Stats that matter: Kirk Cousins and the Kings of Garbage Time

Garbage time. You love it when your team is winning, hate it when the team is losing, and change the channel when you have no rooting or wagering interest in the blowout. You also know that garbage time can inflate the stats of some players or NFL teams. Who hasn’t had their fantasy week ruined by a Kirk Cousins-to-Adam Thielen touchdown in the final seconds of a lopsided Minnesota Vikings loss?

You might suspect that Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins is one of the kings of garbage-time production. And you would be correct! But other quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs thrived in the briar patch of blowouts during the 2020 season.

Let’s look at some of the players who saw the most action in lopsided losses (and wins for running backs) last year, examine their production, and determine what all that trash collection could mean for them in 2021 and beyond.

Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins is the Emperor of garbage time

Garbage Time Defined

Garbage time is like pornography. It’s hard to define, but we all know it when we see it. For our purposes, “garbage time” is when a team is trailing by 16 points or more in the second half of a game.

That’s a broad definition that includes some still-competitive situations, like when a team is trailing 26-10 early in the third quarter. Yet, our definition gives us enough plays to analyze players without making things too complicated. It’s broad enough to include every situation in which the game is totally out of hand, the defense has started sitting back in prevent mode, and an opportunistic quarterback can begin fluffing his stats with short passes.

Kirk Cousins and other top garbage-time quarterbacks of 2020

Here are the quarterbacks who threw the most passes in garbage-time situations last year.

Gardner Minshew, Jacksonville Jaguars: 102 garbage-time attempts

Minshew also attempted 78 garbage-time passes as a rookie in 2019. That means that 22.5% of his career pass attempts occurred when his Jacksonville Jaguars were getting blown out. Minshew completed 61.8% of his passes and averaged 6.6 yards per attempt in garbage time last year. Those numbers were lower than his 66.1% completion rate and 6.9 yards per attempt for the whole season.

On the one hand, it’s hard to argue that Minshew benefitted from padded stats. On the other hand, it’s hard to be too optimistic about a quarterback’s future who always seems to look gritty and determined when playing from way, way behind.

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If some team trades for Minshew once the Jaguars lock into drafting Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, they should brace for a quarterback who is better at losing with groovy grace and dignity than one who will lead them to many victories.

Nick Mullens, San Francisco 49ers: 79 garbage-time attempts

Mullens had a knack for producing fourth-quarter scoring drives that cut the 49ers’ deficits to 27-13 or 34-24 in the waning minutes in 2020. He completed 70.9% of his garbage-time attempts for 7 touchdowns.

That’s right, more than half of Mullens’ 12 touchdowns came when the 49ers were trailing by 16-plus points! Empty calories like those will keep Mullens in the NFL as a “dependable veteran backup” for a long time.

Drew Lock, Denver Broncos: 79 garbage-time attempts

Lock completed just 55.7% of his passes for 5.2 yards per attempt in situations where opposing defenses generally ease off the throttle and allow some easy completions over the middle.

Every young quarterback with a bunch of starts has an encouraging statistical split or two that indicates he is heading in the right direction. As soon as I find Lock’s, I’ll be sure to share it.

Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: 78 garbage-time attempts

Matthew Stafford was sacked 12 times when the Lions were trailing by two scores, which is troubling. Stafford’s Los Angeles Rams won’t get blown out nearly as often as the Detroit Lions did last year. Yet, the Rams are basing their Stafford evaluations and hopes on many things that happened in non-competitive losses.

Maybe Stafford was a courageous warrior battling valiantly while everything around him collapsed over the last few seasons. But perhaps a veteran of his caliber and reputation should have been able to generate more completions and fewer sacks when playing from behind instead of digging a slightly deeper hole.

Both are probably true to some degree. That’s discouraging news for a team that just mortgaged its future for Stafford.

Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings: 65 garbage-time attempts

Kirk Cousins is the Emperor of Garbage Time. The Minnesota Vikings QB completed 73.8% of his passes for a league-high 7 touchdowns when trailing by 16-plus points last year. You would expect nothing less. One cannot become THE Kirk Cousins without the gift of being able to throw a touchdown just before the two-minute warning of a 52-33 loss (Week 16 vs. the Saints).

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Over the last three seasons, Kirk Cousins has completed a whopping 75.6% of his garbage-time passes for 13 touchdowns. It’s almost as if the Minnesota Vikings QB sees a prevent defense at the end of a loss, rubs his palms together eagerly, and proclaims, “Time to make my money!”

Somehow, Cousins’ employers are always fooled by the statistical padding and sign up for another overpriced tour of duty.

Top garbage-time wide receivers of 2020

Receivers are at the mercy of their quarterbacks, even in lopsided losses. As we are about to see, the most productive garbage-time receivers of last season were mostly excellent players trapped in dysfunctional offenses. There are also one or two guys in the mix who needed some meaningless production to make themselves look better than they might be.

Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears: 19 receptions for 265 yards in garbage time

The Indianapolis Colts took a 19-3 fourth-quarter lead over the Chicago Bears in Week 4, but Robinson caught 4 passes for 69 yards and a touchdown on the final Bears drive. The Green Bay Packers took a 41-10 lead over the Bears late in the third quarter in Week 12, but Robinson caught 4 fourth-quarter passes and scored a touchdown in what became a 41-25 final.

You get the idea. Robinson is an outstanding receiver in any situation, but Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles often could not reliably get him the ball until opposing defenses called off the dogs.

Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys: 16 receptions for 169 yards in garbage time

Cooper’s catch total should not be too surprising. The Dallas Cowboys spent much of last season spotting their opponents 21-point leads in the first quarter. The fact that Cooper averaged only 10.6 yards per catch is somewhat more surprising. That’s especially true because there’s not that much Ben DiNucci in the data. Most of Cooper’s late-game catches came from Dak Prescott or Andy Dalton.

But hey, if Mike McCarthy thinks the best way to mount a comeback is with short passes to a player most coaches would consider an ideal vertical threat, who are we to argue with him?

Corey Davis, Tennessee Titans: 14 receptions for 205 yards in garbage time

Corey Davis may be the Kirk Cousins of wide receivers. He had two of his best games in the Tennessee Titans’ catastrophic losses to the Cincinnati Bengals (8-128-1 for Davis, the touchdown coming at the end of a shocking blowout upset) and Cleveland Browns (11-182-1).

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Davis’ overall numbers and first-round pedigree should attract free agent suitors this offseason, but he’s generally invisible when the rest of the Titans’ offense is clicking. Is Davis underutilized in an offense loaded with other weapons? Or is he an inconsistent performer who likes to feast on soft garbage-time coverage? Some team is likely to overpay to find out.

Marvin Jones, Detroit Lions: 14 receptions for 141 yards in garbage time

With Kenny Golladay hurt much of the season, Stafford’s options at wide receiver besides Jones included Danny Amendola, Quintez Cephus, and Mohamed Sanu. So it’s no surprise that A) the Lions played from far behind frequently and B) Stafford ended up tossing many passes to the steady Jones.

James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars: 13 receptions for 101 yards in garbage time

The only running back on our list. Surprising because garbage time is often “check down to the third-down back” time. Leonard Fournette caught 17 passes when the Jaguars trailed by 16-plus points back in 2019. Minshew’s garbage-time method of operation is pretty straightforward.

Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings: 13 receptions for 233 yards in garbage time

Justin Jefferson is a phenomenal young player for the Minnesota Vikings. Also, earning a gig as Kirk Cousins’ go-to receiver on meaningless drives is a wise career move.

Top garbage-time running backs of 2020

For running backs, we need to do things differently. The following production comes when the player’s team is leading by 16 points in the second half. That’s because while quarterbacks and receivers play catch-up in losses, running backs are generally called upon to squat on leads. That can result in lots of carries and yards.

This list is likely to surprise you.

Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals: 28 carries, 133 yards in garbage time

We don’t think of Drake as a late-game workhorse. We don’t think of the Cardinals as a team that had the luxury of running out the clock very often. But Kliff Kingsbury switched to Cro-Magnon tactics during the Cardinals’ occasional blowouts last season. When the Cardinals beat the Cowboys, 38-10, for example, Drake rushed 8 times in the fourth quarter.

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Drake is a free agent in 2021, and it’s hard to get a read on his value after a good-not-great season. He put up 955 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns over 15 games in Kingsbury’s up-and-down offense. My guess is that Drake is about to embark on a Carlos Hyde-like career as a moderately-priced veteran running back for hire.

Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers: 28 carries, 104 yards in garbage time

The only surprise here is that Aaron Jones averaged just 3.7 yards per attempt. Yet, we shouldn’t read too much into per-carry averages when a running back is plunging into the heart of a defense that knows he’s coming.

Myles Gaskin, Miami Dolphins: 26 carries, 107 yards in garbage time

Gaskin rushed 8 times in the fourth quarter of the Dolphins’ 31-13 win over the Jaguars. He rushed 7 times in the fourth quarter of the team’s 43-17 win over the 49ers.

It turns out that big-name running backs on powerhouse teams don’t benefit much from garbage-time production. At least not as much as second or third-tier running backs on borderline Wild Card teams that go into the tortoise formation to preserve their victories like Drake and Gaskin.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs: 23 carries for 71 yards in garbage time

Makes sense.

Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 21 carries, 125 yards

Something, something…Tom Brady…something, something.

Honorable Mentions

Next on our list would come Gus Edwards and Mark Ingram of the Baltimore Ravens with 20 attempts. Then Derrick Henry and Jeremy McNichols of the Tennessee Titans racked up 19 carries. That explains why Henry doesn’t top this list — the Titans let his backup share the load when the game was in hand.

That’s the difference between icing a victory and trying to stage a comeback. The winners can take their stars out of the game. The losers usually have to keep struggling and striving until that last DFS-altering, point spread-ruining, over-clearing, Kirk Cousins-enriching touchdown.

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