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Kirk Cousins Is Putting Together An Under-The-Radar Elite Season

Eighteen months after Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer introduced Kirk Cousins to the media as his new quarterback and as the highest-paid player in NFL history, Cousins told the media that he wouldn’t be “playing quarterback here much longer” without significant improvement. At that point, after the second game of the season, Cousins had as many interceptions as touchdowns and had completed just over half of his passing attempts.

But since then, Cousins has been quietly elite.

No, he hasn’t juked defenders out of their skin like Lamar Jackson, and he isn’t on pace to throw for 5,000 yards like Dak Prescott. Cousins hasn’t created 75 percent of his team’s offense like Russell Wilson, or led his team to as many fourth-quarter comebacks as Jimmy Garoppolo.

In fact, it’s tough to point to any one thing Kirk Cousins does well … except execute his offense at an exceptional level.

His play has been efficient before: He had the league’s second-best completion rate last season, his first with the Vikings. But Cousins’s other stats weren’t as impressive, and the Vikings responded by firing their offensive coordinator after less than a year on the job.

But this year, Cousins is ranked in the top five of almost every major passing rate metric, and he’s sixth in the FiveThirtyEight quarterback Elo ratings. He’s done the little things right, made big plays, avoided bad mistakes and generated offense more effectively than he ever has before — and more so than almost any other quarterback in the league:

Kirk Cousins is having his best year yet

League rankings in key passer metrics for Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins

Season Comp. % TD % Int. % Yards per attempt Passer rating QBR DYAR*
2019 4 5 3 3 2 9 5
2018 2 17 8 24 10 16 13
2017 9 8 16 9 12 17 16
2016 8 16 12 3 7 6 3
2015 1 12 10 8 5 2 7

*Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement

Sources: Pro-Football-Reference.com, Football Outsiders

Cousins has matched the best version of himself, leading (or nearly leading) the league in completion rate and passer rating. But unlike 2016, when he threw for more yards at the expense of his efficiency ratings, or last year’s dink-and-dunk season, he’s added big gains to his game while reducing mistakes.

How? By doing everything the same way he’s always done, only better.

Cousins has never been a deep-ball, gunslinger type. In 2018, his raw yards per attempt average was so low that he finished only 10th in passing yards, despite completing more passes than all but two other quarterbacks.

He’s not suddenly airing it out this season, either. So far, he ranks 22nd in average air yards (7.6), so his throws are collectively shorter than those of most NFL starters. But he is tied for 17th in average air yards on completions (5.9) and 11th in completion air yards per attempt (4.1)1 — ahead of Garoppolo (3.8) and Patrick Mahomes (3.9) and just one slot behind Jackson (4.2). So while Cousins isn’t chucking it very far downfield overall, he’s generating more downfield yardage per throw than most of this season’s most effective passers.

Cousins is also fifth in yards after catch per completion (6.1), so his receivers are catching his passes with room to turn upfield and run. That may have something to do with his high on-target throw percentage (80.4 percent), which ranks sixth. He’s also second in the league in total yards off play-action, with 1,110.

Skeptics might point to an easy schedule; Pro-Football-Reference.com’s strength-of-schedule metric ranks the Vikings’ slate so far the fourth-easiest. But Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement is, well, adjusted for defense — and Cousins ranks fifth.

All of this adds up to a quarterback who is practically never letting the ball hit the ground, yet is gaining more yards per attempt than any full-season starter this year.2 By nearly any metric, he’s having a top-five season for a team in the thick of playoff contention.

His slow start might have put him out of mind, and his lack of TikTok-able dance moves might keep him out of the conversation. But he’s throwing the football like someone worth every penny of that record-setting contract, and he’s putting the Vikings in position to get back to the NFC Championship Game — which is why they signed him in the first place.

Looking Ahead: Week 15

Best matchup:3 No. 18 Denver at No. 3 Kansas City (-8.5), 1 p.m. ET Sunday

There aren’t many marquee matchups to speak of in Week 15, but the best on paper (according to Elo) features the Chiefs and the Broncos. Kansas City is fresh off a road win in Foxboro and basically back to its presumed elite status (No. 3 in Elo) after a midseason rough patch. QB Patrick Mahomes is nursing a hand injury that clearly affected his throwing ability against the Patriots, but he shouldn’t miss any time because of it; he currently ranks third in our QB Elo ratings, behind only Lamar Jackson and Drew Brees. Also of note, K.C.’s defense has played pretty well recently, putting the clamps on Philip Rivers, Derek Carr and Tom Brady over its past three games. Denver isn’t anywhere near Kansas City’s level — its record is 5-8 and it has next to no chance of making the playoffs — but it has played better since replacing Joe Flacco at QB in Week 9, winning three of its last five games. The most recent of those was a shocking upset of the Texans in Houston, with starting QB Drew Lock recording a surprisingly good performance. The Chiefs are pretty heavily favored to win (78 percent) at home here, but both teams are in good form recently, making this the best mix of Elo ratings in any matchup of the week.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 15

NFL matchups for Week 15, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
8 Titans vs 11 Texans 64.5% 2 6 1 1
6 Vikings at 17 Chargers 57.5 5 3 4 3
7 Rams at 19 Cowboys 57.7 7 4 3 2
10 Packers vs 13 Bears 62.7 4 5 6 6
14 Steelers vs 12 Bills 53.9 9 2 2 15
4 Saints vs 21 Colts 78.8 3 13 7 5
3 Chiefs vs 18 Broncos 77.6 1 12 10 7
20 Browns at 29 Cardinals 65.9 13 7 8 11
9 Seahawks at 25 Panthers 66.3 10 8 9 13
15 Eagles at 31 Redskins 71.0 12 10 5 14
2 49ers vs 22 Falcons 83.1 6 15 11 4
30 Giants vs 26 Dolphins 51.6 16 1 14 9
24 Raiders vs 27 Jaguars 67.8 15 9 12 12
5 Patriots at 28 Bengals 81.6 11 14 13 10
1 Ravens vs 23 Jets 87.7 8 16 14 8
16 Buccaneers at 32 Lions 72.7 14 11 14 16

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s Importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Biggest playoff implications: No. 11 Houston at No. 8 Tennessee (-4), 1 p.m. ET Sunday

Potential shift in playoff odds: 41.3 total percentage points

Another week, another AFC South battle with big playoff implications. This one sees the Titans hosting the Texans, with the winner getting the inside track to the division title. Houston had a commanding 75 percent division win probability going into last week (and 90 percent playoff odds), but a disappointing flop at home against Denver made them tenuous AFC South favorites (54 percent) at best. If Houston can beat Tennessee, those odds would soar back up to 88 percent — and 95 percent to make the playoffs — all but securing the place Deshaun Watson and company have had a firm grasp on all season long. But while Houston’s been stumbling, the surprising Titans have been on a tear, winning four straight and six of their last seven. If Tennessee wins again, its division odds will hit 64 percent, with an 82 percent chance to make the playoffs. Houston will get another crack at Tennessee in Week 17, so the Texans would still control their destiny as long as they won out — but it will be a much more difficult path if they can’t pull off a road upset of their own here.

Best QB duels: No. 5 Deshaun Watson (HOU) vs. No. 11 Ryan Tannehill (TEN); No. 4 Dak Prescott (DAL) vs. No. 18 Jared Goff (LAR); No. 6 Kirk Cousins (MIN) vs. No. 19 Philip Rivers (LAC)

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here.) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 14

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 14 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
NE 63% NE 54% KC 23, NE 16 +8.1
NO 60 NO 51 SF 48, NO 46 +7.7
BAL 64 BAL 68 BAL 24, BUF 17 +0.4
GB 87 GB 88 GB 20, WSH 15 -1.4
MIN 91 MIN 85 MIN 20, DET 7 -3.2
HOU 77 HOU 78 DEN 38, HOU 24 -3.3
LAC 55 LAC 53 LAC 45, JAX 10 -3.5
CLE 77 CLE 74 CLE 27, CIN 19 -3.6
TEN 61 TEN 59 TEN 42, OAK 21 -3.8
PHI 80 PHI 77 PHI 23, NYG 17 -3.9
ATL 59 ATL 56 ATL 40, CAR 20 -4.5
PIT 64 PIT 61 PIT 23, ARI 17 -4.5
TB 57 TB 51 TB 38, IND 35 -7.8
NYJ 65 NYJ 57 NYJ 22, MIA 21 -8.7
CHI 55 DAL 53 CHI 31, DAL 24 -10.5
LAR 53 SEA 59 LAR 28, SEA 12 -15.2

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Readers scored two big wins over the model last week, downgrading the degree to which the Patriots and Saints were favored at home against tough visiting opponents. But those games were the exception to the overall rule of Week 14, during which Elo beat the field by 57.7 points on average. Elo picked up positive points in 13 of the week’s 16 games, headlined by correctly calling the Bears over the Cowboys and the Rams over the Seahawks. This marks 10 consecutive weeks in which Elo has beaten the average reader.

Congratulations are in order, though, to Millard Sposato, who led all readers in Week 14 with 280.1 points, and to Joseph Ewbank, who has the full-season contest lead with 920.5 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 14.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The former measures the number of yards past the line of scrimmage that a ball traveled in the air prior to a completion, while the latter is the average air yards of completed passes per pass attempt.

  2. Ryan Tannehill (seven starts, 9.8 yards per attempt since taking over the Tennessee Titans starting job) and Matthew Stafford (eight starts, 8.6 yards per attempt before his injury) are the only two qualifying passers with a higher yards-per-attempt average.

  3. Based on matchup quality, in terms of the harmonic mean of both teams’ QB-adjusted Elo ratings.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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