- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 10, 2015

ASHBURN — The feeling of disappointment gnawed at him, perhaps more than he ever expected it would.

Kirk Cousins endured many sleepless nights last October, aware of what had gone wrong but unsure of how to fix it. He was ornery at home and constantly on edge, believing that the opportunity he had coveted for so long had swiftly passed him by.

Mistakes can have that affect, and Cousins, for his part, had committed many. In five starts in place of the injured Robert Griffin III, he threw nine interceptions, including one shortly before halftime in the Washington Redskins‘ game against the Tennessee Titans.

That’s when coach Jay Gruden had enough. Cousins was pulled in favor of Colt McCoy, who led the Redskins to a come-from-behind victory and kept a hand in the starting mix for the rest of the season. Cousins would not play another down, inactive for the final two months and unable to pick himself up out of his misery.

“Any time you have a job to do and you feel like you didn’t get the job done, it’s going to eat at you if you care about it,” Cousins said. “For me, I deeply care about it, and so it was eating at me. It was important then to say, ‘All right, what do I do now? What do I do about it now?’ Obviously, I couldn’t go right back on the field and try to fix it, but that may have been a good thing, just to be able to go back and learn from it and slowly try to grow and build off of it.”

That reconstruction wasn’t complete until late last month, when, following another injury to Griffin, Gruden announced that Cousins would be the Redskins‘ starting quarterback “for 2015 moving forward.”

On Sunday, in the Redskins‘ opener against the Miami Dolphins, Cousins will take a regular-season snap for the first time since Oct. 19. It will also be the first time the quarterback has opened the season as a starter since 2011, his senior year at Michigan State.

The urgency remains, but for now, the tension is gone.

“It’s my job to almost stay relaxed and enjoy the process and enjoy the moment, have fun and put a smile on my face,” Cousins said. “I think that’s certainly a point of emphasis for me this week.”

Learning from the past

Cousins was in the shotgun, facing first-and-10 from his own 42-yard line, when a flat throw over the middle was snagged by Titans inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard. The quarterback stood at the spot of his throw, looked slightly left and right and drooped his head for several seconds, then finally removed his mouthpiece and jogged to the sideline amid a cyclone of boos.

“He just looked like the wind was knocked out of him,” Gruden said. “Sometimes, when you throw interceptions, you feel like you’re letting the whole world down — your teammates, your coaches, the fans. I think he just put too much pressure on himself.”

An inability to recover from such errors had been Cousins’ foil, and his body language certainly didn’t help. Rather than moving on, he frequently looked to pull the offense back into the game with a big play — a tactic that would occasionally backfire.

In 14 career games, including his performance against Tennessee, he had thrown 19 interceptions. In six games, he threw two or more interceptions; he went without an interception just four times.

“He’s just got to prove he can take better care of the football,” said Jon Gruden, the brother of the Redskins coach and current ESPN analyst, who had Cousins join him for a passing camp in Florida in mid-February. “You saw it last year. When he was on, he was on. That performance at Philadelphia, against Jacksonville, was unbelievable at times, but he proved that the turnovers, the inconsistency, weren’t good enough.”

Cousins looked comfortable at times in first-year coach Jay Gruden’s offense — including his first start, when he threw for 427 yards and three touchdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles. It was a stark contrast from how Griffin had performed; Cousins‘ timing was on point, and his ability to avoid sacks was noticeable.

The errors, though, were egregious, and Cousins couldn’t shake them. Out of action for the final nine games, he could only make corrections in practice or by watching film, which he did heavily through the offseason. As soon as the Redskins‘ schedule was announced in the spring, he started looking at tape of his opponents. He read books to improve his mental toughness, and he studied the way other quarterbacks approached the game.

Although Gruden had anointed Griffin the Redskins‘ starting quarterback in February, it was still Gruden’s intent to hold a competition for that spot. When Cousins reported for training camp in late July, he alternated with McCoy for second-team reps, but quickly distinguished himself.

“I think he’s matured a lot,” offensive coordinator Sean McVay said. “I think last year, having gone through some adversity, I think he was able to respond in a positive way from that to where he’s a resilient guy that’s very positive and was able to work through some of those things, and we were very pleased with how he responded to that.”

Working toward the future

Cousins completed 20 of 26 passes for 245 yards in a touchdown in the Redskins‘ first two preseason games, playing as the second-team quarterback against the Cleveland Browns and then with the third team against the Detroit Lions.

His greatest challenged arrived on Aug. 28, when Griffin was ruled out for the preseason game the following day against the Baltimore Ravens because of lingering effects of a concussion. Cousins was tabbed to start and played through the first half, completing 20 of 27 passes for 190 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

The improvement was apparent, but it wasn’t until that game that the coaches saw what they truly needed to see. After Cousins threw an interception on the Redskins‘ first series, he rebounded, leading the offense 51 yards to the Ravens’ 40-yard line before a failed conversion on fourth-and-1 stalled its progress.

Another stalled series followed, but Cousins then embarked upon a pair of scoring drives, with the second a two-minute drill that ended with a one-yard touchdown run by running back Chris Thompson.

Two days later, Gruden made the announcement that Cousins would take over as the starter, regardless of Griffin’s medical situation.

“I think what he has done in practice and at OTAs has really opened our eyes, and he’s proven to be the best quarterback on our roster at this time,” Gruden said, justifying the decision. “Really, it’s a compliment to Kirk, not so much the other guys didn’t do this or didn’t do that. I just think Kirk has played so well that he has earned the right.”

Cousins realizes the weight of the responsibility, understanding that for the Redskins to have a chance, he won’t need to play at a spectacular level. In a way, he almost relishes the need to be boring and monotonous, acknowledging that if he doesn’t make mistakes, he’ll have succeeded.

That may have been difficult for him to handle a season ago, when he believed his future was crumbling and that any opportunities had been given away.

“I’ve always held to the adage, and I’ve said it before, ‘Tough times don’t last. Tough people do,’” Cousins said. “I just try to remind myself that I’m going to be a tough person through this. I’m going to keep going, and trust that if I do that, maybe I’ll get another shot — and here we are.”

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