(photo by Brian Murphy)
For my money, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has one of the toughest gigs imaginable.
For starters, his lifelong dream of playing professional football doesn’t exactly go according to plan when he get drafted by a quarterback-starved franchise that was still celebrating landing Robert Griffin III.
So while so many of his peers in this talented rookie class are setting records, he spent much of his inaugural campaign sitting next to Rex Grossman on the sidelines while the most electrifying player in the NFL today took the league by storm.
When Griffin got injured and Cousins finally had the opportunity to show he too could be effective at this level, the entire offense had to be switched up because his skill set is so vastly different from RGIII’s. Just when his teammates began to settle in and get used to running the pistol, everything reverts back to a more traditional offense run by a far less mobile rookie.
And yet, you never hear Cousins complain or feel sorry for himself. You don’t hear his agent making remarks about demanding to be traded or anything like that. Instead, the 24-year-old just quietly goes about his business and handles himself with absolute class and professionalism.
Sure, he wants to play, but he knows this is Griffin’s team, so for as long as he’s in Washington he’s going to be the best teammate and backup quarterback he can be.
Before the season ended, I had the chance to sit down with Cousins for a one-on-one interview with the Michigan State standout to learn more about the young man who might very well be the starting quarterback for the Redskins when the 2013 season begins. Here’s how our conversation went:
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan during your first season in Washington?
“Well, when I first got out here, I read Mike’s book that he had written back in the late 90’s called “Think Like A Champion” and really got a feel for who he is as a person, the way he operates while running his teams,” Cousins said. “I think the first thing I picked up was just preparation and just, the way he’s won and the way he’s risen to where he is from where he was back when he was my age was because of his preparation. He out-prepares you, he out-works you and I feel like for me to rise to that level of success as a player, I’m going to need to do the same thing.
“It just takes work and it’s not going to happen overnight,” he continued. “But if you keep staying after practice and you keep staying after to watch extra film and you keep working on fundamentals and you keep being critical of yourself when you watch the film — continually asking yourself ‘What can I do better? What can I do better?’ — eventually you’re going to break through and it’s going to happen. But it’s not going to happen overnight, so I’m staying patient and doing exactly what they tell me to do while also fully trusting them that what they’re telling me to do is going to bring me success.”
For my money, the biggest moment of the 2012 season was when you were thrust into action at the end of the Baltimore Ravens game. Your team is down by eight points with less than a minute to play and you’ve been standing on the sideline in a parka for the last three hours. I don’t think people truly understand how tough it is to sit there on the bench for an entire game and then have to magically turn it on with no real time to think about it and with so much on the line. Sure, you only completed two passes, but they were two pretty huge passes …
“You said it well,” Cousins said. “I feel like whether it was the public, the media, the fanbase or even my own coaches when I came to the facility the next day, they were just so complementary and so positive in saying what a great job you did. I said to my quarterback coach, ‘I only threw two passes. It wasn’t like I went 22 for 22. I went two for two, so what’s the big deal?’ And they weren’t big-time throws in the sense that they were 30 yards down the field or anything like that, and he said, ‘Kirk, you have no idea how difficult it is to do what you did in terms of the setting and the pressure. Most guys would freak out and have a hard time. You’d be surprised how hard that is to do for some guys in that moment.'”
“Looking back, yeah, we kind of pulled a rabbit out of a hat on that one,” he continued. “When you start 3-6 and have a chance to win the division you’re probably going to have those kind of games along the way. No doubt that looked like a game we were going to lose and we were able to win. But like I said, I just went in, did what I was coached to do, tried to simplify my thought process and it led to good results.”
You were drafted by the unlikeliest of teams and relegated to the sidelines for most of your rookie season, so how gratifying was it to get your first NFL start in Cleveland?
“Because of my role here as a backup, my opportunity — my window to show what I can do — is small,” Cousins said. “And so, an opportunity like the one I had in Cleveland is so important because I don’t know when my next chance to play an entire game will be. I don’t know if I’ll ever get another chance to play an entire game, so I knew all about the sense of urgency and the importance that week in terms of my preparation and how I played on Sunday. To walk away from that game feeling good about my performance and feeling good about how our team did and to put us in a position to win the division, was extremely gratifying.
“It was that top of the world type of feeling, and now the focus is to not start to pat myself on the back because I was so hungry when I came in as a fourth-round pick and so motivated in the preseason to show what I can do,” he continued. “Even after the Baltimore game, I was so motivated to show what I can do as a starter, and then you have that moment of success and it’s human nature to sit back and relax. Now, my focus moving forward is to not pat myself on the back and to not get comfortable, to keep that chip on my shoulder that I’ve had since I was 17 and to just keep working and keep trying to get better. I think if I maintain that mentality, when the next chance comes whether it’s next season or whatever, I’ll be ready.”
After everything that’s happened to you and this team over the last two months of the regular season, how tough was the abrupt ending in the playoffs?
“It was obviously difficult, but there’s only one team happy at the end of the season,” Cousins said. “You’re going to have 31 teams that feel like this at some point. It was a great year to win seven in a row and pull ourselves out from where we were in November. We have a lot to be proud of, but certainly, remembering this feeling during the offseason I think will strengthen the team and bring us together when we go into the preparation in the spring and help us going into next season to have a better year.”
Once again you were thrown into a game during the fourth quarter with heightened stakes. Unfortunately, this game didn’t have the same ending as the Ravens come-from-behind victory though …
“Yeah, it was a tough situation to get thrown into, but that’s the life of a backup quarterback,” he said. “I tried to do the best I could and I could have done some things better, but things just didn’t fall our way. I’ll be able to watch the film and learn from it though and ever if I was feeling good and patting myself on the back after the Cleveland game, now going into the offseason I’ll have a little bit more of that edge to me and feel like I’ve once again got something to prove after what I didn’t get done against the Seahawks.”