Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, among the NFL leaders in self-awareness, met with reporters on Wednesday and again shouldered the blame for a poor performance Sunday in Green Bay – and in particular an ill-advised interception into tight coverage with the Vikings threatening to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
“I’m going to throw it away,” Cousins said when asked what he would do if given another chance to make a similar decision to the one he had on first and goal at Lambeau Field. “If I’m in that situation again, the ball’s going in the stands. … If you’re outside the pocket, in a situation like what I was in, the ball’s got to go in the stands.”
That’s what everyone needs (and wants) to hear, and of course that’s what Cousins should do. The problem is we’ve heard some version of this before. For instance:
Last year after throwing a pick-six against the Dolphins, Cousins said: “It’s just a play that you have to be careful with because it can happen quick.”
After two interceptions in a loss at Chicago: “I think that’s where Coach (Mike) Zimmer certainly ought to be disappointed with us, when he’s coaching us and telling us what we’ve got to do, and those keys to victory aren’t getting done. So that’s where we have to make sure that next week, when we get back at it, that whatever the keys are, they’re executed.”
After a pick-six in a loss to New Orleans: “You certainly have to be smart about when you take your shots and when you just get rid of the ball, get out of bounds or throw it at someone’s feet to avoid a critical error or a turnover.”
With his most recent quote and mea culpa, Cousins’ record remains elite as a Monday Morning Quarterback — that catch-all phrase for recognizing mistakes after the fact being applied quite literally here. It’s his middling record as a Sunday quarterback, though, that remains troubling. In four full seasons as a starter, he’s never finished better than 9-7 or worse than 7-9. This year he’s 1-1.
Judging by last year’s comments, Cousins already knew by kickoff Sunday that it’s important to be careful … that his coach values the ball and abhors turnovers… that throwing the ball away is the right play sometimes to avoid disaster.
It’s one thing to know what you should do. It’s another thing to apply it in real time to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again – and break out of the vicious cycle that produces the highs and lows associated with a .500 record.
To be fair, that pick-six against the Saints came in Game 8 last year. Cousins had 16 touchdowns and four interceptions at that point and hadn’t thrown multiple interceptions in any of those starts.
But he’s thrown two picks in three of his last nine games dating back to last season. He finished last season with 10 interceptions and seven lost fumbles — more than a turnover per game. (Sunday’s game at Green Bay also featured a lost fumble and one the Vikings recovered).
In 18 Cousins’ starts with the Vikings, Minnesota is 6-3 when he doesn’t throw a pick and 3-5-1 when he does. Some of that is circumstantial: A team with a lead (like the Vikings had in Week 1 when Cousins was INT-free) doesn’t throw as much or take chances. A team playing from behind (as the Vikings did in Week 2) has to throw more.
But plenty of Cousins’ turnovers have been causes, not symptoms, of Vikings losses. Some of the plays are mental errors. Some are physical. A certain number of turnovers are to be expected because no quarterback is perfect.
Cousins has turned it over 67 times (48 interceptions, 19 fumbles lost) in his 66 regular-season starts since 2015. Again, that’s about one a game.
Is that acceptable? Maybe it depends who you ask. A quick check shows that veteran Philip Rivers – a QB Cousins holds in high esteem – has the exact same number of turnovers (58 INTs and nine fumbles lost) in the exact same 66-game span since 2015.
Maybe Cousins is being held to a different standard because of his guaranteed contract … or because of expectations after the 2017 Vikings season … or because his most recent mistake came in a rivalry game.
I asked him Wednesday if he feels scrutinized now more than when he first became a starter in the NFL.
“I don’t really know that I can give you an accurate (answer) because I don’t really study that part of my life. But I do know that when you’re a quarterback in the NFL, you’re going to be evaluated, you know, critiqued,” he said. “If you’re not playing at a high level and you’re not winning, all the more so you invite that on yourself. I just look forward to the challenge of playing better than I did this past Sunday. … I just think that as long as I play in this league you’re going to be coached and scrutinized, and that’s OK. It comes with the territory.”
On that bit of self-awareness – recognizing the challenge of playing better after a poor performance – Cousins has delivered results.
He has a 17-8-1 record in games following a loss since he became a full-time starter in 2015, and he has never lost more than two games in a row in that span. The average of his passer ratings in those 26 games following losses? 107.1.
That might suggest he learns from or overcomes his mistakes – at least temporarily. But unless he can do it on a more permanent basis, his final bit note of self-awareness from Wednesday’s session could come into play.
“Believe me, I’m not going to be playing quarterback here much longer if I go out and play the way I did this past Sunday,” Cousins said. “I understand that, and I’ve got to go out and play at a much higher level.”