One day, it’s the way he handles the play clock, changing a call with five seconds remaining — something he wouldn’t have done in past years. He knows the offense, trusts what he sees and knows what teammates can handle. So a late adjustment is made.
Then there’s the way he interacts with fans. After one short pass in practice early in training camp, a fan razzed him about dumping off — and making $24 million. Cousins looked at him and smiled. Next play: He threw deep to receiver Terrelle Pryor, ran over to the fan and exchanged robust hand slaps.
Yet another example is the way he works out a route for a receiver in practice. Or uses a wider variety of words for various calls. Or, when mic’d up for CSN Washington, he rattles off lyrics from the musical “Hamilton.”
🎵I wanna dance with somebody🎵 pic.twitter.com/e2KeL40dCf
— Washington Redskins (@Redskins) August 10, 2017
As the Redskins play their first preseason game at Baltimore Thursday night, it all adds up to a more comfortable Cousins. Certainly, it helps that he’s entering his sixth season — and it matters even more that the past two have been productive. A big contract provides security, too, but his confidence doesn’t stem from money.
Finding a balance
“I do feel better; I feel more confident,” Cousins said. “There’s just a greater relaxation, there’s a greater comfort level and ability to just be myself. If you mic’d me up three years ago, I wouldn’t be in that place. My personality wouldn’t come through because training camp was my Super Bowl. It’s not a time to be joking around.”
Six years in, with an unquestioned hold on the starter’s job, Cousins can, finally, show all of himself. His work ethic hasn’t changed, but occasionally a guy with his hair cut short isn’t afraid to let it down.
“If you act like that every single day and never let your personality come through, that’s where I said the burnout can happen because you’re on edge all the time,” Cousins said. “As you get more comfortable and solidify your role and understand where you are and feel like you’ve been there before, you can relax, let your personality come through and just enjoy the game and play. I like to think there’s a balance there where I can be the best possible football player when I’m relaxed, but also locked in.”
That’s what the Redskins hope. In the past two seasons, Cousins has thrown a combined 54 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. Of course, he’s playing a second consecutive season under the franchise tag. Coaches and teammates consider him a grinder because of how he works. That hasn’t changed.
“I certainly don’t want the narrative to become that, ‘Kirk’s so relaxed, he’s got this. He’s like Aaron Rodgers out there — just chill like he knows what’s going to happen next,'” Cousins said. “That’s certainly not how I feel. I definitely feel like I’ve got to go out there and prove myself.”
Still, he said, he hasn’t felt this way entering a season — this level of comfort — since his senior year at Michigan State. He was a captain and third-year starter, providing him with what he said was “more stability in my role.” As a high school senior, he was coming off a broken ankle and had no scholarships. In 2015, he was a new full-time starter with a checkered NFL résumé.
What that means for this season remains uncertain. Other factors will help determine his success, including the health of tight end Jordan Reed and the development of receiver Josh Doctson. Cousins has enough weapons around him to succeed. Thursday night, neither one of those players will be on the field; nor will starting receiver Jamison Crowder. He knows their absences aren’t an excuse.
“The best quarterbacks, as the players come and go around them, they continue to produce at a high level,” Cousins said. “And that’s certainly a goal of mine is to play well regardless of who’s in there. In this league, with how much attrition takes place, you’re not going to have the luxury of playing with the same starting receivers for 10 years. So, welcome to the NFL. Do I want to play on Monday Night Football with the best players we have? Absolutely. But that’s not necessarily the luxury you’ll always have.”
Redskins coach Jay Gruden sees the difference in Cousins’ comfort level.
“He’s earned that right and that respect,” Gruden said. “And that takes time for a young quarterback that’s competing to be a starter and find his way in the NFL. Now that he’s established himself as a starting quarterback in the league, he feels more comfortable, especially now that he feels good with the system. He will voice his opinion and his displeasure if things aren’t the way he wants it.”
Cousins told a story the other day about driving into FedEx Field for a concert. It reminded him of going to a sporting event as a kid, imagining what a thrill it would be to play in that arena. Now he is that guy and has been for the past two years as the starter.
When he pulls into the lot now, it’s all about business. He got to this point with one mindset and he’s not about to change.
“The game is such a challenge; it is such a grind,” Cousins said. “It takes everything I have to be successful, and as a result, I just treat it like, ‘That’s my job, I have got to go do that tonight.’ There’s nothing fun or cool about it; it’s just I have to go get the job done. I’d like to think that the longer I play, you can appreciate the fun of it more and just relax and enjoy it. I’m hoping to get there as I continue to play and get better, but it’s a process.”