RICHMOND — Kirk Cousins and Spencer Long have always had a good relationship, well before they became the starting quarterback and center for the Washington Redskins. They’re both Midwest natives, from Holland, Mich., and Elkhorn, Neb., who attended Big Ten schools, Michigan State and Nebraska. They have similar interests, a similar sense of humor and a natural bond off the field.
When Long transitioned from guard to center, and eventually became the full-time starter four games into last season, he felt a need to prove himself to Cousins.
“I wanted to show him that he could have confidence in me,” Long said.
In their first full offseason together as starters, there isn’t a doubt from Cousins, Long or Redskins Coach Jay Gruden that the chemistry has translated to the field. Center was the weakest spot on Washington’s offensive line last year, but Long grew on the job in his 12 starts, and Cousins and Long have continued this offseason to build on the fundamental trust needed between a quarterback and a center to help solidify the team up the middle.
“The communication has been very, very good so far,” Gruden said. “Just got to keep it going because, week to week, the fronts change, the blitzes change and you’ve got to be on top of it.”
During this year’s training camp practices, Cousins and Long, who missed Tuesday afternoon’s practice because of an illness, can often be seen entering or leaving the field together, and that continuity is showing up in their play. Among the many areas in which Long has grown during the past year, the biggest has been in his pre-snap recognition. In his 13 starts at guard in 2015, he was only responsible for his own assignment, but that wasn’t the case once Long, now entering his fourth season, made the full-time move to center last year. It became his duty to line up the entire offensive line, basing his reads off how the defense aligned before the play.
“When you move over to center, you’re kind of forced to learn,” Long said. “It’s almost like once you break that ceiling, it all becomes clear. Your football IQ jumps when you have to move to center, and mine made that jump. I truly didn’t understand true defensive football until I had to move to center.
“I mean, I understood,” Long said, “but not to the level I do now. It forces you to learn, and learn fast.”
In the quarterback-center relationship, Long’s biggest area of responsibility is in the run game, where he’ll make all the calls. Long makes the calls in pass protection as well, but Cousins has the authority to overrule him because “if [Cousins] doesn’t know where we’re blocking, there’s trouble,” Long said.
“On one hand, you trust him from the get-go,” Cousins said when Long was named the starter. “If you’re not trusting him, you’re not going to win. You’ve got to feel good going into the game. At the same time, every time you have success, you have an experience together — like a big win, a two-minute drill, a successful play — you build another step of confidence together. It was just a process all season long. I wouldn’t have gone in the first game with him if we didn’t feel confident.”
Once Long didn’t feel the need to hesitate with his pre-snap reads, he was able to get his footwork down, followed by his technique and the rest of the intricacies that come with the position. And to think, just five months before his first start at center, Long struggled with snapping the ball during one-on-one pash-rush drills. Redskins nose tackles lined up over Long’s snap hand in practice, bringing their best rush moves because they didn’t have to account for the run.
“That’s when you start to get antsy,” Long said. “You might rock that snap back, you might roll it back because you’re trying to get your hand up super fast.”
Although they signed a veteran in John Sullivan, the Redskins stuck with Long as he continued to grow with each opportunity facing talented linemen such as New York Giants defensive tackle Damon Harrison and Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.
Now, Long’s snap is no longer a problem. He’s often on the same page with Cousins before a play, too. After all, Cousins and Long both had ambitions to attend medical school until football altered their paths — as friends, teammates and now starters.
“To [Long’s] credit, he studied it really hard and worked really hard to get to where he is,” Cousins said. “He’s a guy I’d love to play with for a long time.”
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