Vikings had their best statistical offensive season of the Cousins era, thanks mainly to the emergence of rookie receiver Justin Jefferson. With Jefferson in the starting lineup in the final 14 games of the season, Cousins recorded a passer rating of 109.7, which was the second-highest passer rating in the NFL over that span. However, Minnesota’s firepower offensively was all for naught after the Vikings had their worst season defensively since 2013.
Ryan Tannehill — 106.5 passer rating — Tennessee Titans ranked 24th in points allowed
- 11-5, lost in AFC Wild Card round
Whenever you have a running back who rushes for 2,027 yards like Derrick Henry did in 2020, you can cover up a lot of holes on defense. Tannehill was a major beneficiary of Tennessee’s downhill rushing attack, as he routinely faced advantageous coverages with defenses forced to stack the box to try and stop Henry. Despite an all-time season out of the Titans’ running back, the Baltimore Ravens came into Tennessee and beat them, 20-13, in the opening round of the playoffs.
Deshaun Watson — 112.4 passer rating — Houston Texans ranked 27th in points allowed
What feels like nearly a century ago, when Watson was viewed as simply a former National Championship-winning quarterback from Clemson, the QB did his absolute best to bring life to a dying Texans franchise. But when a quarterback is dealing with a dumpster fire of this magnitude, no one actually expects Watson to elevate this type of team.
Kirk Cousins — 103.1 passer rating — Minnesota ranked 24th in points allowed
- 8-8 as the starter, finished 8-9*
Like Drew Brees in New Orleans from 2015-16, Cousins was forced to overcome two seasons’ worth of anemic play from his defensive counterparts. And while Cousins served as Public Enemy No. 1 for Skoldiers this year, he undoubtedly elevated this team in Week 11 after beating Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers 34-31 with a passer rating of 128.4, all while Zimmer’s defense surrendered 467 yards to the best team in the NFL. Kirky’s 103.1 passer rating was the fourth-highest among NFL quarterbacks.
In total, there have been 14 cases where a quarterback compiled a passer rating of 100.0 or better while dealing with a defense that ranked 24th or worse in points allowed since 2010. The combined records of those quarterbacks were 100-88, which translates to a winning percentage of .532 — which equates to roughly 8.5 wins per year.
Of the 14 occurrences, 10 of those teams finished .500 or below.
The four outlier seasons of above .500 football produced two MVP campaigns (’16 Ryan and ’18 Mahomes), one 2,000 yard rusher (’20 Henry), and a Mount Rushmore quarterback (’13 Rodgers) coming back from injury just to lose in the NFC wild-card round.
Suppose the expectations were for Cousins to be the MVP of the league in either ’20 or ’21. In that case, folks are well within their right to criticize Cousins for his inability to elevate the Minnesota Vikings the way Ryan and Mahomes did theirs — with the help of two of the best offensive minds in the NFL today.
But if expectations were properly set for the Vikings’ quarterback alongside Gary and Klint Kubiak over the past two seasons, history has shown that it is an extremely big ask for a quarterback to play winning football when their defense is as bad as the Vikings’ has been over the past two years.
And for those who remain skeptical of Cousins, I encourage you to call NBC this upcoming weekend and ask Drew Brees why he couldn’t elevate his Saints in ’15 or ’16.
*An original version of this post misstated Cousins’ record as the starter. We apologize for the error.