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Washington Redskins QB Kirk Cousins' time has arrived

PHILADELPHIA -- Mike Shanahan's friends thought he was crazy for referring to Kirk Cousins as a top-10 quarterback.

"I said it on [a national] radio show before the season, and then a buddy called me and asked, 'What were you thinking?' He couldn't believe I did it," the two-time Super Bowl winner recalled on the phone. "But I coached Kirk. I worked with him. I knew all he needed was time."

Cousins' time has arrived.

The former turnover-prone backup deserves a massive payday after playing the biggest role in the Washington Redskins' improbable journey to claim the NFC East title. Sensational throughout the team's surprising late-season run (the Redskins have won three straight), Cousins torched the Philadelphia Eagles for 365 yards and four touchdown passes in Saturday night's 38-24 division-clinching victory.

Finally out of the shadow of one-time fan favorite Robert Griffin III, Cousins is the Redskins' undisputed leader. Redskins officials acknowledge Cousins has accomplished a lot in the final year of his rookie contract, and they plan to reward him. But here's the question: How much should owner Daniel Snyder pay a signal-caller who is in his first year as a full-time starter and whose body of work, until his breakout 2015 season, was uneven at best?

Shanahan, the former Washington head coach who drafted Cousins and tutored him for two seasons, thinks he has the answer.

"Whatever it takes [to keep him]," Shanahan said. "When you have a guy like this, who's only going to get better and better, you don't let him walk away. It's really simple."

Bottom line: You can't win without a quarterback in a quarterback league. Shanahan knows that better than most.

As an offensive coordinator, he helped Steve Young reach his Hall of Fame potential. Shanahan teamed with John Elway to win consecutive Super Bowl titles.

Obviously, no football man worth his salt would compare Cousins with Elway and Young, two of the game's all-time greats, "but when you work with these guys, and I have, you see certain things," Shanahan said. "The guys who have 'it,' what they really need is time. When they get the time and they show what they can do, everyone wants them.

"Why? Because there just aren't a lot of guys who can do everything you want done at the position. There aren't a lot of guys who have the ability, the work ethic and leadership skills like Kirk. And if they go out and do what they're supposed to do, like Kirk has done here late in the season, it really puts them in a great position."

It's called leverage. Cousins has a lot of it.

Don't forget: After committing six draft picks -- including five in high rounds -- as recently as 2012 to acquire Griffin and Cousins, the Redskins again opened the season with a mess at quarterback.

During training camp and the preseason, Griffin displayed little if any progress in his attempt to become primarily a pocket passer. Cousins was coming off a season in which he failed to retain the starting job, largely because of his turnover issues, after the injury-prone Griffin was sidelined in Week 2.

Entering this season, coach Jay Gruden knew that Cousins, clearly far ahead of Griffin in the offense, should start. The team announced that Griffin suffered a concussion in the preseason, opening the door for Cousins. But considering the herky-jerky way the Redskins have operated under Snyder -- they've had eight coaches since Snyder purchased the team in 1999 -- it wasn't a stretch to think Cousins wouldn't stay in place long if he struggled.

As Cousins had some bumpy moments while the team lost three of four during one stretch (he had six interceptions), Gruden and general manager Scot McCloughan kept Griffin on the bench. Cousins rewarded them, enabling the Redskins to emerge with an NFC East title and a franchise quarterback -- the foundation for sustained success in the NFL.

"I'm very proud of Kirk," Gruden beamed after he emerged from the party in the visitors locker room at Lincoln Financial Field. "He just kept battling. He's a class act. I'm happy for Kirk and what he's accomplished."

With one game remaining in the regular season, Cousins needs only 120 yards to break the franchise's single-season passing record. Cousins' 69.5 completion percentage ranks first in the league, he's among the leaders in Total QBR and he led Washington to only its third division title since 1999. By any criteria, Shanahan got it right: Cousins is a top-10 quarterback.

"Kirk's been developing," wide receiver DeSean Jackson said. "This year, he was able to get [all] the reps with the first team. He's doing what you ask a starting quarterback in this league to do. He's getting the ball where he needs to get it."

Undoubtedly, Cousins will have other suitors. At 27, he should be at the top of the free-agent class, which also will include Sam Bradford and the usual list of journeyman backups. If necessary, the Redskins could use their franchise tag to retain Cousins -- at about $19.5 million for 2016.

As his teammates celebrated in the locker room, Cousins took a moment to rest and reflect on what he had accomplished: "I'm very satisfied to see how the tables have turned this year."

Just as his former coach predicted, Cousins delivered. Now, it's the Redskins' turn.