Kirk Cousins Deserves to Be in the Most Valuable Player Discussion
Almost all of the most valuable player discussion this NFL season has revolved around one team: the Dallas Cowboys. They're 10-1 behind the strength of two other-worldly rookies in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, and those two are setting analytics ablaze with their play. Focusing on them makes a whole lot of sense.
But in that exact same division, a guy who was recently an after thought is busy laying siege to opposing defenses, making a claim for the sport's highest honor himself. However, because of the focus on the Cowboys, this person's exploits have largely gone unnoticed.
That guy is Kirk Cousins, and we need to start including him in all discussions about the league's MVP award.
Washington's record isn't as flashy as the Cowboys', and that will push some away from Cousins. But when you look at the analytics behind his season thus far, it's hard to deny he has been one of the best players in the entire league.
We can quantify all of this with the help of numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. Here's how NEP works. Prior to each play, an offense has an expected number of points that it will score on its current drive. A three-yard completion on 3rd-and-2 picks up a first down, extends the drive, and increases those expected points. That same three-yard completion on 3rd-and-4, however, likely results in a punt, and NEP helps illustrate the difference between those two outcomes.
Using NEP, we'll be able to see just how disgusting Cousins has been this season, and it'll show why he deserves -- as much as anybody else -- consideration to be the MVP.
A Scorching Hot Five-Game Stretch
All of this started for Cousins back in Week 7 against the Detroit Lions. Washington was trailing, 13-3, in the fourth quarter after a pair of fumbles -- one by Cousins and one by Matt Jones -- had cost the team dearly. They needed to make up ground in a hurry, and Cousins allowed them to do exactly that.
Thanks to a touchdown pass to Rob Kelley and a 19-yard rush by Cousins, Washington took the lead with 1:05 left in the fourth quarter. The Lions drove down to score with 16 seconds left to claim victory, but that game kicked off a stretch for Cousins in which he has been simply unstoppable.
Before diving in too deep on that five-game run for Cousins, let's do a little blind resume quick. Check out the table below, which shows the NEP metrics for two separate quarterbacks. At first glance, they're going to look pretty similar.
Quarterback A is Tom Brady, posting an insane 106.35 Passing NEP in just seven games since coming off of suspension. There's a reason this dude's one of the greatest of all time.
Quarterback B -- as you've likely deduced -- is Cousins. This isn't Cousins for the entire season, though. That's the Passing NEP he has produced just the past five games. On a per drop back basis, Cousins' 0.47 Passing NEP per drop back in this stretch stands above Brady's season-long mark of 0.40. And this is Tom freaking Brady we're talking about here.
If we were to pretend Cousins' first six games didn't exist, he would still rank seventh in the league in Passing NEP, an aggregate stat. He'd be one spot behind Aaron Rodgers and ahead of guys like Ben Roethlisberger, Marcus Mariota, Matthew Stafford, and Russell Wilson. Again, this is over the span of just 217 drop backs for Cousins, and all of those guys have at least 387 this year. Kirk has been spewing silly sauce all over the field, and we've barely even paid attention.
Overall this season, no quarterback has added more expected points through the air than Cousins. Once we add in his first six games, he has 146.47 Passing NEP, edging out second-place Prescott at 138.66. Prescott adds value with his legs (22.37 Rushing NEP, to be specific), and we can't simply ignore that, but to omit Cousins from the MVP discussion completely is bordering on ludicrous.
Cousins also measures up well through the lens of rate stats. Of the 35 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs this year, Cousins ranks fourth in Passing NEP per drop back and third in Success Rate. The only player to rank ahead of him in both categories is -- again -- Prescott. No matter how you want to spin the stats, Cousins has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league this year.
Perhaps what has been most impressive about Cousins is his efficiency in negative game script. When a team is trailing, the opponent knows they're more likely to have to throw the ball in order to make up a deficit. This allows them to generate a more intense pass rush and cook up better coverages without having to worry about a rushing attack. That hasn't fazed Cousins at all.
Of Cousins' 451 drop backs this year, 252 have come while trailing. In those situations, he's averaging a whopping 0.34 Passing NEP per drop back with a 56.75% Success Rate, numbers that would rank third and first, respectively, among qualified passers if they were his season-long numbers. He's excelling at times when you expect efficiency to lag, and he deserves extra commendation for this.
This isn't to say -- at this point -- that Cousins has been the league's most valuable player. From NEP's perspective, that honor would probably belong to Prescott. But with five games left to go in the season, there's still plenty of time for Cousins to close that gap, and if his past five games are any indication, he's not done chasing just yet.
Cousins still carries a bit of a stigma as the guy who got benched for Colt McCoy just two seasons ago. But based on what he has done both last year and now in 2016, it's time we start viewing him in a different light.
No quarterback has added more expected points through the air this year than Cousins has, and he has been getting even better over the past five games. His efficiency in that stretch rivals -- and even exceeds -- that of Tom Brady, who will most definitely be in the MVP discussion at the end of the season. It's justified for Brady, and it would be for Cousins, as well.
Washington's record shouldn't be a deterrent for Cousins' consideration here. We shouldn't punish him because Washington's defense ranks 22nd in numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics through the first 12 weeks or because the team couldn't generate a consistent rushing attack until recently. When the ball has been in Cousins' hands -- especially while trailing and trying to erase the mistakes of his teammates -- the results have often been tremendous.
Washington's upcoming schedule is brutal with matchups against the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles, numberFire's fifth- and third-ranked pass defenses, respectively. It's entirely possible those stout units will be able to slow down Cousins and bring his run of efficiency to a halt. But until we see that happen, it's time to start taking Cousins seriously as an MVP contender, a respect he has earned with his play on the field.