Even before Griffin’s injury, Cousins expected to be back for second year with Redskins

The Redskins will start Kirk Cousins in place of Robert Griffin III. (AP)

Kirk Cousins is the Redskins’ No. 1 quarterback in the absence of the injured Robert Griffin III (Associated Press)

Even before Robert Griffin III had knee surgery and made Kirk Cousins so clearly indispensable to the Washington Redskins as their possible fill-in starter at quarterback, Cousins was convinced he wouldn’t be traded and would be back with the team for his second NFL season.

“I felt like, with a four-year contract, it’s just too early,” Cousins said. “And I really felt like I’d be back. I wanted to be back. I think this is a great place to be right now in this system with what we’re doing. Coming back off a division championship, this is an exciting time, an exciting place to be. And I’m very glad that I’m back with the Redskins.”

Some trade speculation swirled around Cousins late last season. His presence seemed like a bit of a luxury to the Redskins, given that Griffin was on his way to being named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. If Cousins had significant trade value, the reasoning by some observers went, the Redskins might be forced to consider dealing him to recover a draft pick or two after they’d surrendered so many choices in the trade to enable them to draft Griffin.

But that speculation all but ended when Griffin had surgery in January to have the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his right knee repaired, putting his status for training camp and the outset of the 2013 season in doubt. As Griffin worked on the side during Thursday’s organized team activities at Redskins Park, doing some throwing as part of his rehabilitation, Cousins ran the starting offense.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for me,” Cousins said after the practice. “Even if Robert comes back tomorrow ready to go, the fact that I got reps with the number one offense for the first three practices is a great benefit to me. However long I have a chance to get reps is going to be a blessing. Obviously I want to see Robert come back healthy and as strong as ever. I think it’s a great opportunity for me however long it lasts. Yeah, it’s a challenge to be a backup quarterback. But that’s what I signed up for. If I can’t meet that challenge, I really have no business someday being a starter. So I view this opportunity as a backup and the challenges that it brings as the proving ground to see if I deserve to be a starter.”

The Redskins are extremely confident in Cousins, who was selected in the fourth round of last year’s draft out of Michigan State even after the Redskins had taken Griffin with the second overall choice in the same draft. He won a key game in Cleveland down the stretch last season while starting in place of an injured Griffin.

“Kirk has always been a good quarterback, a good leader, a good voice in the huddle,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “We’re not missing a step.”

Said Coach Mike Shanahan: “I think any time a quarterback gets the reps that Kirk is getting right now, he develops. That’s what we’re looking forward to him doing is developing during these OTAs. And with the extra added reps that he’s getting, you can see the progression in his game. He’s playing with a lot of confidence and we like what we see.”

Being stuck behind Griffin has not been quite as lacking in opportunities as Cousins originally might have envisioned.

“I don’t know that I would have expected to start a game my rookie year and play an entire game,” Cousins said. “I probably wouldn’t have expected to play as well as we did in that game. But clearly it was a great rookie year when you talk about winning the division for the first time in many years, the season that Robert had, the chances that I had to play. It probably did exceed my expectations. Now the bar is set that much higher for our second year, and we’re excited about that. We’re working hard right now to make that a good year…. I wasn’t expecting to be with the number one offense much at all. So now to be able to do it for several extended practices will help my growth and development tremendously.”

Cousins knows he must make the most of his chances when he gets them.

“My mind-set as a backup, whether it was at Michigan State or here in the NFL, is I want to play so well in practice that even if I’m not the guy, the coaches are going back in the meetings, watching film and saying, ‘I can’t wait until we can give this guy an opportunity to show us what he can do on Sundays,’ and to be excited about me and to say, ‘He may not be playing right away. But we can’t wait to see what he can do at some point,’ ” Cousins said. “I want to create excitement in that coaching meeting room even if I’m not out there on Sundays doing it. I want to continue to work hard so that happens.”

The better he plays, the more value he would have to other teams if the Redskins opt to part with him at some point.

“Obviously if I play well, it opens up doors elsewhere,” Cousins said. “If I don’t play well, it doesn’t.”

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for it to be answered in The Mailbag, which runs this week on Tuesday.

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