Kirk Cousins' best college lesson came out of the classroom and off the football field. It came from his father.
"My dad said to me for a long time when I was struggling to see if I was going to play at Michigan State, he said, 'Kirk, the cream always rises to the top. If you're good enough, in time, you'll get your shot. And if you're not, you won't,''' Cousins recalled. "I'm not worried about it in the sense that if I'm good enough, I'll be able to show people over time what I can do, and if I'm not, I won't."
Cousins was a fourth-round selection, taken by the Washington Redskins 100 picks after franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III. Griffin injuring his right knee doesn't mean Cousins necessarily has risen to the top of the depth chart by his own play, but the rookie has done enough to prove that he's more than a backup.
And if he has to start Sunday at the Cleveland Browns, coaches and teammates have no doubt in Cousins' ability to keep the Redskins' winning streak alive.
"I've grown exponentially since I got here. It's been a lot of learning," Cousins said. "Rookie year, I was expecting to be constantly learning and having to adapt to learn new things, but I've become a much better quarterback from the day I showed up to where I am now. If I do end up playing on Sunday, that would be another opportunity to learn and grow."
Being drafted behind Griffin looked like a setback for Cousins, who envisioned himself as an NFL starter. Mike Shanahan didn't sit down and chat with Cousins about his role because, as the Redskins coach said, "When you're drafted, there's not a lot of conversation. You know you're on that football team."
Cousins handled that adjustment about as well as could be expected, something that wasn't surprising to those who knew him at Michigan State.
"At every turn he succeeded," Spartans coach Mike Dantonio said in a phone interview. "And when he didn't succeed, he was sort of undeterred by that. He was able to bounce back and always be able to play through the pain."
What Cousins did, from the offseason through Sunday's relief appearance against the Baltimore Ravens, was not only spend time after practice working but learn from Griffin. Rolling to the right on his touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon, he said, was a result of watching Griffin do the same earlier in the game to Joshua Morgan.
"Who knows, but maybe after seeing that happen many times, watching Robert create, whether it's a practice or a game, you start to see that on film quite a bit and in your way you start to try to emulate that," Cousins said. "I think just seeing the way Robert plays, watching a quarterback in front of you play at a high level benefits me because I'm learning from a guy who's doing it the right way."
That's not to say Cousins will be able to extend plays or run like Griffin. But he communicated to Dantonio that he was eager to see what from Griffin's game he could incorporate into his own.
"He's never going to settle for what he has. He's always going to look for the best. He'll look to other people to try and improve his football game or his life or his faith," Dantonio said. "But I think that he's a guy that's very goal-oriented, so if he sees a way to get better, he tries to use that and he's going to surround himself with people that are going to give him examples of that, of opportunities to get better."
Watching Griffin only does so much. But Cousins had chances in the preseason and then Oct. 7 against the Atlanta Falcons when Griffin suffered a concussion.
Cousins learned from his two interceptions against Atlanta to be more careful with the ball. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said "not much" changed from then to Sunday, but that's a good thing going into the Browns game.
"Kirk will come in and sling it around. He reads defenses and lets it go. He hasn't had a lot of reps in practice or the NFL, so I think there's a few things in the Atlanta game as he kept doing it," Shanahan said. "He's going to let it go when he sees something, and he doesn't sit there and hesitate. When that does happen, a couple times in the Atlanta game he made a couple mistakes that I know he learned from them. Hopefully, if he does get more reps this week he'll be better."
It's hard for Cousins to be better than he was against the Ravens. He was 2-for-2 on the game-tying drive, a sample size too small to judge.
If he makes his first career NFL start Sunday, it's a whole different ballgame.
"I walked away from the game, I said to my brother, I said, 'Kyle, I went 2-for-2. Let's not get carried away,' and yet people want to praise you," Cousins said. "And if I go out there and made the mistake to lose the game, people would be giving me too much blame. But when you go the distance, you got a little bit more of a chance to really show your true colors."
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