Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins doesn’t remember much from his first regular season NFL start, which happened to come against the Browns.
There isn’t much to remember other than the win, actually. With the exception of cornerback Joe Haden, no other Browns player of any significance from that game is still with the team.
Cousins, a former Michigan State standout selected in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, picked the Browns apart that day, connecting on 26-of-37 passes for 329 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
That performance came in relief for an injured Robert Griffin III. Four years later, Cousin is Washington’s starter — for now — after signing the one-year franchise tender in the offseason.
According to reports, the one-year deal was a way to make Cousins prove himself to the Washington organization.
“In this league, you are always having to prove yourself, whether you are a first-round pick, a fourth-round pick, a seventh-round pick or undrafted,” Cousins said during a conference call this week.
“You have to come out every day and prove why you are the best option at your position. Sometimes, a guy like me, I was trying to prove myself as a backup. I was just trying to prove that I belonged on the team initially when I first got here. It is a highly competitive environment, and no matter what round you are picked in, you have to prove yourself day in and day out.”
That story is the way starting quarterbacks used to be developed in the NFL. Now at the helm of the Washington offense, Cousins must continue to grow into the position.
“I hope so. That is the goal of any quarterback in the National Football League — continue to take steps forward,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said of Cousins’ development. “That is what we are trying to do with Kirk. This is the first time he has really had an offseason and a training camp where he was the guy getting all the reps. I think progress is still being made and I think there is still progress to be made.”
The numbers say that growth is coming. After Thursday night’s Cincinnati-Miami game, Washington had the NFL’s fourth-ranked passing offense, and Cousins was fourth with 989 passing yards in three games.
However, Cousins has struggled in the red zone, where he’s completed 7-of-23 passes (30 percent) with one touchdown and two interceptions, according to Pro Football Reference.com.
Gruden spread the credit around for the success of the offense, from the offensive line to the receivers, including DeSean Jackson (14 receptions, 238 yards, TD), Jamison Crowder (16 catches, 175 yards, two TDs) and the seemingly ageless Pierre Garcon (13 catches, 135 yards), a Mount Union product.
“We have a lot of guys that can make plays for [Cousins],” Gruden said. “Once we get the running game going to where we want it to go, I think it will make it more dangerous with the play action and all that good stuff.”
However, Cousins possesses intangibles of his own.
“He’s poised. He’s really poised,” said Haden, who hopes to play Sunday after missing last week’s 30-24 loss to the Dolphins with an injured groin. “He can throw the deep ball very well and he has a lot of weapons ... so that helps out any quarterback. You’re throwing it to D-Jack [Jackson] over the top so him, [tight end] Jordan Reed.
“I just think he has confidence in those receivers and he just puts them in position to make plays.”
Cousins certainly understands what Haden, should he play, can provide in the way of a challenge.
“He just does a phenomenal job, understands concepts, understands how to cover in man-to-man, how to cover in zone,” Cousins said. “He is certainly one of the better players we will face all season.”
Browns cornerback Jamar Taylor, who played against Cousins last year as a member of the Dolphins, echoed Haden’s sentiments.
“There’s a reason he got paid — he can throw the ball, his decision-making is good, he makes great checks at the line, he’s getting the ball to his playmakers,” Taylor said. “Anytime you get a quarterback who’s really good with the ball as far as turnovers and stuff like that, he can be a great quarterback in this league. He has it.”
The best way to stop a top quarterback is to disrupt him, Browns starting defensive tackle Danny Shelton said. He added that won’t be easy because Washington left tackle Trent Williams is one of the best at his position.
“That’s something we’re going to have to be able to do defensively,” Shelton said, “is kind of get around him and disrupt the throwing lanes and stop the run.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.