Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski
Kirk Cousins spoke candidly on the penultimate day of Minnesota Vikings OTAs. In stark contrast to last year’s Super Bowl-or-bust campaign that placed massive expectations on the free agent signee’s shoulders, the humbled quarterback addressed reporters with a different tone than the year prior. Instead of the missing piece meant to get the Vikings over the top, his job in 2019 is to restore them to relevance, and his comments reflected that.
Entering the middle year of his groundbreaking three-year, $84 million deal, Cousins confessed to being a “.500 quarterback” for his career. Satisfaction in 2019 will no doubt hinge on his ability to break the status quo that has yet to earn him a double-digit-win season as starter.
During his remarks, Cousins alluded to two areas that could help him elevate his game in 2019: decreasing fumbles and emphasizing play-action. The first is an area where Cousins has struggled throughout his career; the second is an area where he’s consistently excelled. It only makes sense that if Cousins could mitigate his fumbling difficulty and increase his reliance on a known strength, the results could be positive for the Vikings.
Let’s look more closely at both areas.
Cousins’ fumbling issues arose early in the 2018 season and were most prevalent leading up to the bye week. The quarterback fumbled eight times and lost six of them in the first nine games, including two early turnovers that set the tone in a disappointing loss to Buffalo, a critical late-game fumble in a loss to the Los Angeles Rams and a fumble against the Cardinals that resulted in an Arizona touchdown, though the Vikings won the game.
After being grilled about his poor ball security, Cousins legitimately made improvements in that area after the Week 10 bye. In the seven games post-bye, he fumbled just once — a scoop-and-score during a Monday night game at Seattle once the game was already in the Seahawks’ favor. Some may say that Cousins’ improvement in that area came at the cost of becoming too conservative. His touchdown-to-interception ratio, adjusted completion percentage and passer rating all dipped in the final seven games as the Vikings went 3-4 and missed the playoffs.
The woes in the first half of the season, however, were enough to perpetuate a building narrative that Cousins is a chronic fumbler. The quarterback then reached out to the team’s analytics department to get the full story.
“I’ll ask them, ‘Hey, the fumbles last year, what was the story there?'” Cousins told reporters. “They said your actual fumbles were pretty on par, which again, you want to be on the lower half of the league, right, so to be on par still isn’t good enough. But they said the problem is yours were lost, the other team recovers them, whereas some guys will fumble and they’ll fall on it or a lineman will fall on it.”
Fumble luck is a real thing in football and usually regresses/progresses to the mean, at some point. If you consider fumbles to be a 50/50 proposition, Cousins was at the wrong end of fumble luck in 2018, coughing up the ball nine times and losing it seven times (78 percent). His nine fumbles tied for 10th most in the NFL — actually the best ranking of his career. But his seven lost tied him with Derek Carr for most in the league.
In the previous three seasons Cousins fumbled the ball 13, nine and 12 times, respectively, putting him in the league’s top five. But in those seasons his percentage lost sat at 28 percent (2017), 33 percent (2016) and 33 percent (2015). It’s safe to say his good fumble luck finally ran out in 2018.
“Those are good statistics [to know],” said Cousins, “and then you go back and you look with your coaches at what are the fundamentals that I can change that can prevent what those numbers are saying.”
By being top 10 in fumbles in all four years as a starting quarterback — and top five in three of those years — Cousins puts himself at risk to hurt his team when his fumble luck goes the wrong way. While recovering fumbles is arguably a coin flip, there are practices that can improve ball security, which Cousins may have implemented in order to improve in the second half of last season.
A look at all nine of Cousins’ fumbles in 2018 shows that three times he had the ball knocked out from behind while stepping up or fleeing the pocket and trying to make a play. Twice on those plays the ball was recovered for defensive touchdowns by Arizona’s Budda Baker and Seattle’s Justin Coleman.
Twice Cousins just got blindsided in the pocket by rushers off the edge. His pivotal lost fumble at Los Angeles was on an outside rush. Same goes for his second lost fumble against Buffalo, a game where Jerry Hughes dominated left tackle Riley Reiff.
Those are the only five Cousins fumbles that were forced by the defense, which should be fairly encouraging for Vikings fans, assuming Minnesota can clean up its self-imposed errors.
For instance, Cousins dropped a snap against Buffalo that he ended up recovering, giving him three fumbles for that game.
His remaining three fumbles all occurred on lateral passes or pitches which brought into question decision-making and execution. The first against Philadelphia happened on a lateral pass dropped by Roc Thomas that the Eagles recovered. The second came against the Jets where Cousins inexplicably threw it laterally at Stefon Diggs’ feet, though Diggs alertly fell on it. The third came on a dropped pitch by Dalvin Cook against Detroit.
Eliminate the unforced errors and Cousins’ fumbling can be framed in more positive light. But it’s been enough of an issue throughout his career that he’ll need to show improvement once again for fans to believe he’s progressing.
Cousins has long been considered one of the premier play-action quarterbacks in the NFL, as elite cornerback Jalen Ramsey pointed out last offseason in a GQ article.
In his short time in Minnesota, Cousins has demonstrated an impressive understanding of how to make play-action work, evidenced by this nuanced response to a question in training camp last August.
“You want to watch tape of yourself from the camera angle being at linebacker level, so you want to see, ‘What does [my action] look like from a linebacker’s point of view,’ and then what does my run game look like from that point of view and how dissimilar or similar are they? If the right guard on a run play is firing off the ball and then on a play-action pass is setting, I can fake as hard as I want, the linebacker’s gonna feel that difference in the o-lineman’s demeanor, so making sure your lineman are firing off with low pad level even if they’re not going down the field to make a block to still give that illusion initially really helps.”
Cousins has increased his play-action attempts each year of his career, ending up with 131 last season. He had the league’s best completion percentage (77.1) and the fourth-best passer rating (116.1) on those throws, firing eight touchdowns and only two interceptions.
He has only finished out of the top five in play-action passer rating once in his career and, on average, increases his completion percentage by 6 percent per year on the play fake.
You can see why Cousins wants to do more of this.
“Our analytics department sent me a really good summary a couple weeks ago that just showed that play action is just effective, period, and you got to call it more,” Cousins said. “So I don’t know that it’s just me [who is successful]. I think any quarterback should be getting a lot of play-action opportunities just because the nature of what it does for your slowing down the pass rush and creating explosive plays and giving you outlets in the flat that are good easy throws for productive gains.”
It’s hard to deny that the best teams used play-action to their advantage in 2018. Three of the four quarterbacks who participated in the conference championships — Jared Goff (first), Tom Brady (second) and Patrick Mahomes (third) — used play-action more than any other quarterbacks last season, combining for 39 touchdowns, 10 interceptions. Playoff quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott were also in the top eight in frequency. Cousins was ninth.
Only eight qualifying quarterbacks had completion percentages that were lower with play-action than without.
In 2017, Brady (first), Case Keenum (third) and Blake Bortles (seventh) finished in the top seven in play-action frequency and found themselves in the conference title games.
“I think when you look at any numbers or analytics, I’ve been effective when play action plays are being called just traditionally,” said Cousins, “but then you look across the league, I think that’s the case.”
A healthier Cook at running back could also enhance the Vikings running game and increase their willingness to call play-action. In games where Cook had 10 or more carries last year, Cousins’ play-action completion percentage shot up to 79.7 percent, his passer rating to 130.8. With Cook getting a full offseason, there’s reason to believe play-action could get even better if the third-year running back can play 16 games.
“Everyone knows Kirk, that’s his thing,” said Cook. “We’ve got the backs to run the football to set Kirk up for what he wants to do, to set the offense up for what it wants to do. That’s gonna be a big piece to what we want to do. We’ve just got to run the football real good.”
For being, as he says, a “.500 quarterback,” Cousins shows a great deal of game-to-game inconsistency. Example: Last year he had five games with a passer rating below 90 and four games above 115.
Remarkably, though, those ups and downs have largely evened out over his career, and the resulting year-to-year stats have been eerily steady; play-action success and fumbling problems being no different.
But if Cousins can sustain the positive trend, which he has for four years, and either solve his fumbling woes or flip his fumble luck, it could go a long way towards reversing any negative narratives in Year 2 of his Vikings tenure.
Statistics via TeamRankings.com and Pro Football Focus.