Is Kirk Cousins the Next Elite NFL Quarterback?

Kirk Cousins had a breakout season, but exactly how good was it?

Rapid reaction. Instant opinion. #HotTakes. We as a society have become masters of instantly developing feedback to what we see, hear, and experience. Some of this hot take reaction is perhaps inadvertently well formulated opining, but predominantly we have content that simply attempts to counter-balance quality with mass quantity.

This is perhaps never truer than in the realm of sports.

Back in Week 7, having just led the largest comeback in team history by hitting his tight end Jordan Reed for a game-winning touchdown, quarterback Kirk Cousins of the Washington Redskins, while walking through the tunnel, yelled three words at reporters.

"You like that?!"

Moments later, the social media world exploded with reaction. Memes, Vines, GIFs, signs, and t-shirts were rapidly created, all touting Cousins.

I can’t say it wasn’t a very good performance on the field by Cousins, because it was. Having trailed at one point by as many as 24 points, Cousins managed to rack up 317 passing yards while throwing for 3 touchdowns and no interceptions while rushing for another score. However, it was also only the third win the Redskins had managed to that point in the season.

Yet, suddenly, the noise surrounding Kirk as big-time starting quarterback began to exponentially increase. We can all appreciate a solid quarterback performance, a great comeback win, and a great tagline as much as the next guy -- but it was just one game.

Jump ahead four weeks into early December. The Skins now sat at 5-6 and, despite a few very mediocre performances, the Kirk Cousins popularity fire was burning stronger than ever following an 80% completion four touchdown passing performance against the horrific Saints secondary. Then I heard what I thought might be the hottest of all hot takes -- we're talking five emoji flames.

As I listened to my favorite sports radio show one mid-week afternoon, I hear ESPN analyst Danny Kanell proclaim that he believed Kirk Cousins could be the next Drew Brees.


I don’t mean to take a dig at Kanell. In fact, as a kid, I grew up in the '90s on Panama City Beach as a Florida State Seminoles fan, so I actually really like the guy. But his theory on Cousins simply sounded like one more instant reaction grasp at a headline.

But now that the Redkins have secured a playoff spot by winning their final four games, largely due to the efforts of Cousins -- who accounted for 13 touchdowns while throwing only one pick over that span -- I can’t help but think that he might be on his way to becoming the next big thing.

How Good Was Kirk Cousins in 2015?

Cousins' season was a tale of two halves. We can see in the table below that, in the opening eight games of the season, the struggle for Cousins could not have been more real. In fact, he didn't even manage to post a positive Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) in half of his games.

Team Pass D Rank Passing NEP Home or Away
Dolphins 31st -1.89 Home
Rams 6th 9.45 Home
Giants 29th 4.45 Away
Eagles 14th 10.76 Home
Falcons 19th -2.3 Away
Jets 7th -3.61 Away
Buccaneers 28th 11.57 Home
Patriots 13th -0.23 Away

For those of you not familiar with NEP, allow me to explain. Net Expected Points is an efficiency metric that factors on-field variables such as down-and-distance in order to compare a team or player’s production to historical expectation levels. You can read more about it in our  glossary.

Turnovers can obviously have a major negative impact on a quarterback's Passing NEP, and Cousins accounted for nine interceptions in these first eight games. For the sake of context, when Cousins posted a Week 1 Passing NEP of -1.89, it was merely the 24th-best quarterback performance of the week, despite having faced the 31st-ranked team according to our schedule-adjusted pass defense rankings.To be clear, too, it's very difficult for quarterbacks to produce consistent negative Passing NEP scores. This isn't because quarterbacks are flawless, but because passing is more efficient than rushing. The average Passing NEP per drop back average this season, for instance, was 0.15. Cousins wasn't close to that mark to start the year.

But then things got interesting.

Team Pass D Rank Passing NEP Home or Away
Saints 32nd 21.45 Home
Panthers 2nd -11.72 Away
Giants 29th 13.04 Home
Cowboys 18th 5.31 Home
Bears 27th 13.51 Away
Bills 12th 24.24 Home
Eagles 14th 20.99 Away
Cowboys 18th 13.9 Away

In his eight most recent games, Cousins has only had one game in which he posted a negative Passing NEP (and, in all fairness, it was against Josh Norman and the Panthers), and he's managed three games with Passing NEP scores of over 20. To put this in context, the best quarterback in terms of Passing NEP this year, Carson Palmer, averaged 11.63 Passing NEP per contest.

One reason for Cousins' success is that he drastically cut down on his turnovers, having only thrown two interceptions in the entire second half of the season. You might be thinking another reason for Cousins' Act 2 is a drop-off in strength of schedule, but you, my friend, would be wrong.

In Weeks 1 through 8 Cousins faced opponents with an average schedule-adjusted pass defense ranking of 18.37. In Weeks 10 through 17 his opponent’s average ranking only dropped slightly to 19.

For those keeping track at home, that would mean that Cousin’s improved his Passing NEP from a first half total of 28.16 to a vastly improved 100.70 second half total, while seeing almost no change in difficulty of opponent.

Not to mention the fact that, as fellow numberFire writer Joe Redemann points out in his  10 Best Red Zone Rushers of 2015 article, Cousins also managed an incredible 100.00% red zone Rushing Success Rate, meaning he never failed to make a positive play when running in the red zone. And he had a 0.88 Rushing NEP per carry in the red zone by converting 5 of 7 rushing attempts into touchdowns.

At the end of the day, Cousins finished the season with 136.29 Passing Net Expected Points, which was sixth best in the NFL. And even when you factor in rushing, which will help players like Cam Newton, Cousins' campaign still ranks as the sixth best among all NFL quarterbacks.

Will he be elite for years to come? That remains to be seen. But he's certainly on the right track.