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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Kirk Cousins versus the ‘it factor’

By Matthew Coller

EAGAN, Minn. — Kirk Cousins isn’t the type of quarterback who spits blood or rips grass out of his facemask. He doesn’t draw comparisons to a war general. Nobody would suggest he’s dripping with swag.

Kirk Cousins is, however, the type of quarterback whose voice squeaks on the third “HUT!” The type that has to borrow his receiver’s dance moves after rushing for a touchdown. The one who had to be pushed to do the pre-game speech by his nose tackle. He’s the guy who makes headlines for driving an old van.

When a quarterback is more outwardly more like Jim Halpert than Jean-Claude Van Damme, people are going to wonder whether he has the intangibles to win. Appearance means more than it should in the NFL, as we’ve seen proven by a couple of undersized QBs in Russell Wilson and Drew Brees who have become Super Bowl champs. We have become trained to associate things like leadership, clutch-ness, toughness and so on with a certain type of look and demeanor with winning quarterbacks.

Depending on generation, you might immediately think of Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach, Joe Montana and John Elway or Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. They were all tall, good looking players with either a military-like demeanor or the coolness to win the game and steal your girl right after.

Cousins doesn’t fit into any of those categories, rather his persona feeds into a narrative formed with his previous team that he isn’t a winner — that he doesn’t have the DNA of the quarterbacks who lead their teams deep in the playoffs. Seasons as a starter of 9-7, 8-7-1 and 7-9 in D.C. combined with the fact that Washington would never fully bought into Cousins (because we assume teams know what they are doing) further pushed the idea that the ‘it factor’ required to win a championship simply isn’t there with him, no matter the supporting cast, offensive system or whatever else.

That narrative may just as tough of an opponent for Cousins on Sunday as the Chicago Bears’ defense.

If the Minnesota Vikings don’t come away with a playoff berth, it will act as confirmation for those in the nation’s capitol who believed he wasn’t a true franchise quarterback and for those who questioned the Vikings moving on from Case Keenum after a 13-3 season to spend top dollar on Cousins.

During his years with Washington, it was easy to brush off the struggles to escape .500 by pinning blame on the team’s defense or management/ownership. But the Vikings offered their quarterback an opportunity to play with one of the NFL’s most talented defense, two elite receivers and a running back who is among the most elusive in the league. So the fact that we are here waiting on a Week 17 game to decide whether the Vikings will be playing next week is enough for some to confirm what they already thought.

But it can’t be that simple.

Since 2015, Cousins has a slightly higher quarterback rating than Aaron Rodgers, more touchdowns than Ben Roethlisberger and the same yards per attempt as Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady.

It doesn’t make much sense that a quarterback with those numbers could lack some type of intangible gene that would be causing him to come up short in big moments. Yet he has a career 4-24 record against winning teams. With the Vikings, Cousins has gone up against five teams who have locked up playoff spots and has gone 0-for-5.

All of that brings us to a bunch of questions: Is there a root cause of his inability to beat good teams? Does the secret “it factor” exist? Does he have it? And can he beat the Bears on Sunday and lead the Vikings deep into the playoffs?

“The dog coming out”

Adam Thielen thinks we only assign “it factor” to quarterbacks because they are the ones with the ball in their hands most often and the leaders of the team. He believes it applies across the board to players.

“There’s definitely an ‘it factor,’” Thielen says. “We might call it ‘the dog coming out.’ I think there’s such a thing.”

Players who can bring out the dog, the superstar receiver says, are those who thrive when the pressure is at its highest.

“I think it goes to not being scared of anything,” he says. “When you’re in a critical situation those guys just tend to come out and just make plays. It’s not being scared, there’s no fear. The moment is never to big for them.”

The Vikings have all sorts of players who step up when needed most. Take for example Harrison Smith’s game-ending interception against the Bears last year to swing the season or 49ers this year to open with a win. Or Stefon Diggs’ Minneapolis Miracle touchdown catch against the New Orleans Saints. Or Thielen making a back-breaking catch over Marshon Lattimore. Or Linval Joseph stuffing fourth-and-1 and on and on.

Cousins had his “dog” moment ruined in Week 2. A wild fourth quarter comeback at Lambeau Field was thwarted by his own kicker Daniel Carlson, whose third miss brought the game to an end in a tie. He led a game-tying drive with time running out in the fourth quarter and twice put them in position to win in overtime. Cousins finished that day with 425 yards passing.

But one of the main reasons he isn’t thought of as an “it factor” quarterback is the lack of standout performances in big situations. Cousins has won just five of 17 tries in primetime, he lost the only playoff game of his career, blowing a double-digit lead and lost 19-10 and posted a 74.3 rating in a must-win Week 17 game in 2016 against the Giants.

The situational stuff goes deeper.

Most quarterbacks will tell you that their times to bring out the dog are in the fourth quarter and on third downs. That’s when Cousins has largely struggled during his time as a starting quarterback.

Since he took over as a starter in 2015, Cousins ranks 20th in QB rating in one-score games in the fourth quarter (among QBs with at least 100 passes). The Vikings’ franchise QB has a good completion percentage (67.6) and decent yards-per-attempt mark (7.3) in those spots, but only Matt Ryan has more interceptions.

In order to remove some of the noise created by score effects, we can get a clearer picture of third downs by looking at one-score games. With more than seven yards to go on third down in one-score games, Since 2015, Cousins averages 6.8 yards per attempt in those key third downs and has just 31 first-down throws on 102 attempts.

This year he’s completed 56.6 percent of passes for 6.6 yards per attempt, been sacked 11 times on 94 dropbacks and has a 79.6 rating on third and long.

When it comes to forming a reputation as a QB with “it factor,” coming through in big situations is not only what Thielen thinks about first, it’s what fans notice most with a QB.

In his prime, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger only put together three seasons with more than 100 quarterback ratings, but will go down as one of the best big-moment QBs — and not just because of his game-winning Super Bowl throw that ended the 2008 season.

Since 2015 — his late prime — Roethlisberger has a 105.7 rating in close games in the fourth quarter. He ranks only behind Drew Brees, Russell WIlson, Andrew Luck and Tom Brady.

Vikings safety George Iloka, who went to battle numerous times with Big Ben, explained how his “it factor” comes into play.

“He has that Brett Favre in him where he could throw two picks and then throw five touchdowns in the same game,” Iloka said. “Quarterbacks like that are difficult because they never take their foot off the gas, good, bad or indifferent. But if you’re already a good quarterback and you have ‘it’ like he does, more times than not, that’s going to work out in your favor like Brett Favre and some of the other quarterbacks.”

No matter what a defense might do to Roethlisberger, Iloka said, it doesn’t throw him off. You can keep hitting him and he will keep bouncing back.

“Other quarterbacks that don’t have it, if they throw a couple interceptions they are going to taper back, get nervous, they might get rattled,” he said. “If they get a couple hits, they can get rattled. Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t get rattled by a couple hits. I would say that’s the biggest thing. The ability to withstand whatever happened previously and not worry about it, continue to keep moving on.”

Cousins’ game against Green Bay was a good example of that — mostly. He also threw the game away on an interception that ultimately didn’t count because of a wacky roughing penalty. But he re-focused after that and led one of the NFL’s biggest comebacks.

But this year when things haven’t gone Cousins’ way early — aside from last week’s win over a poor Detroit team that can’t stand its coach — he hasn’t been able to bounce back and right the ship. The November 18 matchup with the Bears is probably the best example. The Vikings were still in the game into the fourth quarter despite struggling on offense, but with 8:30 left in the final period, he threw a pick-six to safety Eddie Jackson, sticking a dagger in his own chances to win.

Iloka makes it clear that a major part of Roethlisberger’s big-moment success comes with the fact that he’s a fantastic quarterback. The “it factor” for him is also talent. Sometimes traditional stats lie because of context, but the skill level of the QB will always come out.

“Regardless of whether you’re panicky or not, if you don’t have the ability, you ain’t going to be able to do jack,” Iloka said. “You have to have both. You have to have the ability to execute. So those things…about being calm being in the zone or whatever the case, that won’t help you unless you can execute. If you’re not nervous and you don’t execute, what does it matter?”

Execution has largely been the issue in big situations in games against good teams. A pick-six against the Saints, a late INT against the Patriots, a strip-sack touchdown against the Seahawks. Cousins being criticized for lack of “it factor” is certainly connected to his league lead in turnovers.

Some guys have a knack

Another box that Cousins does not check when it comes to spotting the “it factor” quarterbacks is the ability to make plays off schedule.

In Bruce Feldman’s book, The Making of a Modern Quarterback, he talks to Trent Dilfer about the makeup of special quarterbacks.

Feldman wrote: “[Dilfer] realized that the Hall of Fame was full of slow-footed guys and guys who didn’t have elite arms. The one thing every quarterback had was the knack for creating space and somehow extending the play.”

Dilfer expanded: “At some point, you have to play beyond the X’s and O’s.”

” I think some guys have a knack of making a play when they need to make a play,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said when asked about “it factor” quarterbacks. “Figuring it out somehow.”

Neither creating space or figuring things out when the play breaks down are strengths for Cousins.

Interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said he’s been working with the team to try an improve their success, but he admits there’s only so much that can be coached.

“There are principles, I’ll call them, of a scramble drill,” Stefanski said. “You coach off of those techniques. Then the game is very rarely played in that framework. You ask the quarterback to make a play in late in the down off schedule and you hope to make a good play and not a bad play. A lot goes into that with the players around him working with him. Some are really, really good at it. You see it across the league. That is something we continue to work on because this game is very rarely played take five steps, hitch and throw. It is played in that environment often.”

Cousins may not possess an Elway-like playmaking ability outside the pocket, but safety Harrison Smith — the ultimate “it factor” defensive player — says quarterbacks whose “it factor” make them challenging matchups often have their own unique set of strengths.

“It depends on the quarterback,” Smith said. “Guys are different based on whether they want to stay in the pocket, step up in the pocket, throw the ball downfield, take check downs down the field or running quarterbacks. Especially at quarterback you can be such different types of players.”

For Cousins, his “it” might be the deep ball. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins is seventh in the NFL in quarterback rating on deep throws this year and ninth in deep accuracy, just ahead of Brady and Rodgers.

Vikings center Brett Jones, formally a teammate of “it factor” QB Eli Manning — whose reputation as a winner has long been debated, but he has two Super Bowl MVPs to his credit — said that he sees similarities between Manning in Cousins in their preparation. He believes that to be the “it factor” for the Vikings’ QB.

“Being around great quarterbacks like Kirk and Eli, you can definitely sense the difference when you see those guys,” Jones said. “Just the way they carry themselves, the way they prepare. I think that’s the big thing. You can just tell by the way they prepare, they know what they’re going to do out there and they can get us as offensive line and running backs and receivers all in the right place and we can just go out and execute.”

Jones continued:

“I think they have just run it in their minds so many times they are ready for it to happen,” Jones said. “Then when it happens, it’s like bingo, it’s go time. It’s all about those mental reps that people don’t even know about. Going through situations in your head and then you recognize them, there it is, let’s go. They can read-and-react fast. The ones that have ‘it’ have that.”

The test

Football is crazy with narratives. Imagine if a hockey, baseball or basketball player’s reputation hung in the balance of one game. Derek Jeter, for example, has a nearly identical batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in the playoffs as during the regular season. He had great World Series’ and poor World Series performances. Imagine if someone had said, “If Jeter doesn’t get three hits and maybe a dinger in Game 7, he’s not the winner we made him out to be!”

That would be bananas. But that’s football. Is he worth $84 million? Find out Sunday!

Whether Cousins comes through against the Bears or not will write the book on him for at least the next 365 days.

Smith would like everyone to keep in mind that it’s a team game. Roethlisberger has Antonio Brown and was also downright putrid in his first Super Bowl win, but his defense and some questionable refereeing helped. Brady has always had great defenses and the best coach of all time. Elway was a choker until Terrell Davis came along. Peyton Manning was too until he got to face Rex Grossman in the Super Bowl. Eli’s defenses shut down Brady and on and on.

Nobody on the VIkings would mind if they played great defense and Cousins threw for 100 yards in a win. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if Dalvin Cook, Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen made a special play that turned into the difference maker.

“It always helps when you have guys around you that have the ‘it factor,’” Smith said. “You have confidence that you’re going to make the play or someone else is going to make it.”

That was the whole argument for getting Cousins, wasn’t it? That he wouldn’t have to carry a team?

Winning this Sunday’s game and the Cousins era will more likely be about whether the team can perform at a high enough level and scheme well enough to work around their imperfect quarterback than it will be about his “it factor.”

The post Kirk Cousins versus the ‘it factor’ appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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