A Kirk Cousins Myth Was Busted

Kirk Cousins Riddle
Sep 30, 2022; Thundridge, United Kingdom; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins at press conference during practice at Hanbury Manor. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

There is not a day without heated debates about Kirk Cousins on social media. The minds are made up. Some think he’s a fantastic quarterback because of statistics, others are convinced teams can’t win games with him because of invisible and unprovable intangibles.

He can’t win big games, shrinks in primetime, and just doesn’t have “it” are common talking points of anti-Cousins folks. But one of their narratives just took a big hit.

A Kirk Cousins Myth Was Busted

A Kirk Cousins Myth Was Busted
Dec 17, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) and guard Austin Schlottmann (65) warm up before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

His playing style is an interesting one, as he is a throwback to the good old pocket passers. Those are slowly disappearing from the NFL and either mobile quarterbacks with insane athleticism take their places like Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson, and Justin Fields, or passers who are excellent scramblers and can make plays outside of the pocket with their arms. Patrick Mahomes and the fabulous circles he runs around defenders before making a play with his arm is the prototype of that.

Cousins doesn’t do that. He has an occasional Kirk Vick moment like his rushing touchdown against the Cardinals last year but he likes to stay in the pocket Tom Brady style. He is an accurate passer with decent arm strength and underrated but limited athleticism.

However, a common narrative is his tendency to throw the checkdown even when he is not pressured just because that’s who he is. A pass to the fullback or a simple throw into the receiver in the flat despite having someone wide open down the field is his thing, at least according to many observers. PFF’s latest article is playing advocate and myth-buster for Cousins in that exact subject. Lauren Gray started by explaining why QBs throw checkdowns and what the problem can be and it is a perfect summary.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with checkdown passes — the best quarterbacks in the league employ them regularly, and they can be vital to an offense’s success and efficiency — but quarterbacks should never be too keen on them.

Checkdowns are designed to generate a positive play out of a negative situation. Elite coverage or unexpected pressure can disrupt a passing play’s timing and erase the opportunity for a bigger play, and checkdowns allow signal-callers to still generate yardage rather than throw the ball away or take a sack.

The problems arise when quarterbacks are too quick to hit their checkdown options, which fails to allow bigger plays time to develop.

Lauren Gray, PFF
Year 1 of the O'Connell Era
Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) passes the ball against the New York Giants during the fourth quarter of a wild card game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

The Cousins criticism is that he too frequently passes up big plays to take the safe one. It is viewed as a generally bad thing but checkdowns can get three positive yards rather than taking a seven-yard loss on a sack or not gaining anything by throwing the ball to the ground. It often is the smart play. Regardless, Cousins is, in fact, not a checkdown-merchant, as he is often titled and the numbers back it up.

Gray ranked the 15 passers with the highest checkdown-rate in 2022 and added:

Quarterbacks with high checkdown rates tend to develop reputations for being “game managers” more so than “playmakers.” 

Cousins is often called ‘game manager’ but he is not part of the list. And it is not even close. Cousins’ rate is 5.9%, he threw 38 checkdowns on 643 pass attempts. To qualify for the list of the top-15 checkdown-merchants, it requires to have an 8.3% like Aaron Rodgers. His 5.9% ranked him as the QB with the seventh-lowest rate in 2022.

On third downs, Cousins ranks as the QB with the 15th most checkdowns but his rate doesn’t change significantly. It slightly increases to 6.5%.

Kirk Cousins may round out the highest checkdown rate on third downs (6.5%), but he still does not check down often. Cousins, like Prescott, generated a lot of success on third down in general, finishing third in third-down yardage (1,205) and leading the league in third-down touchdown passes (14). He didn’t throw as many interceptions (four) as Prescott, but he took more sacks (21, third most). Tight end T.J. Hockenson was Cousins’ second-most-targeted receiver on third downs (28), but he was the recipient of only two checkdowns.

Lauren Gray, PFF
Vikings Face Need for Kirk
Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) gets instruction from head coach Kevin O’Connell in the first quarter game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports.

The high total numbers can be attributed to the playcalling of Kevin O’Connell. Minnesota passed more than any other team on third downs except the Chargers and the Buccaneers, in part because that is O’Connell’s style but also having to complete comebacks and having low running success on early downs didn’t help. It should also be noted that Cousins didn’t rank among the 15 QBs with the highest checkdown-rate in 2021 either. The 2022 number was not a fluke. Getting the ball out under pressure despite a defender hitting him is one of Cousins’ strengths and should be viewed as such.

Cousins will have a different-looking receiving corps in the upcoming season. The Vikings replaced veteran Adam Thielen with the selection of Jordan Addison in the first round. He will also be helped once again by having Justin Jefferson, a player who is open on most plays, and T.J. Hockenson who can be a serious threat in the middle of the field.

As previously mentioned, checkdowns are a valuable asset in the passing game, and Cousins, a smart veteran, knows when to use that option. While he doesn’t run around behind the line of scrimmage and throw splashy no-look passes, it doesn’t mean that he is a player that relies on checkdowns too often.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt