Overlooked Kirk Cousins Has Studied His Way to the Top of the Game

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistJanuary 7, 2016

Washington Redskins' Kirk Cousins walks the field after an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, in Philadelphia. Washington won 38-24. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
Michael Perez/Associated Press

The winner of a contest to announce the first of the Redskins' two fourth-round picks in 2012 took the microphone.

"With the 102nd pick in the draft," Bridget Dowd said, "the Washington Redskins select Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Michigan State."

And the Cousins family room in Holland, Michigan, went silent.

Completely silent. 

Damn silent.

Cousins and his family did not expect he would slip out of the second round, let alone the third. They did not think seven quarterbacks would be taken ahead of him, including one, Nick Foles, whom Cousins had beaten out at Michigan State. They dreamt that one of the quarterback-needy teams that had expressed interest in him—maybe the Cardinals, the Bills or the Eagles—would have taken him and made him the future of the franchise.

Most of all, they never suspected he would be taken by a team that had used the second pick in the draft on another quarterback, Robert Griffin III.

If it was any consolation, this was not a new feeling for Cousins. Overlooked and underestimated has been the theme of his athletic career, according to his father, Don Cousins.

When Cousins graduated to tackle from flag football in sixth grade, he tried out for quarterback for the Barrington Broncos A team in suburban Chicago. The coach called the next day. "We're good at quarterback," he said. So Cousins quarterbacked the B team and won the league championship.

As a junior in high school, Cousins was told by the basketball coach that if he wanted to be on the team, he would be the third-string point guard. Cousins gave it a shot. By halftime of the first game, he was the primary point guard, and he remained so the rest of the season.

Michigan State coaches offered him a football scholarship only after they were turned down by their top choice. And then shortly after Cousins committed, Michigan State signed the more highly regarded Foles. Cousins beat out Foles, and Foles subsequently transferred. Then Spartans coach Mark Dantonio brought in Keith Nichol, another quarterback who was expected to beat out Cousins. By the end of the 2009 season, Nichol was moved to wide receiver.

So in 2012, when Cousins arrived in Ashburn, Virginia, where the Redskins train, he had experience at changing what people thought about him.

Cousins tried to wrap his mind around the idea of surviving in what many would consider a hopeless situation.

"The Lord has a plan for all of our lives," said Cousins, whose father is a pastor. "He led me to Washington. I didn't know for what purpose, but I always felt he was in control. Then I thought an NFL career would be a marathon, not a sprint. Just because the first step in the process wasn't what I wanted didn't mean it would change the long haul."

Cousins' second step was to gather information. He read Think Like a Champion: Building Success One Victory at a Time, written by his new coach, Mike Shanahan. He sought the advice of his seasoned agent, Mike McCartney, a former NFL executive, on what he needed to do to be a successful pro quarterback.

How could he be developed in a situation in which all resources would be dedicated to developing someone else?

At least, he thought, he was on a team that would be teaching NFL Quarterbacking 101. And Shanahan, who once taught Steve Young and John Elway, would be the professor. Cousins made it his priority to piggyback on RGIII's development. If RGIII was going to learn something, Cousins was going to learn it too.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

That worked better in the meeting room than on the field, though. There are only maybe 30 practice repetitions in a day, and RGIII was getting every last one of them. So Cousins would wait until practice was over and the others cleared the field. Then, he and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur would go through the entire practice script, running the plays "on air."

"He would find ways to steal reps," said Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay, the only coach who has been with Cousins for his entire NFL career.

Two days after the Redskins' first game in 2012, Cousins took a seat in the office of then-Redskins pro personnel director Morocco Brown. He asked to study the defensive players on the Rams, the Redskins' next opponent. Every Tuesday since, at 11 a.m. Cousins has met with one of the Redskins' pro scouts to study opposing personnel.

He takes notes in a notebook then, and at the end of the season, he types out the notes and stores them digitally. He now has a library with a file of every opponent, like a scout would.

He can discuss Josh Norman's career arc from a fifth-round pick to arguably the best cornerback in football. He has researched why the Panthers Pro Bowler was drafted so low, what he has improved on, how much of his success is due to talent versus scheme. Cousins has information on players' 40 times, their college backgrounds and what defenses they best fit.

He quotes Bill Walsh.

"The accumulation of knowledge is a powerful thing."

Cousins had a handful of appearances in the 2012 and 2013 seasons—two good starts, two not-so-good starts and a few relief appearances—posting average numbers overall.

When Shanahan was replaced by Jay Gruden before the 2014 season, the Redskins organization remained firmly committed to Griffin. At practices, Cousins' main responsibility was still to make sure he stayed out of the way.

But then Griffin dislocated his ankle in the second week of the season.

"The hardest thing for a young quarterback is when you don't get the reps, and now all of a sudden you are the starter," Gruden said. "Kirk didn't have the experience to go by. He understands it on the board, but sometimes it takes reps. He's a repetition guy. He needs reps."

In five starts, Cousins performed unevenly, turning the ball over 11 times. He lost each of his first four starts before being benched at halftime of a victory over the Titans.

"He threw an interception, and he was deflated," Gruden said. "I thought if I kept forcing him to play it would cause more damage."

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 15: Kirk Cousins #12 of the Washington Redskins chats with Robert Griffin III after throwing a 4th quarter interception against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on December 15, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunnin
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The next day, the word came down. Not only was Cousins benched, but he also was being demoted to third-string. He wouldn't even be in uniform for six of the last nine games.

Somewhere, there was opportunity in adversity. And if anyone could find it, it was Cousins.

"Since I wasn't playing and I didn't have to be prepared for the upcoming opponent, I could treat it like an offseason almost and use the time to develop myself," he said.

In his heart of hearts, he believed he was probably preparing for an opportunity in another city, with another team. His rookie contract was set to expire after the 2015 season, and Cousins thought the chances of a fourth-round pick getting a second chance were slim.

It would be easy to give up on a guy like Cousins. At 6'2 ½", he isn't as tall as you'd like. He's listed at 202 pounds. His throws don't make jaws drop. He doesn't have razzle-dazzle feet.

His focus—as always—was on what was within his control. He contacted private quarterbacks coach Jeff Christensen, and he started working with him in Ashburn, Virginia, a week after his benching. Christensen returned to Redskins Park sporadically throughout the season for lessons.

In the months that followed, Christensen and Cousins also worked together in Holland, Michigan, in South Florida and in the Chicago area, where Christensen lives. Christensen estimates he has supervised 2,500 Cousins throws and watched another 3,000 throws with him on tape. Christensen is an old-school throwing coach who has shown Cousins cutups of Elway, Dan Marino and Brett Favre, among others.

Cousins said Christensen improved him physically and mentally.

"He helped me focus on the back foot, and I think it has helped my overall pocket mechanics and delivery," he said.

Cousins also visited Jay Gruden's brother Jon in Tampa during the offseason to study tape and throw.

As they sat in the darkness with Redskins game tape playing on a big screen, Jon gave Cousins a nickname: "The Vigilante."

"What do you mean by that, Coach?" Cousins wanted to know.

"You take the law into your own hands," Gruden said.

The point was Cousins was being overaggressive in his decision-making.

"He wanted to see me be a little more conservative and patient in where I chose to throw the football," Cousins said. "He respected my desire to attack, but he knew it needed to be more calculated."

Jay Gruden had closed the door on Cousins playing in 2014, but he cracked it open again before this season. Upper management remained protective of its investment in Griffin, whom the Redskins had traded three first-round picks and a second-round pick to acquire. Gruden, though, was bravely open-minded to envisioning the potential in Cousins.

While RGIII went into camp as the starter, Gruden recognized Cousins kept gaining ground on him.

Then, in what has become one of the most significant NFL coaching decisions of the season, Gruden named Cousins the starter on Aug. 31.

CHICAGO, IL- DECEMBER 13: Head coach Jay Gruden of the Washington Redskins talks with Kirk Cousins #8 during the second half on December 13, 2015 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Washington Redskins won 24-21. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
David Banks/Getty Images

In preseason games, Gruden says now in explaining the decision, the offense just seemed to work better with Cousins. He was its natural leader.

The change in Cousins traces back to a meeting with veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck at NFLPA meetings last March. Cousins asked him for leadership advice.

"I think that team needs a general," Hasselbeck told him. "They don't need a president. Try to be a general, be authoritative and have a command."

For his first three years, Cousins had stayed in the shadows of the Redskins locker room. The Redskins were not his team to lead. Now he speaks more loudly, and he has unified a locker room that had been divided.

"He's starting to be more assertive," Gruden said. "He knew he had to prove himself to earn that right."

Kirk Cousins career stats

Taking a larger leadership role meant Cousins also needed to up his preparation. He now meets with McVay every Friday afternoon to go over every situation they could potentially encounter in the coming game, so he can be sure he knows how the team needs to react.

"He wants to make sure he has an answer and a response for everything so he can just go and play and turn his brain off," McVay said. "He's almost playing the game before it takes place."

Since he was a senior in college, Cousins has recognized that he performs at his highest level and obtains the best, most even-keeled demeanor when he "turns his brain off" and just plays. He's trained his brain for it at Neurocore, a Michigan company that specializes in neurofeedback exercises.

Before this season began, he developed a schedule that breaks down his entire week, including off time, into 15-minute increments. He typed it into a spreadsheet and color-coded it.

When a representative from the league's substance program recently approached him for a urine sample, Cousins politely informed him that he had something scheduled at 2:15 and 2:30, but he could try to provide him what he needed at 2:45.

Time is a precious resource to Cousins. During practices, there are no lulls for him, no joking around, no daydreaming. He comes to the field with notes on his practice script about things he wants to accomplish. When the first-team defense has the field, Cousins grabs wide receivers, tight ends or running backs and works with them on the side.

Much of what Cousins has accomplished was evident on Oct. 25. The Redskins fell behind the Bucs 24-0 in the second quarter. Then Cousins led the Redskins to score 31 points in a 31-30 victory. It was a game of wild emotional swings. But Cousins felt he was on a flat line the whole way. And he was focused entirely on each play as it unfolded.

Watching Cousins operate on the game-winning drive, Christensen was confident his pupil would throw a touchdown pass even though less than a minute remained, the Redskins were out of timeouts and he was in uncharted territory. Why?

"He wasn't trying to throw balls to people," Christensen said. "He was hitting his spots, just like we talked about."

In a text message to Cousins the next day, Christensen wrote:

0-24, you stayed calm and clear and got it to 7-24 before the half. I said now if he gets time and Tampa gets conservative he can pull this off!

No overreaction what so ever!!!

That's the sign of greatness bud!

Step 1 of many

Christensen, who estimates he has worked with some 2,500 quarterbacks in his career, is convinced he never has had a better student than Cousins.

As Cousins was walking into the locker room after the game, he saw Comcast reporter Tarik El-Bashir and asked the now-famous question that would become a chant, a T-shirt, a trademark and a rally towel. 

"You like that?" he yelled with unbridled passion. "You like that?"

That was a leader talking.

In the Redskins' 38-24 victory over the Eagles that clinched the NFC East, Cousins threw three touchdown passes from the red zone. His red-zone passer rating of 113.5 is the second-highest in the NFL among players with at least 30 attempts, according to STATS.

Each Monday, Cousins watches red-zone cutups from every game the previous day. He does the same with third-down plays.

As a rookie, he started watching the Monday night game every week from a head coach's perspective, notebook in hand. When does it make sense to take a sack? When do I need to stay in bounds? When should I clock it?

Cousins also has spent extra time studying quarterbacks he wants to emulate. He pays attention to their snap counts, how they initiate motion and how they drop back.

"He just studies the crap out of football," Gruden said. "He's a sponge for information. He watches film all the time. It's all he cares about—football and his wife. Maybe his dogs. He watches Drew Brees tape, Aaron Rodgers tape, Tom Brady. He has a ton of respect for guys who have done it. He is seeking greatness."

After the Redskins beat the Saints in November, Cousins approached Brees.

"I don't know what to say except I study you," he told him. "You are a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and I'm trying to learn from you."

As the Redskins were about to wrap up a recent victory, center Brian de la Puente and Cousins had a sideline discussion captured by NFL Films.

"What's your cadence on victory [formation]?" asked de la Puente, who played three years for the Saints.

"Do you want to go on the quick or on one?" Cousins said. "WWDBD? What would Drew Brees do?"

Brees handles the protection calls at the line of scrimmage for the Saints. The Redskins, like many teams, had assigned protection calls to the center.

Cousins wanted to be like Brees, and he lobbied for the authority.

"Realized I would be much more effective if I handled it, and started to study how Brees and other top guys have total ownership," said Cousins, who now handles the protection calls. "They don't let somebody else make calls that they are fully capable of making on their own. … I've learned that it has to be my show in order to be successful."

Now, it clearly is his show. After having set the Redskins record for most passing yards in a season and having thrown 23 touchdown passes to three interceptions in his past 10 games, Cousins will try to lead the Redskins to their first playoff victory since 2005. He will be dueling with Green Bay's Rodgers, one of the great ones he has studied.

Cousins has done so much to be ready for this opportunity, this game, this moment.

As we finished talking, Cousins extended his hand. We shook, and he told me, "You are really well prepared." I walked away, and it dawned on me.

I should have said that to him.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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