Washington Redskins practice had concluded, and all but three players had retreated to the locker room, the trainer’s room, weight room or cafeteria.
Kirk Cousins needed more work, though. So with his helmet off but his pads still on, he threw to wide receiver Leonard Hankerson, who is rehabilitating from knee surgery. Tight end Logan Paulsen, fully healthy but often one of the last on the field, jumped in as well.
Cousins referred to a play sheet, called out the routes, took a snap from an invisible center, dropped back and threw again and again. The session lasted roughly 20 minutes.
The third-year quarterback knows he has no chance to win Washington’s starting job. The team is fully invested in Robert Griffin III. But it’s the preseason, when starters only see limited action, and that means it’s Cousins’s time to shine.
“I’m hungry for [a starting] opportunity down the road,” Cousins said after the recent throwing session.
“I know that a preseason game like the one against Cleveland Monday night or the one last week or any chance I get in the regular season — those will be my defining moments for if I get an opportunity someday.”
Opportunity is all Cousins has wanted since his college career at Michigan State concluded. But things didn’t go according to plan in the 2012 NFL draft. Instead of going to a team interested in grooming him to be its starter, Cousins slid to the fourth round, where Washington selected him to back up Griffin, for whom they gave up three first-round picks and a second to acquire.
But Cousins said and did the right things. In limited action over his first two NFL seasons he displayed starter’s potential. He knows the offense inside and out, moves the chains, puts points on the board and has the guts to go for the big play. But he has also shown youthful weaknesses. He has committed 14 turnovers in eight regular season appearances.
Cousins started the final three games of last season. Washington went 0-3 during that stretch, but Cousins came away with valuable experience.
“I think confidence was big,” he said. “To start three games — two of them divisional games, on the road twice — so many situations were thrown at me, and you look back and even though we didn’t win those games, you felt like you had good control of the game, and the bullets were flying and you could process it and you say, ‘That wasn’t so bad. I think I can do this.’ ”
At the start of the offseason, Cousins told Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen that while he wasn’t demanding a trade, he would welcome the opportunity to go elsewhere so he could have a chance to start.
The Cleveland Browns seemed like the perfect landing spot. The team had hired Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator and had an uncertain quarterback situation. The Browns talked to the Redskins about a possible trade before May’s draft, offering a fourth-round pick for Cousins. But Allen and new coach Jay Gruden deemed him more valuable than that.
“He’s a good quarterback, and you don’t want to let quarterbacks out of your building if you don’t have to,” Gruden said Friday.
“Obviously there’s circumstances that could change that, but right now we’re happy with the quarterbacks that we have, and there’s no reason to change.”
The prospects of spending another year as a backup while still two years removed from free agency could prove disheartening. But Cousins had prepared himself for any scenario and knew teams likely wouldn’t give up a high pick (Washington wanted a second-rounder) for an unproven player.
Always the good soldier, Cousins didn’t display any discouragement. And despite Gruden making clear he’s committed to Griffin, Cousins hasn’t changed his approach. He pores over the playbook. He speaks up in quarterback meetings and gets in extra work daily.
“He’s a guy who is an NFL quarterback in how he prepares — his focus and pursuit of excellence — and I really admire that in him,” Paulsen said. “I think that even though he’s not going to play here, he approaches every week as if he’s going to start, and that’s not easy to do. I had to do that a long time, and so I understand how complex it is. He does it so robotic, mechanically and effortlessly, so it’s great to see.
“It takes a special individual, and he is that kind of guy. He wants to work and is constantly pushing himself. It’s all self-motivated and internal. You don’t find those guys every day.”
Gruden also praised Cousins. “Kirk’s handled it like a pro,” he said. “He understands the situation here. He understands it’s Robert’s job to lose right now, but he’s still coming in here, competing and battling every day. And that’s what a quarterback does.
“Whether you’re the starter or not, you have to take advantage of the reps you get, and they are few and far between sometimes, but I think he’s done an excellent job. . . .
“There’s been no controversy whatsoever. It’s just been business as usual, and they’re all trying to get better and master this system, and he’ll be ready when his time comes.”
Cousins has no idea when or if his time will come. Instead, he is focused on Monday night’s game. He’ll likely play two quarters, try to build on last week’s game and showcase his potential.
“I think that you accept the plan that’s in front of you. Whatever happens, I’m going to roll with it,” Cousins said. “I can’t change who I am, my character. I’m excited to be here. I think Coach Gruden, Coach [Offensive Coordinator Sean] McVay are good coaches to be under, and I’m going to learn a lot from them. I’m going to get better as quarterback. I’m going to support Robert. . . .
“I love D.C. I love this organization. So would I like to play somewhere? Sure. But hopefully that can come later, and even if it doesn’t, I’m in a good spot, and there’s a lot of people who would love to have my opportunity. I look at all the positives and try to take it day by day, so if someday I am a starting quarterback, I can look at these days right now and point to those as the days that got me ready for that opportunity.”