ASHBURN, Va. -- The studying, or at least the watching, began when Kirk Cousins was in fifth grade. Not many teams threw a lot in the Big Ten, let alone from a spread look, but one quarterback did: Purdue's Drew Brees. So Cousins, as a young kid in Chicago, watched him. Even now, Cousins can rattle off plays from a Purdue win that season over Ohio State, specifically Brees' touchdown pass on a post route.
"They were fun to watch," Cousins said. "I've followed him ever since."
Eventually, watching turned into learning, and that's made Brees into one of the bigger influences on Cousins' career -- sometimes in subtle ways. Like getting tested for food allergies. Other times it's bigger, like taking cues on leadership or on-field situations.
But it all stems from Cousins having read Brees' book, "Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity," when Cousins was at Michigan State. And from the occasional phone conversation and, eventually, quizzing Brees during a week together at the Pro Bowl last season.
There was a natural connection: Both players starred in the Big Ten, after being largely overlooked in high school, in part because of injuries. Cousins has been referred to by some of his former coaches as "Drew Brees lite" because of similarities in their games.
"We've both been at times underrated, overlooked," Cousins said of his Sunday counterpart.
Their backgrounds aren't completely similar -- Brees endured more adversity growing up because of his parents' divorce and a rocky relationship with his mother -- but there's enough to make Brees a person Cousins wanted to study. Cousins has watched and talked with other quarterbacks as well. But he rattled off reasons why Brees is at or near the top of his list.
"He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's had consistent production for well over a decade," Cousins said. "Stays healthy. Represents the organization well. Is connected well with his city. He's a family man, great leader. Has great habits. Very accurate. Very athletic, and we play the game very similar."
Their footwork in the pocket needs to be the same as their reads and progressions are similar. The offensive philosophy is as well.
"And then the style of play, trying to play with a rhythm and a timing as a passer is similar," Cousins said.
Following the blueprint
Which is why Cousins wanted to pick Brees' brain. So he texted him two years ago with a simple request to talk; Brees didn't hesitate to say yes. They spent 15 minutes discussing a quarterback's drop in the pocket. Geeky quarterback stuff.
A year later, in Orlando, Florida, they spent time together once again. Cousins didn't want to pester Brees, but he did want to learn. So he asked questions and observed. He quizzed Brees on everything: from training habits to in-game decisions. Mostly, though, he wanted to know more nuances like how Brees, when facing a Cover-2 defense, can pump-fake the safety and then throw down the sideline. Brees then executed it during the game -- and was greeted by Cousins excitedly proclaiming on the sidelines, "That's what I'm talking about!"
"You don't want to be that guy hanging on his hip and annoying," Cousins said. "But at the same time we both understand the age gap. I do look up to him."
Brees provided a blueprint Cousins hadn't had in Washington.
"It affirmed what I'm doing, that I'm on the right track. I've always felt one of my challenges here was that I didn't sit and watch the behind-the-scenes habit of a Hall of Fame player or Pro Bowler when I was here," Cousins said. "I was asking questions of coaches in the building: What does it look like? How late does a quarterback stay in the building? How early does he get here? I don't know. I don't know what a guy looks like who's a Hall of Famer doing that. Does he memorize every play? I was forming habits on my own and I wasn't sure if it was enough or too much."
Cousins mimicked some of what Brees did after reading his book. In the book, Brees discussed getting tested for food allergies and, after doing so, changing his diet. Brees' energy level improved thanks to the alteration. So Cousins, after reading this, got tested as well, discovering allergies to eggs and other dairy products as well as to green beans. He then altered his diet.
"I learned there are certain things that are healthy that my body doesn't respond well to or only responds well if I eat in small doses," Cousins said.
Mutual admiration society
Brees has paid attention to Cousins' career. After this season, Cousins might end up following Brees and changing teams (or not). The Redskins weren't sold enough on Cousins after his first year starting to meet his long-term contract wishes.
The Chargers, who drafted Brees in the second round in 2001, drafted Philip Rivers in the first round in 2004. Two years later, Brees signed with New Orleans -- with an uncertain future thanks to a torn labrum in his shoulder. Cousins, a fourth-round pick, played behind Robert Griffin III for three seasons before emerging as the starter.
"I just respect the road he's traveled," Brees said. "He comes into a situation where he's having to fight for a spot those first few years. And then just kind of bides time and works and works and gains his opportunity, and he's played very, very well in my opinion.
"Obviously he's gonna get what he deserves. I just love his approach and his work ethic and his professionalism. He's a guy that you root for."
And Brees is the guy Cousins likes to copy.
"That's a good recipe for success, a good model for success," Cousins said. "You try to pattern your game after great players like that."
-- Saints reporter Mike Triplett contributed to this report.