In many ways, Kirk Cousins was exactly the same quarterback for the Vikings this season that he was for Washington from 2015-17.
In all four years, he started all 16 games, threw for more than 4,000 yards, had between 25 and 30 touchdowns and between 10 and 13 interceptions. And his teams won between 7 and 9 games all four years as well. Not all of that is on Cousins, but the point stands.
But if Cousins was statistically a little better this year in some areas than he was in his three years as a full-time Washington starter — throwing for a career-high 30 TDs to just 10 INTs with a career-best 70.1 completion percentage — there was one area in which he was lacking, particularly compared to 2016 and 2017: running the ball.
His best year as a runner came in 2017, his last year in Washington, when Cousins had 179 yards and a 3.7 yards per carry average while getting 17 first downs.
This year with the Vikings, he had 123 yards, a 2.8 yard average and 12 first downs.
That doesn’t sound a TON different, but a further examination shows that Cousins very rarely scrambled with success this year in comparison to his 2017 season.
This year, according to Pro Football Reference data, nine of Cousins’ 12 first downs rushing came on QB sneaks where the Vikings needed just one yard for a first down. That’s not to take anything away from his ability to convert sneaks, but they are surer things than scrambles. A study of 4th-and-1 plays spanning almost two decades of NFL seasons showed QB sneaks are successful 82.8 percent of the time.
It’s good the Vikings employed sneaks and that Cousins has a good feel for them. It helped the Vikings come close to former OC John DeFilippo’s stated goal of getting one first down on the ground by his QBs every game.
But it also means Cousins only scrambled for three first downs all season on non-sneaks — a 19-yard scamper against the Rams, a 13-yard run against the 49ers and a 7-yard TD run against the Cardinals. None of those came after Oct. 14, when Cousins did his end zone “dead arm” dance against the Cardinals.
Scrambles are unpredictable and demoralizing drive-extenders. And Cousins was at least an adequate scrambler as recently as 2017.
In that season with Washington, 15 of Cousins’ 17 first down runs came on plays where the Redskins needed to gain at least two yards. And 12 times he gained at least six yards on a first down run.
Now, Cousins in 2017 was not exactly in Mitchell Trubisky territory (29 total first down runs for the Bears in 2018, part of the reason he was third in Total QBR while Cousins was 14th), but he was a lot like Case Keenum was for the Vikings in 2017 — when Keenum had 13 first downs on the ground, with 12 coming on scrambles.
Maybe Cousins was told not to break the pocket as much for the Vikings in hopes of preserving his health. But if a QB is smart about it, running for a first down is a valuable and safe weapon. He doesn’t have to be a great runner — just good enough, which Cousins is.
For whatever reason, Cousins didn’t do it effectively nearly enough in 2018. It would be a sneaky asset for him to re-add in 2019 and beyond to help the Vikings offense.