The scrutiny still accompanies the other quarterback, regardless of whether he’s playing or not. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins keeps preparing with the starters as he’s done all spring. Perhaps he’ll start the opener. Perhaps he’ll relieve Robert Griffin III at some point this season. Perhaps the first three preseason games will be Cousins’ last. It’s all uncertain.
What Cousins does know is that he’s a different quarterback than this time last year. If he shows that on the field, it’ll not only help the Redskins, but it will help increase his value, whether for a trade in a couple of years or for his eventual free agency. Cousins handled his backup role well last season, earning a win in a start against Cleveland and throwing a touchdown pass late in a comeback win over Baltimore. He ended up throwing four touchdowns and three interceptions for the season.
Here are a few ways he says he’s a different quarterback:
• When Cousins entered his first regular-season game, a relief stint for a concussed Griffin in Week 5 against Atlanta, he almost felt as if he needed a name tag. Cousins had not worked with the starters before this point, save for an occasional snap. That’s not enough to get comfortable. And he rarely worked with the starting receivers. So when Griffin was knocked from the game with a concussion in the third quarter, Cousins needed to introduce teammates to how he was as an NFL quarterback. He was worried about the basics. Though Cousins threw a 77-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Santana Moss, he also threw two interceptions on forced throws.
"It’s a feeling of like, 'Hi, nice to meet you,'" Cousins said. "The one I point to is the center, Will Montgomery. I barely got a snap with him last year. So I step in the huddle and I’m concerned about fumbling the snap. Now if I have to go in a game with Will I’ll say I have a thousand reps with him. It’s not in the forefront of my mind; it’s not even in the back of my mind. So it becomes easier when Robert comes back, whether tomorrow or a few weeks from now, just the fact that I’ve had all these reps already whenever I do have to go in I’ll be that much more confident ... Just the fact that I have this in the bank will help me.”
• During a preseason game against Chicago last summer, Cousins stuck a throw into a tight window along the sidelines, squeezing the pass to receiver Aldrick Robinson in between a safety in Cover 2 and a corner rotating deep. It was an impressive throw. It was also a throw the coaches told Cousins he wouldn’t complete during the regular season.
And Cousins said he would make a different throw now, simply because he’s smarter.
"My understanding of pass concepts have grown so much," he said. "That play, I didn’t have a good feel for my No. 1 option. I hadn’t seen that play repped a lot and I hadn’t repped it a lot so my ability to anticipate and know what it should look like before it happens isn’t there, so I end up getting off that route and going to my second option. Now I just stay with that and make that completion with the first option because I’ve seen it now, I’ve repped it and have a greater familiarity with it. That can go for so many pass concepts."
• That familiarity has led to greater confidence, which is evident in training camp with the passes he’s thrown. He’s more likely than Griffin in 7-on-7 work to throw downfield and take a chance or two. During games, that could result in big plays -- or interceptions, of which he’s thrown a few in camp. Still, Cousins notices a difference in this area and first did so between his first relief appearance against Atlanta and his first start against Cleveland on Dec. 16.
"I’ve gotten a lot better being able to anticipate, see it in my head before it happens and what should happen,” he said. “I see this defender here, but after the snap he’ll be there. So before it happens I can anticipate and know what it should look like. Last year I was reacting to what I see."
• One change some teammates really like: Cousins abandoned the way he tried to snap players into attention. In college, and last season, before calling out the play Cousins would slap his hands together and shout, “Team!” It was a part of his routine he wanted to maintain as a rookie. No longer.
"We walked into [spring workouts] and Trent Williams said to me, half-joking, half-serious, 'You gotta stop saying the team thing. It’s just weird,'" Cousins said. "I said, 'For you, Trent, I’ll stop saying it.'"