Kirk Cousins is like ice in a drink. He’s refreshing. The Washington Redskins often seem like a toxic mix of mercurial personalities, but their current starting quarterback is delightfully different. He blends.
In the NFL, it’s always about the quarterback, especially for a franchise that has rummaged through 16 starters the past 16 years. But Cousins is so unassuming and earnest that attention seeps through him.
Over the years, you’ve gotten accustomed to quarterbacks being maddening, controversial, polarizing, inadequate, blundering, unreliable, distressing. For now, Cousins rates as swell. Sure, he has had his struggles in Washington, but he’s no lightning rod.
He’s the kind of guy who uses the old-school phrase “Shoot!” when he revisits his mistakes. That’s “Shoot!” as in shucks or gosh golly darn he wishes he could’ve done better. Not “Shoot!” as in this is how he’ll threaten to settle a beef over a card game.
Cousins is almost too good for this opportunity. You almost want to protect him from the agony he might endure if he’s not the answer. But there he is, standing behind a podium, looking confident and feeling secure.
“It’s my job to stay relaxed and enjoy the process and enjoy the moment, have fun and put a smile on my face,” Cousins said after practice Wednesday afternoon, four days before he begins an NFL season as a starter for the first time. “I think that’s certainly a point of emphasis for me this week.”
Cousins is the quarterback. He’s not the story.
If that remains the case for most of the season, it will be a good year.
What are the odds of that happening? It’s about as likely as Robert Griffin III never inspiring a headline again. The quarterback can’t be invisible, but is Cousins capable of taking advantage of condensed responsibilities and operating so well that he just melts into the system?
That was the strategy for Griffin before Cousins replaced him. That’s still the strategy now. Call it the Quarterback Minimization Plan.
The idea is to make the quarterback a role player, which is a little easier when that player isn’t trying to recapture the glory of an incredible rookie season. It’s the most important role on the team, yes, but the mission is to make the hardest job in sports manageable. General Manager Scot McCloughan refers to it as building around the quarterback, something he has experienced success doing. Coach Jay Gruden preaches about the support that a physical offensive line and strong running game can provide.
With Griffin and Colt McCoy on the roster, there’s a perception Cousins has to play so well that you don’t start daydreaming about whether the other quarterbacks could do better. That’s why there’s so much distraction talk. But this isn’t a year to look toward the ceiling when evaluating that position. It’s about the floor. For Cousins to find serenity as the starter, he needs to prove he can be steady. He needs to prove his floor is higher than the others. They gradually will work on spectacular.
“He just has to relax and do what he does, what he’s done,” Gruden said. “Obviously, he was a great quarterback in college and has done some good things here. Biggest thing is he can’t feel like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. He has to rely on people to help him out, take what the defense gives him, hand the ball off, get us in the right run checks and play the position and have fun, man.
“He doesn’t have to do it all himself.”
Gruden included “punt when we need to punt” among his expectations for the offense with Cousins.
Yeah, the floor.
If Cousins can corral his talent, he’s much more than a robot who can hand off to Alfred Morris and Matt Jones and make the simple throw on third and four. With his arm strength and intelligence, he can be a dependable NFL starter. If he improves his composure and patience, if he stops being so turnover prone (18 touchdown passes, 19 picks in his NFL career), he can be even greater than dependable.
Cousins doesn’t have to stretch his talent. He has to direct it properly. He’s 27 years old. This might be his best chance.
Gruden has gone out of his way to manage expectations for the quarterback play. He wants to play a simple game that is friendly for a developing signal caller. Cousins just might be the low-maintenance guy to embrace the job description.
“We’ve got all these bells and whistles, man, outside with DeSean [Jackson] and Pierre [Garcon] and Jordan Reed and all that stuff,” Gruden said. “But for us to get to where we want to get, we have to be a physical football team and be able to win the line of scrimmage. That’ll open up our play-actions and everything else. But if we’re not physical, we’re not going to have much of a chance.”
Not sure whether Jackson is a bell and Garcon a whistle or vice versa. Quite sure that the receiving targets won’t like feeling minimized. But the plan is to play off the run, and if they’re successful, there will be more opportunities for every offensive weapon.
“For me, it’s my job to get them the football, then let them go do the jaw-dropping stuff,” Cousins said. “I’m going to try to put the ball in their hands and then let them go from there. I’m excited for that job, that role.”
When Gruden declared recently that it’s “Kirk’s team,” he didn’t mean it in the same way that Denver says it’s Peyton Manning’s team or New England says it’s Tom Brady’s team or Indianapolis says it’s Andrew Luck’s team. The responsibilities are different. The trust is still being established here.
Cousins doesn’t feel the need to look over his shoulder, but he also knows that until he proves himself, his starter status is always open for discussion.
“Obviously, everybody has a limit,” Cousins said. “You’ve got to do your part. You’ve got to play well. But I do feel believed in. I haven’t questioned that. I’ve never questioned that. I feel like I have all the pieces around me to be able to be successful.”
When it comes to expressing self-confidence, Cousins’s remarks pale in comparison to Griffin’s “I feel like I’m the best quarterback in the league.” That’s not a knock on Griffin. That’s an illustration of how Cousins’s mind-set blends with the formula his team is attempting to concoct.
We’ve only begun to peel back the layers of the Redskins’ complicated quarterback situation. There’s so much going on that it’s difficult to know what’s right — and impossible to predict what will happen. But with Cousins, you’re certain to eliminate one potential complication, a nagging complication that has made appraising Gruden’s coaching ability difficult.
Cousins truly just works here, man.
And for now, that’s the kind of quarterback this franchise needs.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.