Since becoming a starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins in 2015, Cousins leads the NFL in fumbles with 37, having lost 16, also a league-high, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It’s an issue that’s not just limited to his NFL career. As a senior at Michigan State in 2011, Cousins’ eight fumbles were tied for the second-most in the Big Ten.
Cousins has six fumbles in the Vikings' past four games, four of which were recovered by the other team. And with every turnover created by a Cousins fumble, Minnesota’s opponent was able to capitalize.
Two first-quarter fumbles recovered by Buffalo allowed the Bills to score on each ensuing drive in their Week 3 27-6 victory. Had Cousins not fumbled at the Rams' 48-yard line during the two-minute drill during a 38-31 loss to Los Angeles, the Vikings would have had a shot to tie the game. In a Week 6 win over the Cardinals, Cousins was strip-sacked and safety Budda Baker returned it for a touchdown.
"When we talk about how we view quarterbacks, we talk about their touchdown-to-interception ratio, and very rarely do we talk about when guys fumble inside the pocket, which oftentimes is worse because of where the turnover takes place," said former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck.
Fumbles come with the territory of playing the position. The top-10 list of the NFL’s all-time quarterback leaders in fumbles features league MVPs and Super Bowl champions. Two current players, Eli Manning (119) and Tom Brady (117), rank eighth and ninth, respectively. But Manning is in his 15th season and Brady his 19th.
There’s a story behind every fumble. Sometimes the blame can be pinned on the quarterback for not getting the ball out on time or trying to run with a loose football. There may also be a breakdown along the offensive line or a running back or tight end not holding up in protection. The quarterback could also be holding on to the ball too long because his receiver didn’t get his head around quick enough.
It’s different for each fumble, but it’s an ongoing problem for Cousins.
"I’m concerned about all the fumbles. We’ve got to do a better job," coach Mike Zimmer said after the Arizona game. "I think the two times, the two that I remember that he fumbled, both times guys were coming from behind him. He’s got to, when he starts moving up in the pocket, he has to be ready to put the ball [away], so we’ll address that."
What does it mean when a quarterback is a habitual fumbler? Let’s start with something obvious. According to MockDraftable, Cousins’ 97/8 inch hand size puts him in the 70th percentile among all draft-eligible quarterbacks since 1999. So his hand size isn’t likely to be a contributing factor.
Several of the same factors contributed to the fumbles Cousins lost against the Cardinals and the Rams, which boil down to him not responding to pressure off the left edge and not moving up in the pocket despite having the time and space to do so.
Against Los Angeles, the Vikings had just crossed into Rams territory with a fresh set of downs with 1:29 left on the clock. Cousins took a snap out of the shotgun and dropped back deep -- so deep that rookie John Franklin-Myers got around left tackle Riley Reiff and tomahawked the ball loose as Cousins drew his right arm back to pass. There was room created for Cousins to climb up in the pocket, which may have helped those in protection, but he did not react fast enough to move up.
Here’s how Cousins explained his fumble against the Rams:
"I’m waiting on my first read," Cousins said. "Adam Thielen’s my first read, I’m trying to get him the football. I’m not going No. 2, No. 3, I’m seven-step (drop), one hitch, trying to get him the ball. And I did. And before I could get it to him, the ball was out. We’ll go back and say 'Hey, we don’t want to be any deeper than 9.5 yards in the pocket.' So any time you’re deeper than 9.5, you’re making it tougher on your tackle to let the pass-rusher run by the pocket.
"So can you shorten up your drop? Again, if you’re at 9.5, then you’re going to say, do your best to get back up to 8.5, but it is what it is ... There were many drops throughout the game that I was at 9.5, there were a couple that I was a little bit past but didn’t have a fumble, didn’t get sacked. ... No matter the play, stay no deeper than 9.5."
A quarterback is typically going to sit 9.5 yards deep in the pocket on hard play-action, not dropping back out of the shotgun. Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo noted the balance of staying 7.5 yards deep, which helps the quarterback not have to "throw from a foxhole with guys in their lap" and also makes the job easier for the offensive line.
"If you’re 9.5 yards deep, then your tackle has no chance. None," Hasselbeck said. "But if you’re 9.5 yards deep and a guy is making contact with you and you’re not climbing, to me that’s very fixable. That’s just getting trained to climb in the pocket."
Fixing his depth in the pocket and being able to push up quicker on the initial climb is one remedy. Another is adjusting the clock in his head of when to escape the pocket before the up-field pass-rusher retraces his steps before trying to make a play.
"I think those are two very correctable things," Hasselbeck said. "Those are easier than breaking the bad habit of running with one hand on the ball, which is not something Kirk does. He doesn’t escape out of the pocket and drop the ball the way some guys do."
One of Cousins’ best qualities is his ability to make quick, accurate throws. He has mitigated a handful of issues (i.e. how much time he’s being given to throw) by getting rid of the ball quickly and playing fast.
"I could easily find five plays where I could say there is not a quarterback playing with better anticipation and quite honestly the quarterback play solves a huge mistake by somebody up front," Hasselbeck said. "I think he’s done that. That’s probably as big of a compliment that you can give a quarterback."
And even when Cousins is doing everything right by throwing on time, he may still get hit from behind while in the throwing motion. There isn’t much a quarterback can do in that situation, but finding ways to fix what he’s doing when his pocket depth and timing are the root of the fumbles could help Cousins remedy these ongoing problems.
"You can’t give up on plays or get your eyes down at the rush just to avoid fumbles," Cousins said. "You’ve still got to be a quarterback, and you’ve still got to take your drop, try to step up, try to make plays, be a playmaker. At times you do that, you’re going to risk the occasional fumble. You’ve got to trust protection. You can’t drop back expecting protection to be loose and then you’re never going to be able to play. It’s a balance. When we look back at the fumbles, we’re going to try to really just focus in on the ones that I can control, that are correctable."