RICHMOND — Seconds before Kirk Cousins took his first snap as an NFL quarterback in October, replacing concussed starter Robert Griffin III, he gathered his teammates in a huddle and stared into the eyes of Trent Williams, Will Montgomery and Pierre Garcon, established starters on the Washington Redskins' thriving offense.
"It was almost like a, 'Hi, nice to meet you,' experience," Cousins recalled. "'Now I'm going to be your quarterback.'"
Cousins had not extensively practiced with the 10 players on the field with him that rainy afternoon. Familiarity and comfort breed quick thinking and sharp physical execution in the NFL, and Cousins didn't have that.
So as Cousins quarterbacks the Redskins' starting offense through the preseason, beginning on the road Thursday night against the Tennessee Titans, he believes he is better equipped to seize an opportunity that's important for him and the franchise.
Because he has practiced with the first-string offense more than 20 times during Griffin's recovery from right knee surgery, he expects to prove he is a quality Plan B at quarterback for the Redskins and solidify his value to other teams that might try to trade for him in the future.
"Just the fact I know this offense so much more, understand the game so much more ... all of that should lend itself to my being ready to face what I have to face this preseason," Cousins said.
Cousins asserted himself as the Redskins' starting quarterback after Griffin underwent knee surgery Jan. 9. He accepts his backup role with the utmost class and dedication to preparation, but he made sure to approach the offseason as if he were Washington's starting quarterback and foremost leader — which he remains until Griffin is cleared to play in the regular season.
Cousins' 329-yard, two-touchdown performance in a win at Cleveland in December inspired self-confidence, as well as belief among his teammates and the coaching staff. It gave him credibility in leading the first-string offense during the offseason.
That has carried over into training camp, where teammates regularly see signs of his personal evolution.
"You see Kirk step up being a real leader on this team," tight end Niles Paul said. "You kind of get the feel he's been in the league eight years because that's the way he carries himself, as a seasoned veteran almost."
Receiver Aldrick Robinson sees concrete evidence of that in the passing game.
"He's more confident," Robinson said. "He's confident in his throws. He's better with his reads."
Teammates have taken to his endearing quirks. When he played last season, he introduced every play call in the huddle with the word "team," a habit he stopped when players good-naturedly joked about his earnestness.
There are also his enthusiastic reactions to touchdowns. Even during practices, he sometimes jumps on his linemen when he completes a scoring play.
"His thing is always 'boo-yah!' He says 'boo-yah!' a lot when he throws a nice ball," running back Alfred Morris said with a laugh. "It's pretty hilarious to see him get amped up a little bit because normally he's not that type of guy. He's a quiet guy, just goes about his business."
Cousins is eager to build on last season's performance against Cleveland by playing well against first-string defenses during the preseason. He was a substitute last August, so he played against many players he would never face in a regular season game.
His familiarity with teammates on the first-string offense should enable that in the coming weeks. Last season, he worried he would fumble Montgomery's snap from center because they never practiced together. This preseason, they have thousands of practice reps to rely on.
"I'm not thinking about that anymore," Cousins said. "I could go on and on with things that are instinctive now that last year I was having to think about and process in my head while I was trying to do everything else, as well."
He and the Redskins hope that results in several "boo-yahs" during the next three games. Coach Mike Shanahan expects the first-string offense to play 10 to 15 snaps Thursday. In the second and third preseason games, Cousins might stay in the game after the first-stringers come out just to get additional experience.
So if Griffin were unable to play at some point during the regular season, Cousins could smoothly take over at a level much more advanced than he did against Atlanta in October.
"It would be like, 'Hey, guys. Good to see you again,'" he said.
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