RICHMOND — There are layers to pressure. For the past two years, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has not only served the most important role on the team, but he’s had to prove that he’s a legitimate starting quarterback in the process.
Thirty-two regular season starts and 9,083 passing yards later, he is no longer auditioning. Cousins, a fourth-round pick in 2012, is worthy of a starting job in the NFL.
As he’s set to play on the franchise tag for the second straight season, making nearly $24 million in 2017, Cousins has been through this before. The pressure to produce is still there, but this time the challenge is to do so with a different crop of wide receivers and a new offensive coordinator. But Cousins feels more comfortable handling the situation in his third season as Washington’s starter.
“I certainly don’t want the narrative to become that, ‘Kirk’s so relaxed, he’s got this. He’s like Aaron Rodgers out there — just chill like he knows what’s going to happen next,’ ” said Cousins when asked about the last time he’s felt this relaxed going into a season. “That’s certainly not how I feel. I definitely feel like I’ve got to go out there and prove myself and the season is a grind. I guess compared to previous years, I guess having experience has built confidence and has helped me to have a little more — whatever the word is — a little more confidence. But I’ve still got a long ways to go.”
The question surrounding Cousins now is not about whether he can play, but how consistently he can play, how productive he can be with new weapons and, of course, how much he is worth. His performance — while the debate rages whether it’s been above average, good, or very good at times — has established stability as an NFL starter, despite his uncertain future in Washington beyond 2017.
“I’d like to think it will make playing the position more fun and less of a grind, and I can just enjoy it and truly live the dream,” Cousins said about his level of confidence heading into this season.
Through the highs of winning the NFC East division title and appearing in a playoff game in 2015, to the lows of throwing an interception that kept Washington from a playoff berth in last year’s regular season finale, Cousins has played through in a wide range of situations in two years. The experiences have allowed Cousins to adjust his approach in certain areas as he aims for continual growth.
In his second training camp as the starter, Cousins said he’s been able to pace himself and build up for the regular season. He said he would previously treat every offseason practice with the pressure of a prime-time game, which would be a natural reaction for someone who has had to prove whether he’s capable NFL quarterback for four training camps. There’s more confidence this year, which Cousins felt was evident in his loose demeanor while being mic’d up during last Monday’s practice.
“There’s just a greater relaxation, there’s a greater comfort level and ability to just be myself,” Cousins said. “If you mic’d me up three years ago, I just wouldn’t be in that place. My personality wouldn’t come through because training camp was my Super Bowl. It’s not a time to be joking around. If you act like that every single day and never let your personality come through, that’s where I said the burnout can happen because you’re on edge all the time.
“As you get more comfortable and solidify your role and understand where you are and feel like you’ve been there before, you can relax, let your personality come through and just enjoy the game and play. I like to think there’s a balance there where I can be the best possible football player when I’m relaxed, but also locked in.”
Cousins said he would have to go back to the start of his senior season at Michigan State, his third year as a starter, to recall a comparable feeling. How exactly will a more relaxed Cousins look on the field? That remains to be seen. Cousins no longer has veterans DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon out wide, but there’s still enough weapons for Cousins to be productive with Terrelle Pryor Sr., Jordan Reed, Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder. He doesn’t have former offensive coordinator Sean McVay in his corner, but Cousins still has a smart offensive mind in Redskins Coach Jay Gruden, who is now calling the plays, and his previous quarterbacks coach serving as the offensive coordinator, Matt Cavanaugh.
As with every season, the circumstances are different and bring their own unique layers of pressure. But Cousins knows what to expect when he’s playing on a one-year deal as the starting quarterback for the Redskins after the last two seasons. He reflected on this gained perspective Sunday while enjoying a Coldplay concert at the same place he has learned to deal with that pressure, FedEx Field.
“I said, ‘You know, growing up I’d pull up to a venue like this for a sporting event and I’d say, ‘Man can you imagine being the guy playing in there? What a thrill, what a dream, I can’t imagine being that guy,’ ” Cousins said. “I said, ‘I’m pulling up right now thinking that same thing about the band that’s playing, and yet, when we pull up in our bus for a game, I just don’t feel that way.’ And I think it’s partly because the game is such a challenge, it is such a grind. It takes everything I have to be successful and as a result, I just treat it like, ‘That’s my job, I have got to go do that tonight,’ you know what I mean?
“There’s nothing fun or cool about it, it’s just I have to go get the job done. I’d like to think that the longer I play, you can appreciate the fun of it more and just relax and enjoy it. I think I’m hoping to get there as I continue to play and get better, but it’s a process.”