Kirk Cousins learned to appreciate Kyle Shanahan's offensive brilliance at a very early stage.
When Cousins came to the Washington Redskins as a fourth-round draft pick in 2012, he was primarily on the sideline as Shanahan, his first NFL offensive coordinator, catered the offense to suit the athleticism of then-Offensive Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III.
"When you look at creativity and the ability to not be predictable, I was on the Redskins with Kyle, knew the system and didn't know what was coming," Cousins said. "I don't mean to say he was pulling stuff out of left field. The ability to be thinking of the next play and being a step ahead, I think there's a level of having the innate ability to do it that requires a quick mind. Kyle has that.
"I remember our very first game against the Saints, when Robert Griffin and I were rookies," said Cousins of the Redskins' 40-32 win in New Orleans. "I remember calling my dad after the game and saying, 'I cannot believe how well-called that game was.' They kept the Saints on their toes the whole game. They had no idea what was coming next. All of it was positive plays that put (Griffin) and the offense in a good situation to be successful. So, that was kind of my first taste of how good of a playcaller Kyle really was."
Atlanta has a feel for it now, too. The Falcons are 4-0 thanks, in large part, to the innovative approach Shanahan has brought to the franchise in his first year as offensive coordinator. The offense, sparked by Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Matt Ryan, leads the league in red zone efficiency (80 percent), is second in third-down conversions (54.1 percent), third in points per game (34.3, with an assist from the defense) and fifth in total offense (403.3 yards per game).
Cousins, now the Redskins' starting quarterback and coming off a 90-yard game-winning drive against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, is more than likely to share a moment with Shanahan before kickoff Sunday as his team visits the Georgia Dome. Although Cousins thoroughly enjoys having an offensive-minded head coach in Jay Gruden, an intelligent offensive coordinator in Sean McVay, and an NFL-tested quarterbacks coach in Matt Cavanaugh, he can't ignore how impactful Shanahan truly was for him.
"Kyle has played a major, major role in my development," Cousins said. "I learned a lot about football in the two seasons with him."
Shanahan expressed the same high regard for Cousins.
"Kirk's one of the sharper guys I've been around," Shanahan told ESPN.com back in June. "He processes things so fast. He lets it rip. He's as tough as can be. He'll hang in there and doesn't flinch. Kirk has a chance to be a great quarterback someday."
Cousins felt a bond with Shanahan from the day he was drafted by the Redskins out of Michigan State.
"There's always a power in heaven; somebody that believes in you, and I always felt that Kyle was someone who believed in me," Cousins said. "When I was drafted, Kyle had a vision of where I could be some day. He knew I wasn't there yet. But the fact that he, from Day 1, cast that vision for me and said, 'Kirk, you can't get there if you just grind and work and push yourself. And if we push you, you can get there.' That vision that he cast for me and that belief in me got me going. It gave me something to chase."
That's not to say Shanahan handled Cousins delicately. Shanahan can be gruff with his no-nonsense approach.
"And I wanted that," Cousins said. "It could be a simple thing, like an OTA practice in May and just missing a read. The post route came open and I didn't throw it. I checked down to the shallow cross. If I had been on it and seen the coverage properly, I would have seen the post for a touchdown. He's looking at me and says, 'Throw the post,' and he's shaking his head. And you feel like you let him down. The reason he's saying throw the post and shaking his head is because he knows I'm capable of it. If he knew I wasn't capable, he wouldn't demanding me to make that throw.
"His response was, 'I'm tough on you because I want you to be great.' And I realized that he's not being tough on me because he doesn't like me, he's being tough on me because he wants me to go to a Pro Bowl someday. And I want to go to a Pro Bowl someday. Be as tough on me as you can be if it means the Pro Bowl."
Shanahan was part of the staff that got let go in Washington when his father, Mike, was fired following a 3-13 showing in 2013 season. There was a well-documented rift between the Shanahans and the quarterback Griffin, who remains with the team in a reserve role.
Cousins admitted it was hard to see both Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, also now with the Falcons, get relieved of their duties.
"It was hard because I felt like (Shanahan) was very effective," Cousins said. "But I'm just really happy for him. I feel like he's in a great place now. I'm excited to see the place that he's in. I had a great quarterbacks coach as well in Matt LaFleur. Equally, I think highly of those guys and attribute my development to both of them my first two years in the league. It was tough to see them go because I felt like they were outstanding coaches."
If Kyle Shanahan continues on the path he is on, it will be no surprise to see him enter the head-coaching ranks sooner than later.
"I'm sure he'll get his opportunity down the road," Cousins said. "And when he does, he'll be ready. Whether he's a coordinator, a quarterbacks coach, a head coach, whatever his role it is, I have a lot of respect for the way he goes about his business and his knowledge and understanding of offensive football. I've learned things from him as far as how you see the game that I will carry with me for as long as I'm around football, whether playing or coaching."