Vikings

Is Kirk Cousins Underrated?

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

I get it. You’ve had it up to here with Kirk Cousins as the quarterback of your beloved Minnesota Vikings. His contracts have taken approximately nine years off your life. His nerdy persona doesn’t exactly scream Most Important Position in Sports. The career-long dance with .500 football makes him the personification of mediocrity.

Over the summer there’s been a handful of reputable articles in which NFL quarterbacks are ranked as we embark on the 2022 season. Most recently, The Athletic’s Mike Sando released his annual Quarterback Tiers piece, which includes 50 votes from various NFL executives and coaches. It didn’t necessarily surprise anyone that Cousins found himself slotted at No. 15, trailing Matt Ryan, Kyler Murray, Derek Carr, and Dak Prescott as quarterbacks outside the top 10.

Before we go any further, all I ask is that you hear me out on why this No. 15 ranking just might not be warranted for Minnesota’s polarizing signal caller.

It’s no secret that passer rating is a stat that favors Cousins. After all, he currently owns the seventh-highest career passer rating in the history of the National Football League.

Does that mean Cousins is the seventh-best quarterback ever? Of course not. But before you pick up a pitchfork that was left behind at the Pro Football Focus offices and join in on the crusade against passer rating in the 21st century, it’s important to remember that eight of the past nine NFL MVPs have finished top-three in passer rating in their respective MVP campaigns.

Yes, passer rating’s infatuation with Cousins continued last season, as Cousins was tied with Russell Wilson for fourth-best.

Was Cousins the fourth-best quarterback in the NFL last year? Absolutely not. However, was Aaron Rodgers the best quarterback in the NFL last year? That might be a better question for his 2021 NFL MVP trophy to answer.

While passer rating might be overly kind to Cousins — at least in the court of public opinion — it’s also kind to all of the elite-level quarterbacks in the game today.

On the surface, Cousins’ 103.1 passer rating marked him as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the game last year. So let’s dive a little deeper down the passer-rating rabbit hole, shall we?

Theoretically, elite quarterbacks should differentiate themselves from the good-to-great quarterbacks in high-pressure circumstances/situations. For example, Rodgers led the NFL last season with a 109.7 passer rating on the road. That shouldn’t surprise too many folks, right?

How about the quarterbacks who stood out on third down last year? Looks to me like the elites are near the top of this list too.

What about the quarterbacks who elevated their game in the most important part of the field — the red zone?

Accounting for all three of these critical situations, Cousins was the only quarterback who had a 100-plus passer rating in each situation. Carr, who was ranked No. 12 in Sando’s piece, didn’t record a 100-plus rating in any of these situations. And Ryan, who also ranked ahead of Cousins, barely managed to crack a 100-plus passer rating in just one of these difficult situations.

How about Wilson? You know, the newfound champion of “Let’s Ride” notoriety? Not a single 100-plus passer rating in any of these circumstances. Shouldn’t a top-eight quarterback — according to Sando’s annual piece — be elevating his game in at least one of these situations?

Unfortunately for the general consensus on Cousins, his ability to rise up in high-pressure moments doesn’t stop there. In fact, Cousins was the only quarterback in the NFL last year who posted a 100-plus passer rating in all of the following situations:

  • on the road (106.3 passer rating)
  • in the red zone (105.4 passer rating)
  • on third down (104.5 passer rating)
  • on third-and-10-plus (127.1 passer rating)
  • on fourth down (116.3 passer rating)
  • in the fourth quarter (103.2 passer rating)
  • in overtime (117.1 passer rating)

On the topic of Cousins, Sando’s piece included this quote:

“‘I think he’s one of the more accurate passers in the league,’ a GM said. ‘For whatever reason, in big moments, big games, he’s not able to get it done.'”

This has long been the narrative on Cousins. But didn’t he put a serious dent in this narrative last season?

Last I checked, doesn’t Prescott — No. 11 in Sando’s piece — have a propensity for shrinking in critical moments? His 69.3 passer rating in a loss against the San Francisco 49ers at home in the wild-card round last year sure seems to indicate as much. Has the Cowboys’ quarterback ever won a playoff game on the road — let alone led a game-winning drive on the road in overtime? I can think of someone who has checked that box.

Let’s circle back a bit on this guy.

We already know that Wilson wasn’t among the elites last year when he was on the road (98.3 passer rating), on third down (91.1 passer rating), and in the red zone (83.8 passer rating). Can some of that be attributed to King Let’s Ride’s β€” formerly King Go Hawks’ β€” injury woes from last season? Possibly.

Let’s take a look at how Cousins stacks up against Wilson over the past two seasons. This is a particularly fun exercise simply because both quarterbacks had two dynamic receivers while playing for a defensive-minded dinosaur of a head coach.

2021:

  • Passer rating on the road
    • Cousins: 106.3
    • Wilson: 98.3
  • Passer rating on third down
    • Cousins: 104.5
    • Wilson: 91.1
  • Passer rating on third-and-10-plus
    • Cousins: 127.1
    • Wilson: 68.1
  • Passer rating in the red zone
    • Cousins: 105.4
    • Wilson: 83.8
  • Passer rating in the fourth quarter
    • Cousins: 103.2
    • Wilson: 88.1

2020:

  • Passer rating on the road
    • Cousins: 98.7
    • Wilson: 95.2
  • Passer rating on third down
    • Cousins: 99.1
    • Wilson: 81.7
  • Passer rating on third-and-10-plus
    • Cousins: 85.0
    • Wilson: 50.1
  • Passer rating in the red zone
    • Cousins: 109.5
    • Wilson: 96.6
  • Passer rating in the fourth quarter
    • Cousins: 117.3
    • Wilson: 93.5

Although the surface-level passer ratings showed Cousins and Wilson as peers last season, it’s apparent who the better quarterback has been over the past two years in critical situations. Wilson coming in at No. 8 in Sando’s piece is borderline laughable, especially when you consider that he’s experiencing a substantial downgrade in receiving weaponry from D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett to Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy.

Speaking of Cousins and Wilson as peers, take a look at who has the highest passer ratings in the NFL since 2019.

Which begs the question: Why is there such a noticeable gap between Wilson (No. 8) and Cousins (No. 15) in Sando’s piece?

PS: Do you actually think Wilson’s first-team All-Pro corniness resonates within the locker room of 52 other professional football players? Me neither.

As we near the finish line of this pursuit of truth regarding Cousins, let’s not forget that he led the NFL in passer rating on throws that traveled 20-plus air yards last season (minimum of 44 attempts).

When looking at data, it’s obvious that the national media and a vast majority of the football world are still clinging to certain narratives surrounding Cousins. Since the talking heads and/or the 50 executives/coaches that were polled in Sando’s piece are unable to give him his due flowers after everything he did last year, they’re more than likely hoping for regression in order to say, “See! I told you so!”

And since Cousins will be playing for a Sean McVay disciple in 2022, let’s take a look at how others have fared in their first seasons in this offense.

2017

(Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams)

  • Jared Goff: 100.5 passer rating (fifth in the NFL, up from 63.6 in 2016)

2019

(Former Rams’ OC Matt LaFleur with the Green Bay Packers)

  • Aaron Rodgers: 95.4 passer rating (down from 97.6 in 2018)
    • 2020: 121.5 passer rating (led the NFL, NFL MVP)
    • 2021: 111.9 passer rating (led the NFL, NFL MVP)

2021

(Former Rams’ QBs Coach Zac Taylor with the Cincinnati Bengals)

  • Joe Burrow‘s first full season as a starter: 108.3 passer rating (second in the NFL)

(Sean McVay with the Rams)

  • Matthew Stafford: 102.9 passer rating (sixth in the NFL, up from 96.3 in 2020)

If history has taught us anything about McVay and his Millennial Minions, the expectation should be for Cousins to be even better this season.

Put aside passer rating for a moment. Not that anyone asked for it, but for our grand finale, here are my top-15 NFL quarterbacks in 2022.

1.) Josh Allen (I wonder who the Buffalo Bills’ QB coach is this year…)

2.) Tom Brady

3.) Aaron Rodgers

4.) Patrick Mahomes

5.) Matthew Stafford

6.) Justin Herbert

7.) Joe Burrow

8.) Kyler Murray

9.) Lamar Jackson

10.) Kirk Cousins

11.) Russell Wilson

12.) Dak Prescott

13.) Deshaun Watson

14.) Derek Carr

15.) Matt Ryan

Don’t forget to bring your pitchforks, Skoldiers.

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