There were clear signs for weeks, and confirmation came Thursday night in the Washington Redskins’ preseason opener: Backup quarterback Kirk Cousins is playing at a higher level than last season. Command of the offense, confidence in the pocket, decision-making, accuracy — Cousins is much better in each key area than he was as a rookie in 2012. And he was pretty good then, too.

After proving himself as starter Robert Griffin III’s understudy last season, Cousins is the leading man this preseason as the Redskins proceed cautiously with Griffin in his return from knee surgery. Until Griffin retakes his job in the regular season, Cousins will make the most of his opportunity and remain ready to help.

Both assertive and efficient during training camp, Cousins has excelled in his temp job. It’s easy to understand why Coach Mike Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the Redskins’ creative offensive coordinator, smile so much after watching Cousins bring their X’s-and-O’s vision to life. Of course, a lot of players excel in practice and then struggle during games. As it turned out, though, Cousins was even better against a defense that doesn’t wear Redskins colors.

Under Cousins’s direction for two series, Washington’s first-team offense played well in Thursday’s 22-21 road victory over Tennessee. The Redskins were without Griffin, left tackle Trent Williams, wide receiver Pierre Garcon and running back Alfred Morris. But based on what happened in the game, you couldn’t tell four starters got the night off.

On their second series, the Redskins briskly covered 64 yards on seven plays, the final one a three-yard touchdown pass from Cousins to tight end Fred Davis. Cousins was sharp on the drive, completing his four attempts for 35 yards. While calmly cycling through his progressions, he appeared at ease in an offense he fully grasps. It was a good look for Cousins. He thought so as well.

“The first preseason game is a great measuring stick compared to last year’s first preseason game,” said Cousins, who completed six passes in seven attempts.

“I can pause and look back and say, ‘Where have I grown from a year ago to now?’ I can see how much more comfortable I am in calling the play, getting to the line of scrimmage, identifying the coverage, identifying the fronts, getting in and out of the right and wrong plays [and being] able to make quick decisions.”

Cousins’s rapid growth doesn’t surprise Mike Shanahan, who drafted Cousins with this sort of thing in mind. Remember, Shanahan said, “for him to win [the No. 2 quarterback job] last year, he really had to do it quickly. . . . He’s got a lot of God-given talent, [and] he’s an extremely bright guy who works extremely hard.”

It shows on the field. Just like Griffin, Cousins ignores the clock while he works on his craft. He spends countless hours in the film room in an attempt to refine his performance. “He’s a student of the game,” Shanahan said.

He’s also a willing pupil, which has been great for his teachers. Early on last season, the Shanahans realized they were right about Cousins, who learned the playbook quickly and made enough big plays in practice to inspire confidence the offense wouldn’t collapse without Griffin. With the NFL’s 2012 offensive rookie of the year blocking his path, however, Cousins had to be patient — even in practice.

Generally, backup quarterbacks get few practice reps in the regular season. Backups are expected to prepare by watching starters work, reviewing film of opponents and studying each week’s game plan (the so-called “mental reps”). But sometimes it’s hard for veteran backups to keep their head in the game, let alone a rookie playing behind Griffin, who is as possessive of his job as a pit bull would be of a rib-eye steak.

The Shanahans needed Cousins to accept the order of things and still deliver if they turned to him. Fortunately for the Shanahans, Cousins was up to the challenge. Three times last season, Cousins took over after Griffin suffered injuries. Twice, the Redskins won.

In Week 14 against Baltimore, Cousins came off the bench during the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. Cousins ended the Redskins’ final drive of regulation with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Garcon and then ran for a tying two-point conversion with 29 seconds remaining. The Redskins won on a field goal in overtime.

Starting for Griffin in Week 15, Cousins passed for 329 yards and two touchdowns and the Redskins scored 28 points in the final two quarters for a 38-21 blowout of the Browns in Cleveland. After watching Griffin drag his damaged right leg around FedEx Field in the playoff loss to Seattle in January, Mike Shanahan should have replaced Griffin with Cousins. The coach won’t make that mistake again.

Shanahan made the right call in drafting Cousins, who would start for many teams. In all likelihood, the Redskins will eventually trade Cousins, who can become an unrestricted free agent after his fourth season. But he is doing great for the Redskins in an important spot. For as long as possible, they should keep him there.

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