As you watch the NFL playoffs this weekend, feel free to scream as you realize again what you already feared last weekend: Except for Tom Brady, there isn’t a quarterback in the postseason who is significantly better than Kirk Cousins.
As I will show statistically later in this column, in the whole NFL only Aaron Rodgers joins Brady as entirely out of Cousins’s class. Over the past three years, Cousins has proved that he is in a clump of a half-dozen excellent QBs — eyelash close in total productivity — who compose the next-highest quarterback rank.
But as this weekend will underline, most of them have produced their numbers with gifted supporting casts of which Cousins only can dream in D.C. All the Kirk-comparable QBs on view in the next two days, such as Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger, have surrounding casts so electric that you wonder, “What would Kirk do if he could throw to Julio Jones or Antonio Brown, not Jamison Crowder, or simply hand it to Le’Veon Bell or Mark Ingram, not Samaje Perine?”
The Washington passer, who’s likely to leave D.C. in the coming months, could hardly have a better advertisement for himself than last week’s 10-3 Jaguars win over Buffalo, in which Blake Bortles and Tyrod Taylor threw 60 passes, many of them simple checkdowns, for a sickly 194 net passing yards. How many fans in Jacksonville and Buffalo are thinking, “Get us that free agent Cousins”?
Or recall the collapse of Kansas City, held scoreless in the second half of a 22-21 loss to Tennessee, as quarterback Alex Smith could generate nothing despite having the NFL’s leading rusher, Kareem Hunt (1,327 yards), behind him and Tyreek Hill (1,183 receiving yards) at wide receiver. The Chiefs’ dilemma? They had lost 1,038-yard tight end Travis Kelce.
What would Cousins, reduced in his final game to playing behind two third-string linemen, handing to fifth-string runner Kapri Bibbs and throwing to what-route-will-he-decide-to-run receiver Josh Doctson, give to have such “limitations”?
From Denver to Jacksonville, from Buffalo to the Meadowlands — and maybe even in Pittsburgh, if Big Ben retires — teams will crunch numbers, study film and decide how many millions to offer Cousins in a couple of months, after the Redskins decide which tag to apply to their free agent.
Just how good is Cousins, who had “leading” rushers the past three years named Alfred Morris, Robert Kelley and Perine and who had a healthy quality receiving corps only in one season, 2016? Don’t get too nostalgic about DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. They averaged 1,023 receiving yards per man in 2016 but in 2015 only 653 apiece. When the jury reaches its verdict on Cousins, it will conclude that he usually acted alone.
Brees, Ryan and Roethlisberger have similar stats to Cousins and in some areas not as good, but they have Michael Thomas, Jones and Brown, who caught 1,245, 1,444 and 1,533 yards worth of passes this year.
The Redskins have an atrocious record for 25 years in identifying quality wide receivers. I have written that column before. Cousins is just the latest victim. His top three receivers the past three years had 7,236 yards. Brees’s top trios had 9,010. Ryan and Roethlisberger have Jones and Brown, who have caught 4,724 and 4,651 yards of passes the past three years. Cousins’s top receiver (Crowder) has 2,240.
Cousins is not a “good” quarterback, as the self-protective orthodoxy of some Redskins fans maintain. It’s much more likely he is one of the next great NFL quarterbacks, along with young Carson Wentz and perhaps Jared Goff. Cousins and Russell Wilson, both 29, are headed for fine duels, too.
Let’s look at three key measures of quarterback excellence over the past three years. One is traditional: quarterback rating. The top six are Brady (105.0), Brees (102.1), Wilson (98.9), Ryan (98.7), Rodgers (98.4) and Cousins (97.5).
Some consider Passer Rating Differential to be “the mother of all NFL stats” because it is such a good predictor of won-lost record and postseason success. If your team starts with a passer rating of 97.5 (Cousins), you just need to build a quality pass defense with a passer rating under the league average (85.1 in 2017) to virtually ensure a playoff team with fine January chances.
Let me introduce two new stats, which are tweaks on old ones. First, touchdowns vs. turnovers. No, not the usual touchdown passes vs. interceptions. I prefer all touchdowns, by pass and run, vs. all turnovers, interceptions and lost fumbles.
Why should Cam Newton’s 21 rushing scores from 2015 to 2017 be ignored when Philip Rivers has zero? Also, let’s acknowledge the gap between a fumbler, such as Bortles, with 14 lost in three years, and a tightfisted Roethlisberger (just three).
Looked at this way, Brady, with a 99-22 touchdown-to-turnover ratio, and Rodgers, 92-30, are almost in a different quarterback universe. The next most impressive group, with tons of touchdowns but half as many turnovers (or fewer), are Brees (97-40), Wilson (94-38), Newton (97-47) and Cousins (94-47).
Some QBs have superb ratios but are so ultra-conscious of ball security that they generate fewer scores, such as Smith (69-25) and Taylor (65-21).
The leaders in total touchdowns are Brady at 99, Brees and Newton at 97, and Cousins and Wilson at 94. If Rodgers hadn’t missed nine games this season, he would be No. 1.
Next, let’s cook up a new stat that consolidates all the plays in which the quarterback’s performance defines the outcome: passes, sacks and rushes. Who averages the most yards per play when all types of plays are combined? In other words, who’s best at gaining big gobs of passing yardage while also avoiding sacks, scrambling for gains and even running on purpose?
Ryan, the 2016 MVP, is the leader over the past three years (7.14 yards per play), followed by Roethlisberger, Brees, Brady, Cousins and Rivers. For total yardage (passing plus rushing, minus sacks), the leaders are Brees, Rivers, Ryan and Cousins.
There’s that guy Cousins again.
If Cousins’s stats (97.5 QB rating, 94-47 touchdown-to-turnover ratio and 6.77 yards per play) are elite, what constitutes a backup QB who will kill you as a starter? That would be cross-your-fingers Nick Foles, who will have to start for the Eagles on Saturday. In the past three years, in almost 500 passes, he’s at 75.3, 16-to-16 and 5.19. That’s the make-do profile, such as Brock Osweiler (76.3, 34-to-30, 5.40), Blaine Gabbert (77.5, 24-to-22, 5.38) or, in D.C., Colt McCoy’s entire career (78.9, 28-to-26, 5.35).
The clear message of these numbers is that Washington’s owner, president and coach should all hug Cousins every day — roses are always nice — and offer him enormous piles of money while he is still technically in town. Recently, Cousins said he wanted to spend his future playing for a franchise that was a “winner” and gave him a sense of “peace,” plus lots of money, too. That doesn’t sound like D.C.
But you never absolutely know. However, if Cousins gets away, fans can still watch him play in the future. Probably deep into January. Maybe February, too.