- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2016

During a ball security drill under the beaming Richmond sun at training camp, Kirk Cousins channels coach Herman Boone from “Remember the Titans.”

“You fumble the football, run a mile,” he bellows, his teammates struggling to keep a straight face while rolling on the ground. Nobody fumbled.

Cousins can motivate those around him in the most lighthearted ways and whether he’ll do it as the Washington Redskins’ quarterback for one more season or the next five is the question that trails him in yet another show-us-again year of his life.

The Redskins are paying Cousins $19.95 million this season under the franchise tag. There was no long-term agreement, just another handshake for a single season of work after he led the team on a scorching stretch in the final four games of the season to win the NFC East title. If Cousins can drive the offense the way he did when he passed for a franchise-record 4,166 yards, it gives the Redskins a strong chance of winning consecutive division titles — something they haven’t done in 32 years.

Likewise, Cousins will have presumably done enough to earn himself a long-term contract at his desired value, something Redskins officials weren’t going to give him without seeing him perform well twice. Cousins, meanwhile, has no qualms about accepting that sort of high-stakes self-wager.

“I think the nature of pro sports is that maybe people on the outside, they assume we have everything mapped out,” Cousins says. “We don’t. I know a guy like [wide receiver] Pierre Garçon, signed a five-year deal here in 2012. I can tell you, he was playing year to year. Felt he had to prove himself. That’s the way pro sports is. It’s more of a privilege to be here than a right. We have to go out there every single day, every single week, every single season and earn that right and take advantage of that opportunity to be back the following year.”

The question, then, is a simple one: Will he do it again?

“Well, I think we’re going to find out,” Cousins said. “Time will tell. There’s great players. Great coaches. It’s a good system. There’s good depth. Ultimately, all you can do is prepare your best, play your best and let the chips fall where they may. I don’t know that I feel super confident or that I have big doubts. I just think one way or the other, you’ve got to go out and prove it.”

Navigating the prove-it moments

On a Saturday afternoon in June inside the Mellon Auditorium on Constitution Avenue, the man the Redskins are counting on to lead their offense and one of the country’s most influential business executives are sharing a stage.

Their fields of work could not be more distant. Cousins is a quarterback. Jack Welch is the former chairman and CEO of General Electric who oversaw the company’s meteoric rise under his tenure. Yet these two are tethered by a commonality. The successes they’ve achieved in their careers are grounded on the principles of leadership and perseverance, which is why Cousins was there to receive an honorary MBA degree at the Jack Welch Management Institute’s inaugural graduation ceremony this summer.

The 80-year-old Welch probed Cousins about these foundational qualities and posed the question the students of his institute are asked to confront regularly: What is your lowest low? Cousins rewinds to his sophomore season at Michigan State and his first road game as the starting quarterback against Notre Dame. The Spartans were at the 4-yard line and trailed by three points. Play for the victory, his coaches told him, but be smart with the ball so that if the team didn’t score, it could kick a field goal and go safely to overtime. Cousins threw an interception.

“Everyone is watching and I’m the biggest failure,” Cousins tells the crowd. “I’m walking to a sideline filled with teammates that don’t really want to talk to me in that moment. You realize, boy, if football is my entire life, my life just crumbled. Thankfully, my life isn’t all about football. There is more to my life than that. At the end of the day, I said thank you God that my life is built on you because you’re the foundation of my life. I can throw picks, play well, I can ride that roller coaster. Football is what I do, it’s not who I am.”

Cousins’ words offered a revealing window into his faith and how he has navigated the perpetual prove-it moments in his career. They started way back in elementary school.

“He has lived with gotta-prove-it since sixth grade when he played on the B team because the A team coach didn’t want him,” Cousins’ father, Don, says.

More questions followed him to Michigan State, where Cousins didn’t receive a scholarship coming out of Holland Christian High in Michigan until six other players in front of him chose to go elsewhere. Cousins went on to lead the Spartans to a 22-5 record in his final two seasons.

His careening ride with the Redskins began next. Cousins was selected in the fourth round in 2012, the same draft in which Washington invested heavily to pick Robert Griffin III second overall. Once he was named the starter last season, Cousins was able to finally only look ahead.

“He’s in a different spot because he is the guy,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden says. “He’s accepted that and cherishes that and works hard to earn that every day which is important. He knows it is not given to him. Knows he still got to work. Also knows he doesn’t have to worry about looking over his shoulder every bad play, doesn’t have to worry about the fans yelling for someone else to come in if he struggles and throws a pick. That’s huge for a quarterback’s confidence.”

Taking the next step

Back at Redskins Park, Cousins sifted through the carousel of plays in his head, searching for the best one to illustrate the strides the offense made last season.

One is from the Redskins’ season-opener against the Miami Dolphins and Cousins’ first game since he was named the team’s starter last August. On fourth-and-7 from the Dolphins’ 20-yard line and the Redskins trailing by a touchdown, Cousins is pressured by an all-out blitz. Anticipating that tight end Jordan Reed is going to cross toward the middle of the field, Cousins threw the ball.

Reed instead tried to win his matchup over the top of the field and the pass fell incomplete. Nine weeks later, against the New Orleans Saints, Cousins recognized a similar defensive front. This time, Reed cut to the middle and they connected for the touchdown pass.

“Jordan runs the route and where I expect him to go, he went,” Cousins said. “Week 1 we didn’t do that. Week 10 we did it. You say those are the things you have to be on the same page, growing together, recognizing the same things. Jordan was as talented in Week 1. I think I could make all the same throws in Week 1.”

As much as his close to the season solidified Cousins’ year, the rally he led against Tampa Bay in Week 7 may have defined it. The Redskins trailed a mediocre Buccaneers team 24-0 before putting together the largest comeback in team history behind Cousins. He threw three second-half touchdowns.

“A lot of controversy brewing before that game, down 24-0, the ability to come back,” Gruden says. “There is always controversy in the media, ‘Should we play him?’ I’m sure he felt the pressure to come out and bring us back to verify the reasons we put him there in the first place. [It] was a great tool for him to take the next step. That’s when he knew it was his team and took the next step. It’s your team now.”

From the comeback win against Tampa Bay to Week 17, a span of 11 weeks and 10 games played, Cousins threw for 2,746 yards, 23 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He completed 72.38 percent of his pass attempts, which was the third-highest percentage in such a stretch since 1960, according to Pro Football Reference. The only two better were Drew Brees in 2011 and Steve Young in 1994. A total of 0.65 percentage points separates the trio.

Cousins was playing with a heightened sense of confidence and it reverberated throughout the coaching staff. It was evident in the play-calling that they trusted him, too, most notably against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16. On the road, with a chance to clinch the division and running back Matt Jones out with a hip injury, the Redskins put the task solely on Cousins’ shoulders. Of the first 40 plays, 32 of them were passes. Cousins finished the game 31 for 46 with 365 yards, four touchdown and no interceptions.

“People don’t go on runs like that,” said Jeff Christensen, Cousins’ independent quarterback coach. “That builds tremendous confidence in not only you, but your teammates. No matter what people want to think, football is an emotional, humanistic game that comes to effort and he is going to get more efforts out of his teammates.”

Cousins knows this year will be more difficult than the last since there’s a full season on tape for opposing defenses to dissect. So, he worked in the offseason on rhythm, pocket presence, the challenge for a right-handed quarterback of setting up and looking left, before coming back to throw an out pattern to the right.

He plans on changing hand signals and making better coverage reads. Cousins’ understanding of what a defensive front showed him last season may have led to a moderate gain. This year, he wants to deliver full punishment in the form of a deep touchdown pass, to “make them pay for that defense they’re playing.” Cousins believes a variety of subtle improvements exist for him, the kind that only come from playing in a system for multiple seasons. His coach seems to agree.

“We’re not even close to tapping out the Kirk Cousins we can tap out and we understand that, he understands that,” Gruden said.

If Gruden is right, that a franchise record for yardage and league-leading precision is just the start, Cousins won’t have to worry about the doubts that chased him in the past. His year-by-year battles will be over, when either Washington or another organization offers him a lucrative long-term deal. No question about it.

Washington Times reporter Todd Dybas contributed to this story. 

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