Kirk Cousins Is Getting Better

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In 2018, the Minnesota Vikings landed Kirk Cousins as their franchise quarterback after a four-way preponderance of options involving Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, and Sam Bradford. One is now a backup quarterback with the Cleveland Browns, another an average starter in Carolina, and the latter a victim of early retirement. Despite some internal strife among fans on the legitimacy of Cousins as a long-term solution, he is undeniably the most profitable choice from the 2018 foursome.

Cousins was 30 years old when he went purple with a big contract to tout. In the 20 seasons prior to Cousins’ arrival to the Twin Cities (1998-2017), 16 quarterbacks started at least two games for the Vikings. Since the retirement of Fran Tarkenton in 1978, the franchise simply cannot nail down the quarterback spot once and for all. It has felt miraculous when Minnesota locks down a passer for three consecutive seasons – a feat recently accomplished by Cousins.

A plethora of various leaders within the Vikings organization has endorsed, been complicit with, or succumbed to perpetual quarterback roster turnover – for four decades. If you need something to “blame” for no Super Bowl glory, the lack of continuity at the quarterback is it – irrefutably.

The addition of Cousins in 2018 was theorized to stop the topsy-turvy bloodletting. Depending on your perspective, his presence on the roster has ended the “find a new guy” madness.

And, Cousins is improving as a football player.

Gradual QBR Improvement

Full disclosure: Kirk Cousins is not a QBR trailblazer. In the barrage of quarterback statistics offered by an assortment of sources (Passer Rating, PFF Grade, DVOA, etc.), QBR is not kind to Cousins. Most of the time, QBR exalts Cousins as a good-not-great quarterback, comparable to Jimmy Garoppolo or Derek Carr. He is always in the middle of the pack pertaining to QBR.

Each year with the Vikings, however, his QBR climbs. During his Viking maiden voyage, his QBR was 61.8 (one spot behind 2018 Deshaun Watson). In his playoff game-winning season of 2019, he stayed in the ballpark at 60.4 (two places ahead of rookie Kyler Murray). For the pandemic season, Cousins notched his best QBR to date – 63.2 (four rungs higher than Ben Roethlisberger).

QBR is never ultra-friendly to Cousins, but his 2020 performance was his best to date with the Vikings – an encouraging trend for the 32-year-old.

Career-High TD Passes

The marvel of Cousins’ touchdown-pass output under head coach Mike Zimmer is that the offense is blatantly a run-first operation. There is no sugarcoating it. Hell, Zimmer even advertises it and exudes pride while doing so.

Here is the perspective: Cousins set a career-high for touchdown passes (35) in 2020 on a team that threw the ball the sixth-least in the industry. The Chicago Bears ran the football the sixth-least, so imagine David Montgomery tabulating something around 1,400 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on a pass-first squad.

Of all 2020 quarterbacks, Cousins’ 516 pass attempts were the 15th-most in the NFL. His passing yards (4,265) were the eighth-most and his touchdown passes (35) were the sixth-most leaguewide. This is called efficiency.

Matt Ryan tossed the ball at his pass-catchers 626 times, a league-high. If Cousins was called upon to fling it that often, his statline would translate to 5,174 passing yards and 42 touchdowns. How does that sound for the pass-friendly modern NFL?

PFF Climbs Since 2018

If one is in the camp that QBR or raw stats cannot be trusted, then pivot to a grade-based system that Pro Football Focus offers. Cousins has improved in this realm since 2018, too.

His most underwhelming season per PFF since joining the Vikings was 2018, a season with an offense led by the eventually-fired John DeFilippo. He scored a 79.3 during his first year with the Vikings – 14th-best in the NFL. More recently in 2020, his PFF grade ascended to 83.9. That is the 10th-best in the business (if Dak Prescott is excluded from qualifying; 11th otherwise).

The ESPN-driven stats (QBR), raw stats (yards, TD passes, etc.), and independent grading (PFF) all indicate that Cousins is considerably better now than he was when he joined the Vikings. And, these incremental increases have happened with zero offensive-coordinator stability. When Week 1 of 2021 kicks off, Cousins will have his fourth offensive coordinator in four seasons in Minnesota.