For the first time in several years, the Washington Redskins are starting their season without drama at the quarterback position and with widespread optimism about their chances for success.
Kirk Cousins, who toiled in the shadow of quarterback Robert Griffin III during the 2012-2014 seasons, outperformed the Heisman Trophy winner during training camp last year and earned the starting job on the eve of the 2015 season opener. A portrait of preparation, persistence and poise, Cousins led the Redskins to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth last year.
This year, Cousins arrived at training camp as the team’s undisputed starter, eager to take the field for the regular season home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 12 and, hopefully, to lead his team even deeper into the post-season.
In an On Tap interview at training camp in Richmond last month, Cousins said entering the season with the team’s leadership role firmly in hand provides him with confidence critical to performing at a high level in professional football.
“It gives you the opportunity to take the reins and just communicate openly with your coaches and teammates,” Cousins said. “It gives you a great platform and foundation to help lead the team and score points.”
Cousins grew reflective when asked what he learned from Griffin’s tumultuous time with the Redskins. Griffin’s tenure saw the former Baylor University star go from being named NFL rookie of the year at the end of his first season to being benched on the eve of his fourth. Griffin now plays for the Cleveland Browns.
“What I learned is that just because you’re successful one day, doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful the next,” Cousins said. “It keeps me on my toes. I feel like I’ve always got to prove it over and over and over again. Not just year after year, but day after day. I’ve got to prove myself and earn my spot. You never really feel comfortable in this league, but I think it brings out the best in you.”
Redskins Coach Jay Gruden, who praised Cousins’ mechanics and work ethic when naming him the starting quarterback over Griffin at the beginning of last season, thinks the best is yet to come from the fifth-year pro and former Michigan State star.
“Unfortunately for him, we had all the controversies in the last two years, and since he’s been in the league, he’s been playing second fiddle,” Gruden said during an interview on ESPN 980 prior to the start of training camp. “Now it’s his team.”
“He played pretty darn good last year,” Gruden added. “We expect him to make a major jump this year. People don’t understand the importance of experience.”
Cousins said his primary objective at training camp last month was improving his protection of the football, making good decisions in pressure situations and avoiding costly interceptions. Some critics contend that the 6-foot-3, 210-pound athlete too often forces the ball into blanket coverage, taking chances that result in turnovers.
“No matter how long or how well you play the year before, the key to the game is always going to be to make good decisions with the football and manage the game well,” Cousins said. “If you can do those two things and build on experience, the rest takes care of itself. That’s when great things happen.”
While the Redskins’ running game isn’t expected to dominate games this year, Cousins said he’s thrilled with a receiving corps that boasts multiple weapons, including veteran wideout DeSean Jackson, newly acquired veteran tight end Vernon Davis and second-year Redskins tight end Jordan Reed, who outperformed expectations last year.
“Quarterbacks are only as good as the guys around them,” Cousins said. “Reed has shown why he’s an elite tight end. We just need to keep finding ways to get him the football. I’m sure teams will try to double cover him or take him away, but we’ll do the best we can.”
“[Davis] still has a lot of juice. He can run really well, catch the ball well and he’s a pro. He approaches the game with a pro’s mentality. It’s no secret as to why he’s been successful.”
Davis returned the compliment.
“I think Kirk is awesome,” Davis told On Tap. “He’s a great dude, and he’s just leading. It’s both vocal and through his actions – he exemplifies what it is to be a leader for a team. I think he’s doing a wonderful job. He’s cruising right now.”
“The whole thing was just about win, win, win,” he explained. “The fan base enjoyed it and we were able to raise awareness for a great organization – International Justice Mission – based out of DC. [The “You like that?” meme] has been fun for the fans. The best way to keep it alive is to win football games.”
Cousins’ future with the Redskins is uncertain after this year. His contract is up at the end of the season, and whether he remains in burgundy and gold will depend on his performance on the field. Cousins noted that he and his wife Julie enjoy living in the DC area, and suggested he would like to stay put for years to come.