If there’s anyone at Redskins Park who’s fortunate that Robert Griffin III isn’t able to practice while recovering from knee surgery, it’s Kirk Cousins.
The second-year man from Michigan State has been Washington’s No. 1 quarterback since Griffin’s right knee finally gave out on him during the fourth quarter of the playoff loss to Seattle on Jan. 6. And with the Redskins being very careful with Griffin’s on-field regimen these days, Cousins could be the starter throughout the rest of OTAs, minicamp, training camp, preseason and possibly into the early part of the season.
“I see this as a great opportunity for me, however long it lasts,” said Cousins, whose 101.6 passer rating in two relief stints and a victory over Cleveland as the starter when Griffin was sidelined in 2012 was nearly as impressive as his Rookie of the Year teammate’s 102.4. “I wasn’t expecting to be with the No. 1 offense much at all and so now to be able to do it for [an extended period] will help my growth and development tremendously.”
Not that Cousins wanted out of Washington even if Griffin was working with the starters.
“I don’t know if I would have expected to start a game my rookie year,” said Cousins, who was 26 of 37 for 329 yards, two touchdowns and an interception against the Browns. “I probably wouldn’t have expected to play as well as we did in that game. It clearly was a great rookie year … It probably did exceed my expectations. I felt like with a four-year contract, it’s too early [to be somewhere else]. I think this is a great place to be right now in this system … coming off a division championship. I’m very glad that I’m back with the Redskins.”
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who was criticized by some – including this writer – for drafting a quarterback in the fourth round after trading up to choose sure starter Griffin second overall – is pleased with how Cousins is coming along in year two.
“Any time a quarterback gets the reps that Kirk is getting right now, he develops,” Shanahan said. “You can see the progression in his game. He’s playing with a lot of confidence and we like what we see.”
Cousins hopes that some of Shanahan’s 31 fellow coaches agree.
“I view this as a proving ground to see if I deserve to be a starter,” Cousins said. “Every game’s film. Even if coaches are coaching other games, they’re going to be able to go back and watch tape [of preseason] and see what I can do. It may be the best thing that ever happened to me to start my career in Washington. If I play well, it opens up doors elsewhere. If I don’t play well, it doesn’t.”
Like all backup quarterbacks, Cousins understands that he’s always one play from being in command of the offense. The difference is that Cousins knows that not only does he have no chance to win the job when Griffin’s healthy, but that he’s going to spend the next three seasons as he did his first: as an insurance policy. That fact isn’t easy to accept when you’re 24 and were a three-year starter in a big-time college program where you set school passing records.
“It’s a challenge to be a backup quarterback, but that’s what I signed up for,” Cousins said. “If I can’t meet that challenge, I really have no business someday being a starter. I want to play so well in practice that even if I’m not the guy, the coaches are … saying, ‘I can’t wait until we can give this guy an opportunity to show us what he can do on Sundays.’ I have to be preparing like I’m starting. If you start to let the thought creep in your mind of, ‘I’m probably not going to start,’ I think your preparation starts to suffer.”
And while Cousins, a typical drop back passer, will never be the runner that Griffin is, he’s intent on making sure that those aspects of coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense are still workable with him taking the snaps.
“I didn’t do any pistol or zone read in college,” Cousins said. “It was very foreign for me last year. When I got in games, obviously it wasn’t our bread and butter. It still won’t be, but having a little experience with it, I feel much more comfortable doing it. I’ve been working hard on my agility to make it a viable option. It’s worthwhile to call [those plays] and get reps for the other 10 guys because a day’s going to come when Robert’s back and [they] will be called.”
And as he showed last year, Cousins is ready when opportunity calls.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin