Kirk Cousins sees opportunity as Robert Griffin III’s backup on Redskins


Redskins first-round draft pick Robert Griffin III, left, and fourth-round pick Kirk Cousins participate in a passing drill on the final day of rookie mini-camp May 6. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

If Kirk Cousins could have written the script, he wouldn’t have heard Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan’s voice on the other end of the phone on Day 3 of the NFL Draft. Some other NFL team — one that wanted and needed to groom the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history into its starter — would have called.

But that didn’t happen. The Redskins, the team that went all in on Robert Griffin III, called. Admittedly shocked, Cousins could do nothing about it.

A week later, the shock subsided and reality set in. If the keys to the kingdom are tucked snugly in Griffin’s pocket, all is certainly not lost for Cousins. Earlier this month, he reported for the Redskins’ three-day rookie minicamp and went about his business with goals for both the immediate and distant future.

“The cream always rises to the top, so if I’m as good as I hope to be some day, then I’m going to get that opportunity — whether here or somewhere else,” said Cousins, who many draft analysts thought would be picked in the second or third round and compete for a starting job as a rookie. “But this is a great opportunity to learn and develop and to grow.”

Cousins sees two game plans: the Redskins’ and God’s. He doesn’t fully understand either, but believes he must accept both.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about me,” Cousins said. “I’ve got to put other people ahead of me. That’s not just on the football field as a quarterback, that’s in life. That’s just being a servant, and to me what it means to follow Jesus and be a Christian, so I’m going to put my teammates ahead of me.”

In March, the Redskins sent the No. 6 and 39 overall picks in the 2012 draft, as well as first-round picks in 2013 and 2014 to the St. Louis Rams to secure the No. 2 overall pick and Griffin. But Shanahan and his assistants believed they needed more than just Griffin and 10th-year veteran Rex Grossman at that position.

The day after the Redskins picked Griffin, Shanahan told his young starter that the team likely would draft his long-term backup as well. Cousins fell to the fourth round and the Redskins considered him too good to pass up.

Shanahan killed all talk of a quarterback controversy after the mini-camp, when he named Griffin the team’s starter after just five practices. But the coach also explained why Cousins is a vital piece to the puzzle.

“That guy’s one play away from being the starter,” Shanahan said. If the starter goes down with an injury, “I want to have the ability to still win. It’s hard. You can’t find quarterbacks. . . If you can develop a couple guys and have three guys on your team, you feel like you have the chance to do something special in the long run.”

A number of analysts disagreed with Shanahan’s decision to have two young quarterbacks with the ability to start.

“It can divide a team, and it can cause problems,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said. “If RGIII is nicked up and Cousins lights it up, what are you going to do then?”

But Shanahan dismisses such talk.

“I’ve been in this situation before with [John] Elway and [Gary] Kubiak,” Shanahan said of 1983, when Denver traded for Elway and drafted Kubiak. “I think it’s a lot of fun for guys coming in because they have the same goals, both were very successful collegiate quarterbacks, they got to study film together, they’re rooming together, they’re talking football. Great process.”

Cousins said his relationship with Griffin has “gotten off to a great start.” And Griffin — who roomed with Cousins during minicamp, said “there are no issues there. . . . Having two rookie quarterbacks growing together is a good thing.”

Cousins likely will sign a four-year contract worth a little more than $2 million. His immediate goal is to beat out Grossman for the second-string job. Shanahan said the veteran and rookie would split time running the second team during the offseason.

The 6-3, 214-pound Cousins was regarded as one of the more experienced quarterbacks in the draft. He ran a pro-style offense at Michigan State and has decent mobility, but there are questions about his arm strength. Leadership is not an issue, however. Cousins scripted and ran his entire pro day, while every other quarterback ran pro days scripted by coaches.

The Elway-Kubiak arrangement did work for Denver. The reliable Kubiak spent all nine of his NFL seasons with the Broncos, appearing in 119 games — and starting five of them — while spelling Elway.

Cousins, however, would prefer that the future play out as it did for Brett Favre, Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Matt Schaub, all of whom began as backups before they showed enough in relief roles to convince teams to trade for them.

Everyone benefited. Atlanta, for example, received a first-round pick from Green Bay for Favre. Jacksonville paid the Packers a third- and a fifth-rounder for Brunell. Seattle swapped first-round picks and added a third-rounder to get Hasselbeck from Green Bay. And Atlanta exchanged first-round picks with Houston, and took two second-round picks for Schaub.

Another possible scenario for Cousins is Matt Flynn’s. After four seasons and 34 games (two starts) for the Green Bay Packers, Flynn became a hot commodity and signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract with Seattle this spring.

Cousins mentioned “whether here or some other team” in some form three times during his six-minute interview Sunday. But he made it clear that his focus is on contributing for the Redskins however he can.

“I’m here in Washington and this is my opportunity,” he said. “At the end of the day, my faith is very important to me, and I feel like this is where the Lord has led me. And he has me here for a reason. That reason may be to be a backup here for four years, and to serve my teammates, and if that’s his plan, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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