Those who doubt Cousins are certain he lacks something essential to great quarterback play that black-and-white measurables can’t reveal. Those who back him believe he could win the Super Bowl in the right surroundings. Maybe his ineffable qualities drag down his team. Or maybe “Kirk Cousins fails the eye test” is just code for “the Vikings have a bad defense and I don’t want to admit Kirk Cousins is really good.”
This season, Cousins has more yards than Josh Allen, more touchdowns than Dak Prescott, better yards per attempt than Tom Brady and fewer interceptions than Aaron Rodgers. He has thrown the same number of touchdowns (25) as Patrick Mahomes with seven fewer interceptions (three). It should be easy to celebrate a player with those credentials. It is also easy to mock a quarterback who lined up behind the right guard instead of the center on one of his season’s most important plays.
Cousins’s latest chance to bridge the divide between his individual stats and the Vikings’ 5-7 record will come Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Minnesota will try to revive its fading playoff hopes four days after one of the ghastliest losses of the season, a 29-27 defeat Sunday to the previously winless Detroit Lions.
In 2018 free agency, Cousins signed a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract that the Vikings restructured this past offseason into a two-year, $66 million extension, a gaudy salary that colors the discussion of Cousins. It is possible — and will become likely if Minnesota loses Thursday night — that Cousins will end the fourth season of that megabucks contract with a single playoff victory.
“It’s the world we live in,” Cousins told reporters this week when asked about quarterbacks being judged on their team’s record. “There’s obviously a deeper understanding where you can watch tape and you can look at metrics and you can understand variables that affect winning. There’s all those things that require a deeper dive. If it was a surface-level wins, losses, then [General Manager] Rick Spielman and the scouting staff would be out of a job because it would be so easy.”
Cousins has no statistical deficiencies and almost no traditional category in which he is not elite. He ranks fifth in completion percentage, sixth in yards, tied for fifth in touchdown passes and second in quarterback rating. He does not undermine his production with negative plays — Cousins has the lowest interception percentage in the NFL and is third lowest in sack percentage.
If there are any troubling indicators hidden in the dark beneath basic statistics, they are too concealed for advanced metrics to illuminate them. Analytics site Pro Football Focus grades Cousins as the third-best quarterback in the NFL this season, behind Brady and Kyler Murray. Football Outsiders’ quarterback DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) metric ranks Cousins second. The Vikings rank fourth in the league in expected points added on quarterback dropbacks.
Even the stats that should reveal his clutch shortcomings indicate the opposite. He has executed game-winning drives in three of Minnesota’s five victories; only four quarterbacks have more. Cousins’s passer rating in the fourth quarter of one-score games is 112.9, second in the NFL behind Rodgers. And yet Cousins is viewed with skepticism — as a source of that 5-7 record rather than a victim.
“Kirk Cousins is overrated,” said one NFL executive whose team played the Vikings this year and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss another team’s player. “He can’t finish. He’s a great guy. Takes it very seriously. He’s got the body, mind and spirit — he’s got all those things you want in that position. But he doesn’t have enough arm talent. There’s a reason why he was taken in the fourth round. He’s just a guy. When [stuff] breaks down and adversity strikes and you got to extend the play, he can’t do it.”
That is far from consensus within the NFL. Former NFL quarterback Chris Simms, now an NBC Sports analyst, called Cousins, “grossly underappreciated.” Simms does not consider him a superstar on the level of Mahomes or Allen, the type of quarterback who can turn a broken play into a 20-yard gain through physical genius.
“But Kirk Cousins is at or near the top of the next group of guys down,” Simms said. “You can win a Super Bowl with Kirk Cousins. There’s no doubt about it. There’s certainly been less talented players to win Super Bowls.”
The ways in which the Vikings’ defense has let down Cousins are obvious. The Vikings this year have averaged 23.4 points in their losses. On Sunday, Cousins threw a go-ahead touchdown pass with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter, only for the Vikings to yield a touchdown drive to Lions quarterback Jared Goff, culminating with bafflingly soft coverage at the goal line.
To Simms, Cousins also has been failed by his offense. Not the personnel, which with running back Dalvin Cook and wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen is some of the NFL’s best. But the offensive scheme deployed by offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, Simms said, does not take advantage of Cousins’s strengths.
“Where he is really good, and what I would say is top-notch, is his ability to read and recognize a defense and assess the situation and pull the trigger and throw the ball as quickly as anybody in football,” Simms said. “But their offense, it’s as simple as it gets. There’s a reason we see lulls in his play. You stop Dalvin Cook in the running game, their offense doesn’t have much to offer schematically that stresses any teams out.”
San Francisco 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan and Los Angeles Rams Coach Sean McVay, both of whom overlapped with Cousins in Washington, have openly coveted Cousins in the past. Simms, who is close with Shanahan, explained that they see in Cousins a quarterback with the smarts and physical capability to build out complex passing offenses, who can absorb new concepts and plays “like a robot.” To Simms, the Vikings have not tapped into that capability.
“They got like seven plays,” Simms said. “ … It’s hard for him to look great because I would tell you the scheme doesn’t take advantage of all that he has to offer.”
It is possible Cousins soon will find a new scheme. The Vikings have marshaled resources to build a contender for years without a deep playoff push. If they decide to rebuild, Cousins’s contract does not include a no-trade clause. An acquiring team would owe him $35 million, and the Vikings would pay a $10 million dead cap hit.
The NFL executive said, in his opinion, the Vikings would not be able to move him without swallowing money. Simms also believes the Vikings would have difficulty moving Cousins, for a different reason: McVay and Shanahan already have longtime answers at quarterback, and other franchises would “chicken out” to make Cousins their quarterback because of his public reputation.
“It’s a team sport, and we’ve boiled it down to one guy the last decade or so,” Simms added. “And it’s ludicrous. Kirk Cousins is on the pecking order, like, problem number 47 with the Vikings. But we’re going to blame him. It’s wrong. Phil Simms didn’t beat John Elway in the Super Bowl because he’s better than John Elway.”
Cousins understands the primacy winning takes, rightfully or not, in the evaluation of a quarterback’s career. Asked this week about Ben Roethlisberger, his counterpart Thursday night, Cousins unwittingly framed why others view him as pedestrian.
“You’re really just focused on winning and knowing that’s why a player is going to have a great career at the end of the day is the wins,” Cousins said. “The number one thing you lead with when you talk about Ben’s career is you start with two Super Bowl titles.”