For more than three years, Kirk Cousins has followed a mantra that sounds simple but would be easier said than done for some.
“Be the good soldier. Control what you can control. Prepare as if you’re the starter,” Cousins would remind himself.
And so, for three-plus years, Cousins studied the playbook and video relentlessly. He stayed on the field well after practice ended, further honing his skills.
He made the most of his chances to play but never lobbied publicly or internally for a promotion. In every interview, Cousins always made sure nothing he said could be perceived as a jab at Robert Griffin III or his coaches.
When Cousins blew an opportunity to take the starting job last season — sabotaging himself with a string of interception-laden meltdowns — and never received consideration to return to the lineup even after Griffin got benched, he didn’t sulk. Instead, he kept his head down and worked — on his own and with private coaches, including Jon Gruden — determined to better himself physically, technically and mentally.
“I certainly had some nights where I wasn’t sleeping well,” Cousins recalled. “My wife would tell you I was a bear to deal with. It was a tough experience. Certainly it made me stronger going forward. I look back now and I feel like that experience will make me a better football player in the future.”
Now, as the 2015 season is set to kick off, it appears that Cousins was accurate in all of his calculated moves.
While Coach Jay Gruden and team officials spent the offseason and training camp doing everything possible to prop up Griffin and stick by him as the starter, Cousins made steady strides.
“You know, when you get in the second year in a system, there’s a comfort level,” Gruden said. “Certain quarterbacks take a giant leap, certain quarterbacks don’t. But I feel like Kirk has taken a giant leap so far. We feel great about the progress that he has made.”
Gruden always said he wasn’t holding a competition for the starting job. But it became clear, in the back of his mind, he couldn’t help but evaluate his three passers as candidates for one job. And in the end, Cousins won.
So the Redskins will go into the season behind Cousins, hoping the same poise in the pocket, passing accuracy and crisp pace that he exhibited in the preseason translates into success against a vaunted Miami Dolphins pass rush and beyond.
Cousins certainly has the pieces around him to succeed.
Washington has two punishing runners in Alfred Morris and rookie Matt Jones. Coaches plan to rely on them heavily. Team officials have invested in the offensive line in each of the past two drafts. This year’s fifth overall pick, Brandon Scherff, will start at right guard, and last year’s third-rounder, Morgan Moses, at right tackle. With three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams leading the way, coaches envision a physical, athletic line.
Washington boasts talented playmakers as well. Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson lead a wide receiver unit that also features promising young prospects Jamison Crowder and Ryan Grant. And, if healthy, Jordan Reed can become one of the most dangerous tight ends in the league.
“Our offense is based on the run and opening everything off of that,” Garcon explained. “Running the ball is our identity, and then we’ll open things up with our receivers and tight ends. We’re going to find what works for us, and every game is going to be different. Some guys are going to stop the run, some are going to stop the pass. You never know. We’ve just got to see what they give us and take that. . . . Defenses are just going to have to pick their poison.”
Much will fall on Cousins’s shoulders regardless, however. Adversity will come, and for his team to win the quarterback must display resilience. The pressure situations proved crippling for Cousins last season.
However, Cousins and his coaches believe he may have turned a corner. Against Baltimore in the third preseason game, he threw an interception on the first possession of the game and then opened the second with a fumbled snap, which Washington recovered. But Cousins didn’t wilt this time and eventually directed two touchdown drives.
“I think he’s matured a lot,” offensive coordinator Sean McVay said. “I think last year, having gone some through adversity, he was able to respond positively to that to where he’s a resilient guy that’s very positive and was able to work through some of those things, and we were really pleased with how he responded from that.”
Now an opening-day starter for the first time since his senior year at Michigan State, Cousins must prove that his coaches made the right call, and that he remains capable of making all the right moves.