ASHBURN — Kirk Cousins has a penchant for inspiring those around him, regardless of the environment.
“He’s amazing,” Josh LeRibeus said. “You don’t even have to think. You just get in there and he’s, ‘Josh this. Josh, block!’ I love it. He’ll always coach you up.”
LeRibeus wasn’t talking about playing center for the Washington Redskins, but rather playing volleyball at fellow center Kory Lichtensteiger’s house during the offseason.
From the moment he was named the starter in August, to when he rallied the team to its greatest comeback in franchise history, to winning four consecutive games to finish the regular season, to setting the single-season record for passing yards, the Redskins have seen their fourth-year quarterback blossom into a leader with more conviction.
On Sunday, the Redskins will be counting on Cousins to lead again as they face the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in the wild-card round — the team’s first playoff appearance in three years.
“There’s no doubt you can assert yourself more as you play and you have success,” Cousins said. “It doesn’t mean I wasn’t confident when I wasn’t playing as well, but certainly when you play well, you’re going to gain some confidence and that comes with the territory. I think I’m a guy who wants to lead, wants to be assertive and it just takes time to grow into that as a player.”
Staying the course
Before Cousins could lead the Redskins, he had to get back on the field. After getting a chance to start when Robert Griffin III dislocated his left ankle last season, Cousins erratic decision-making landed him back on the bench before halftime in Week 7 against the Tennessee Titans.
The following week, Cousins called his own personal quarterbacks coach, Jeff Christensen, and flew him in from Chicago to meet him at the team’s facility.
“I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ Christensen recalled. “He looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘What’s wrong? I got benched.’ And, I said, ‘No, you got yourself benched. Now that you’re in this traumatic state,’ I told him, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to you.”
Christensen, who played in four NFL games over five seasons in the mid-1980s, preached that Cousins needed to improve his footwork. Better technique, according to Christensen, was the foundation needed to unlock the pinpoint accuracy Cousins displayed as he completed 69.8 percent of his passes, the second-best rate in team history, this season. Christensen also believed in running Cousins through situational drills so that when he faced pressure from opposing defenses, he’d be able to control himself with the right movements in the pocket and calmly make a decision.
The drills were monotonous, but Cousins bought in. From the day Cousins was benched, Christensen estimates he’s spent 80 to 100 hours with the Redskins‘ quarterback.
“It’s what’s going on below your chest, not your arm,” Christensen explained. “It’s boring stuff, but Kirk works at it so diligently now. With perfect placement of his feet, his knees and his hips, his arm action, his release point is so consistent. His accuracy has been off the charts. When you apply proper technique with confidence and intelligence, now you’re making good decisions, now you’re not throwing picks and great things can happen.”
There were growing pains this season — most notably back-to-back losses to the Atlanta Falcons and the New York Jets, games in which Cousins threw a touchdown pass and two interceptions. Christensen periodically sent Cousinstext messages to remind him he was close — and was he ever. In the 10 games after that, starting with franchise-record comeback against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cousins completed 73 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
“I certainly feel like I’m a better place on the football field,” Cousins said, reflecting on his benching. “If I was truly down and out and was giving up, I wouldn’t have flown Jeff in and wanted to work with him. There was a level of belief, a level of we can still do something, but there were some nights that I wasn’t sleeping well and was upset with the way I played, the way I didn’t deliver. I’m in a better place now, but I don’t think that hunger, that desire to get better, that can never go away no matter how many good games I have, no matter how many wins we have. That need, that desire to just keep improving has to always be there.”
Leading the way
Pierre Thomas had hardly been a member of the Redskins for long, but Cousins could hardly wait to pick his brain. Cousins was already 13 weeks into his first season as a starter when the Redskins signed Thomas, but there was more to learn. He peppered the veteran running back with questions, mostly about what it was like playing eight seasons with Drew Brees and how the Pro Bowl quarterback led the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl.
“He was asking me about Drew, what type of guy he was, what type of leadership role he had,” Thomas said. “I gave him my opinion on that and as the weeks went on, I started to see a leader in him. I said, ‘Look, this is your offense. Take control of it. Be loud and tell guys what you want. Demand things. Be that leadership voice for us. We need that.’”
It was similar to the message veteran free safety Dashon Goldson told Cousins during a players-only meeting ahead of a late-November game against the New York Giants, but it didn’t hurt to hear it again. Cousins threw for a touchdown and rushed for another in the Redskins‘ victory against the Chicago Bears on Dec. 13, their first of the season on the road. The Redskins won the next three games after that — including the NFC East-clinching win against the Philadelphia Eagles two weeks later.
That Cousins was able to lift his team was nothing new. At Michigan State, he was elected a team captain before he was named the starting quarterback, taking over both roles prior to his sophomore year. He was only the second Spartans player named a captain as a sophomore — the first since 1949 — partly because of his ability to relate so well to others, coach Mark Dantonio said.
“He is a leader in all respects,” Dantonio said this week. “He had the unique quality to reach everybody in all spectrums of life — coaches, players, young freshman, seniors, everybody. People from out of state. People in state. He was just that guy that was going to be there for people. When he stood up and spoke, people listened. That’s something that’s got to be earned, that’s not given. It takes time to do that. When you’re a football player, there has to be success on the football field to guarantee that leadership, to substantiate that, to quantify it. And I think that’s what happened [with the Redskins].”
Thomas was impressed with Cousins‘ poise in the final stretch, but said the true test will be on Sunday against the Packers and how the Redskins‘ quarterback reacts in challenging situations. That said, the ninth-year running back is confident Cousins can handle it.
“Some quarterbacks, you make a mistake, some people put that much pressure on themselves that they lose focus. I haven’t seen that with him. He lets it go and moves on and continues to rally us. That’s what you need as a quarterback. In previous games, we put 21 up on the board real quick and don’t have that rhythm. We can get frustrated, yeah, but nobody gets frustrated.
“Guys feel confident in ourselves and believe in ourselves and Kirk has just put them in a great position to do so.”
On Sunday, Cousins will take his place in the huddle and inject that same confidence in the huddle. Strip away the bright lights at FedEx Field and the playoff implications. At Cousins‘ core will be the same leader from Lichtensteiger’s backyard, the one that makes sure everybody knows their assignments and believes that they can execute them.
All he needed was the time to prove it on the football field to ensure his teammates would follow.