Kirk Cousins Had Nothing to Do with the Vikings “Three-and-Out” Woes

Klint Kubiak Could Land on His Feet Sooner than You Think
Kirk Cousins and Klint Kubiak

That sect of Vikings fandom that despises Kirk Cousins had yet another quibble with the Captain this week. It seems everyone got ahold of a Football Outsiders subscription because the entire population has been screaming from the rooftops about an alarmingly high rate of Vikings “three-and-out” drives in 2021. With this latest realization, surely that is an indictment on Kirk Cousins and the Vikings for being unable to move the ball through the air, right? Not so fast.

Sure, no one wants to see drives end in just three plays. We can agree on that. And yes, sometimes this can be due to a QB’s inability to move the ball. For example, the Houston Texans were the only team with a higher three-and-out rate than the Vikings this season. They had the seventh-lowest net yards per pass attempt in the league, essentially on par with the Detroit Lions and New York Jets. Seems like we can put a lot of these struggles on the QB play.

Kirk Cousins Third Down Stats

As for Kirk Cousins though, moving the ball just simply wasn’t the problem. The Vikings QB ranked among the top-10 of all players in yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, yards per catch, and yards per game. That does not scream of a QB that is incapable of moving the ball. It actually suggests a player that, at least most of the time, was elite at moving the ball.

You might counter with an argument such as “well sure, he can move the ball sometimes, but on third downs he struggles”. Again, not so fast. On third down, Cousins had the fourth-most passing yards of any QB this season, third-most passing TDs, and among starters, again ranked 10th in yards per third down attempt, per The Football Database. Still doesn’t seem like a QB that struggled to move the ball.

The Real Vikings Killer

So, what’s the problem? Well, again looking at TFD’s statistics, guess who had the most third down pass attempts with 11+ yards to gain? If you guessed Captain Kirk, you’d be right. In 16 games, Cousins threw a whopping 40 passing attempts in 3rd-and-11+ situations. That’s an average of 2.5 times per game. The second highest rate was Joe Burrow at just over two per game. So, it’s clear the Vikings offense had a tendency of moving backwards on their opening two plays of a series.

What would cause that, you may ask? Let me point you, for the millionth time, to the offensive line. During the regular season, the Minnesota Vikings offense was called for the most holding penalties of any unit in the NFL. The league average was 21 per team; the Vikings had 31, led by Oli Udoh who had the second-most in the entire league with nine.

We saw penalties kill the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday in their Wild Card loss to San Francisco. It’s made many question whether or not Kellen Moore would make a good head coach or not. Penalties were the killer of the Minnesota Vikings during the regular season, too. The Vikings lost a ridiculous 1043 total yards throughout the season because of penalties on the offense, defense, and special teams, for 61.35 yards per game. If that was a running back’s rushing per game average, said player would have been 15th among all RBs this year. Their net penalty yardage was -15.1 per game, second-worst only behind the 49ers.

Obviously the three-and-out average is going to be high when you have plays being negated by penalties so often. If you let a defense play prevent coverage on third down 2-3 times per game, you’re not going to convert too many of them. The thing that Vikings fans should be frustrated about is the fact that if you give Cousins a manageable third down, he goes back to being a top-10 QB. On third down pass attempts with 4-7 yards to gain, Cousins is once again top-10 in yards, yards per attempt, first downs, touchdowns, and he set the pace in 20+ yard gains with 6.

When the Walls Weren’t Crumbling, Kirk Cousins Thrived

Finally, I have one final nail in the coffin for this argument. Undisciplined teams with high penalty totals expose themselves on the road more often than at home. This was certainly the case for the Vikings. 20 of their 31 offensive holding calls came on the road, again the most in the NFL. They also had the fourth-most false start penalties on the road with 13.

That means with a total of 33 flags between just these two penalties, the Vikings offense moved backwards an average of 3-4 times per road game. At home though, they performed much better in this department, totaling just 13 false start/offensive holding penalties. And wouldn’t you know it, the Vikings record suggests this as a culprit for the season result. They went 3-6 on the road, and 5-3 at home. Side note, guess who had the 10th-best passer rating at home this season? Kirk Cousins.

My summary? Stop putting the blame on Kirk Cousins for undisciplined o-line play and horrible play-calling. When he didn’t have to deal with the walls crumbling in around him, Cousins was a top-10 QB on all accounts. Does he get paid more than he should? Sure. That doesn’t mean he’s the cause of every, or even most, of the Vikings problems in 2021.