Kirk Cousins and The Elusive “It-Factor”

One of the most common criticisms of Kirk Cousins is that he doesn’t have the “it-factor.” The “it-factor,” in essence, refers to an athlete’s ability to elevate in the biggest moments. Von Miller’s Super Bowl performance comes to mind, as does Nick Foles’s performance for Philadelphia when they won. Tom Brady is another good example.

As a fourth-round pick, though, Kirk Cousins has far exceeded expectations. He has already been in the league for eight seasons, and he has been a full-time starter for the last five. Over the past five years, Cousins has averaged impressive numbers: a 68.06 completion percentage, 4215 passing yards, 27 passing touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.

Perhaps most importantly, Cousins orchestrated a game-winning drive against the New Orleans Saints to secure a win in last season’s playoffs. His throws to Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph were tremendous. This was perhaps the clearest time in his NFL career that Kirk Cousins firmly demonstrated an “it-factor.”

Minnesota’s Turnover

The problem, though, is that expectations are continually changing, and many Vikings fans (and NFL fans as a whole) believe that Cousins has fallen short of expectations.

According to Over The Cap, Cousins is the seventh highest paid quarterback, averaging 33 million per year. The issue, of course, is that Cousins hasn’t played like a top ten quarterback in some of the biggest moments in his career. Putting up three touchdowns against the Seahawks in primetime is much different than putting up three touchdowns against the Jets in the early afternoon.

Over his first couple seasons with the Vikings, Cousins relied on a strong defense and run game. While Mike Zimmer’s desire to have an elite run game and defense likely hasn’t changed, the Vikings are facing some significant challenges. Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse, Linval Joseph, and Everson Griffen have all found new teams. Dalvin Cook heads into the season with the unresolved contract hanging over his head.

Like every NFL team, the Vikings will respond to these challenges by trying to highlight their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. For this strategy to work, though, Cousins will need to elevate his play so that he can be consistently excellent against strong teams.

The Seattle Example

The Seattle Seahawks are the team that the Vikings want to become. They have a defensive-minded head coach and have gone to two Super Bowls in the past ten years, winning one. They’ve been consistently excellent over the past decade because of an elite defense and run game. It’s easy to see why the Vikings should be trying to replicate Seattle.

Russell Wilson has been their QB throughout this stretch. Not altogether unlike Cousins, Wilson has far exceeded the expectations for a mid-round quarterback. Unlike Cousins, Wilson has continued to exceed expectations as his career has progressed.

Statistically, Cousins and Wilson are comparable. Over the past five seasons, Wilson also has impressive averages: a 65.16 completion percentage, 3956 passing yards, 31 touchdown passes, and 8.4 interceptions. A side-by-side comparison suggests that Cousins and Wilson – both of whom were drafted in the mid-rounds of the 2012 draft – have performed at similar levels in their careers:

Five Year Averages:

  • KC: 68.06 comp. %, 4215 yards, 27 TDs, 10 INTs
  • RS: 65.16 comp. %, 3956.8 yards, 31 TDs, 8.4 INTs

These statistics don’t tell the whole story. If Wilson throws a touchdown on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, then that touchdown is far, far more valuable than most. If Cousins throws a touchdown late when the game is out of reach, then that touchdown is essentially meaningless. The stats are the same, but they mean completely different things. Context is everything.

Seattle’s Turnover

Over the past couple seasons, the Seahawks went into a transition that is similar to what the Vikings are undergoing. Their elite secondary – led by Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas – are no longer in Seattle. Michael Bennett isn’t creating havoc along the defensive line. These subtractions are difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, the Seahawks navigated these departures with aplomb, largely due to Wilson’s ability to elevate his play.

Pro Football Focus ranked Wilson as the best quarterback last season. In their Top 101 players from the season, Wilson finished third overall. Cousins ranks 79th. In their All-Decade Top 101, PFF ranks Wilson at 33rd. Cousins isn’t on the list. In their Top 50 Players going into the 2020 season, Wilson ranks 7th. Cousins isn’t on the list.

PFF rankings aren’t everything, but they do point toward an important reality. Russell Wilson is far better than Kirk Cousins primarily because he possesses an “it-factor,” a swagger that has allowed him to be consistently great.

If they’re going to make this transition a retool rather than a rebuild, the Vikings will need Cousins to become an elite quarterback.

Cousins’ Progress and Minnesota’s 2017 Magic

Perhaps the most important reason why 2017 was so compelling was Case Keenum. Keenum, though considerably less talented, is similar to Wilson insofar as he regularly beats quality teams (at least he did in 2017). During the 2017 season, Keenum beat Atlanta and Los Angeles (both playoff teams). He had five divisional wins. He also threw the touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs that is now known as the Minneapolis Miracle. In 2017, Keenum had an “it-factor,” a confident swagger that allowed him to elevate the Vikings in big games.

For the Vikings to succeed in the 2020 season, Cousins will need to consistently perform in critical moments. An elite quarterback can cover many faults, as Peyton Manning’s and Aaron Rodgers’s careers demonstrate. The Vikings roster has some pretty obvious faults. The offensive line will likely struggle. There are going to be issues with the coverage as the young corners adjust to the NFL. The offense will likely miss having Diggs, and the defensive line looks like a work in progress. All of these issues won’t matter, though, if Kirk Cousins shows he has the “it-factor” by delivering clutch performances in the biggest moments.

The Vikings know Cousins needs to elevate his play. Mike Zimmer said this week that he expects Cousins to improve by performing in clutch situations. Zimmer hopes that “when we get to the end of ball games, go win. That’s what everyone wants out of a quarterback is to go win games in the fourth quarter.” That’s really what it comes down to, folks. Kirk Cousins can show he has the “it-factor” by orchestrating wins in this season’s clutch, critical moments.