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The starting quarterback for the surprise NFC East leaders is on a constant quest to better himself as a player and person. Kirk Cousins may not be the best QB in the NFL—or maybe even in Washington—but he’s making the case that he belongs

By Robert Klemko
December 01, 2015

ASHBURN, Va. — There are three quarterbacks, each of them under 30, teammates pitted against one another by voracious fans, loudmouth radio hosts and a coaching regime juggling the demands of an owner and the instincts of a new general manager. The three men are supposed to be at odds; instead they’re sitting in a circle with their significant others and about a dozen other teammates in the family room of a Virginia mansion, eating snacks and studying scripture.

It’s the first Thursday bible study of Washington’s 2015 season, and Kirk Cousins, Robert Griffin III and Colt McCoy are each in attendance. Team chaplain Brett Fuller ends the evening, as usual, with a call for prayer requests. Cousins, the surprise starter for Week 1 after Robert Griffin held the job all preseason, drops a bombshell. His father, Don, has metastatic squamous cell carcinoma, a type of cancer, and started treatments in July.

“That was something I felt like I could share with those guys,” Cousins says three months later. “I really appreciate the way the guys on the team have supported my family.”

Cousins says he was warmed by an assurance from Robert Griffin, the quarterback taken three rounds ahead of him in the 2012 draft, that he and his wife would be praying for Don Cousins.

“This is about more than football,” Griffin says.

It’s an ethos Kirk Cousins subscribes to religiously—the importance of the world beyond football—and it’s evidenced by his aggressively long in-season reading list, which includes everything from John Grisham's Bleachers to Charles Stanley’s Finding Peace: God's Promise of a Life Free from Regret, Anxiety, and Fear. All of which is astounding when you consider the lengths the 27-year-old, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and went to high school in Holland, Mich., will go to succeed in the NFL. 

“He’s a natural leader, but he beats himself up too much,” a teammate says. “But that’s just a quarterback searching for perfection.”

Twelve weeks into his first season as a starter under Jay Gruden, Cousins is playing his best football since Michigan State. In his past five games he’s thrown 10 touchdown passes and two interceptions (after throwing eight picks in his first six games). In Week 10 he gave a game ball to his father, attending his first game all season, after a four-touchdown performance in a thrashing of the Saints. But even with his game improving and his team tenuously atop the NFC East, Cousins still can’t sleep on Sunday nights unless he reviews that day’s game on his tablet or drives into the office to watch it on the big screen, in an empty room with the lights off.

“I've got to see it at least once and go over all the mistakes,” Cousins says, “or I just toss and turn all night wondering what happened.”

He’s leading a first-place team after starting the season 2-4, and as defensive back Dashon Goldson bluntly put it to the Washington Post following a 20-14 win over the Giants on Sunday: “We only go as far as he takes us.”

Cousins will cash in this offseason.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The late nights get later.

“He’s a natural leader, and he’s what a QB is supposed to be,” says defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, “but he beats himself up too much. You can see it in a player’s eyes. I don’t care what sport, if you ever want to know if a guy beats himself up, look into his eyes.

“But that’s just a quarterback searching for perfection.”

* * *

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

Cousins led the Big Ten in passing in 2011 for Michigan State, where he chose to pursue football over a medical career.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Kirk Cousins wanted to be a doctor; his mother’s father was a surgeon, and his father’s mother was head nurse in the maternity ward at a large suburban Chicago hospital. He himself was something of a medical miracle.

At 19 months old, he was playing in the kitchen at home when he pulled a pot of boiling pasta onto his upper body, searing off a layer of skin from his neck down to his belly. He’s too young to remember the two weeks he spent in the hospital with a fever while recovering from the burns. Doctors said he would never throw any sort of ball with proficiency.

“We didn't care at the time,” Don Cousins told ESPN.com in 2011. “We just wanted our son to heal.”

He healed well enough to star in basketball, baseball and football as a teen at Holland (Mich.) Christian High. Cousins fielded football offers from Western Michigan and Toledo despite a broken ankle cutting short his junior season. Mark Dantonio, new coach at Michigan State, lost a verbal commit from a quarterback in the class of 2007 late in the process, so he offered a spot to Cousins, a 6-2, 170-pound son of a pastor with blond hair, blue eyes and a sledgehammer jaw.

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He wasn’t your typical Power 5 conference recruit, with a 4.0 GPA (No. 1 student in his high school class) and aspirations to major in kinesiology on a pre-med track. Two-and-a-half years into his career, after redshirting and then beating out Nick Foles for the starting job, Cousins found himself up late nights in the fall studying for genetics exams and falling asleep at his desk at 1 a.m.

“He called one day,” says Don Cousins, “and said the demands of being a starting quarterback in the Big Ten and the med school curriculum were putting him over the top.”

The elder Cousins, 58, splits his time between Holland and Orlando, where he is lead pastor at the Discovery Church. He says his brand of religion is “bible-based,” and if you had to put a classification on it, his family is evangelical. He speaks in a matter-of-fact manner, in much the same way Kirk does and in a very similar voice.

“Later in that semester, Kirk said, ‘I think I’ve got to make a decision here,’ ” Don says. “‘I don’t have the same passion I have for medicine that I have for football, and I’m being told I have a chance to play at the next level. Am I foolish for putting all of my energy in that direction if it doesn’t come to pass?’”

Said Don: “You need to pray about it.”

Kirk did, and he found God in football through fellowship. He was recognized at the beginning of that redshirt sophomore season as a captain along with three seniors.

“You saw him relate to anyone in the locker room—guys who were playing, certainly guys who weren’t playing,” Dantonio recalls. “People gravitated towards him. He gave one teammate a ride whenever he needed one, from the train station, any circumstance, because the guy was having trouble being on time. It’s not that he wants people to like him. He has a genuine desire to make people feel good about themselves.” 

Cousins built the kind of relationships with teammates that endured through losses, injuries and position battles. When he got to Washington as the fourth-round pick of a team that sold the farm to land Griffin with the second overall selection, Cousins took a back seat while Griffin thrived as a rookie. Then when Griffin stumbled as a sophomore after shredding his knee late in 2012, and Cousins shined as a backup, a QB controversy was born in a major media market—just in time for coach Mike Shanahan's firing and the hiring of Jay Gruden, whose success as a coordinator in Cincinnati was tied to a pocket passer in Andy Dalton.

Cousins, in every interview, took the high road.

Cousins supplanted RG3, drafted 100 spots ahead of him in 2012.
Simon Bruty for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

“I think you do lean on past experiences no matter what situation you’re in, and I had fought for a job before,” Cousins says. “This league is a tough league and it’ll test you, and each year is a challenge. If you look at the long haul it can be pretty overwhelming.”

While Cousins waited through Griffin’s run, and while Gruden experimented with McCoy in 2014, there were suitors. According to a league source, the Browns made a trade offer for Cousins before the 2014 draft, in which they chose Manziel 22nd overall. And the Jets inquired as to Cousins’ availability during training camp as they prepared to hand the reigns to Ryan Fitzpatrick. Washington and new GM Scot McCloughan didn’t bite.

Though Griffin was penciled as the starter for 2015, Gruden’s own rhetoric in press conferences suggested more of a tolerance for the shortcomings of the pocket-passing Cousins than the dynamic former Baylor star. That Griffin held on to the starting job for the meat of the preseason, only to lose it based solely on merit (according to Gruden) suggested a power struggle with owner Dan Snyder who was heavily invested in Griffin—a struggle that McCloughan and the coaching staff eventually won.

And now they’ve got a quarterback whose value, both on the field and on the 2016 open market, rises with every win.

“He has a perspective that I can only control what I can control,” Don Cousins says. “We really believe that God holds sway over the direction of our lives. Kirk believes that God put him in Washington to start out. Doesn’t mean he’s going to be there long term, but to start out. In faith and character he’s kept his equilibrium in a challenging set of circumstances.”

* * *

“I’m most comfortable with my peers, with my family, and with myself. The podium is way too formal. I think that’s what coaches do. Players talk in the locker room. Some people are comfortable behind the podium. But I don’t need to be the showstopper, the entertainer. I’d much rather be one of the guys.”

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, from Charles P. Pierce’s 2007 book, Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything.

Cousins has studied up on how Brady comports himself as a quarterback and a leader.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Kirk Cousins keeps two bookshelves at home. One for all the books he’s read, and one for all the books he plans to read. (He’s also written a book on football and faith, Game Changer, geared toward young readers.) Each morning before heading into the facility, he reads a chapter from his current book. He estimates he’s read between six and 10 books since the beginning of training camp, each of which seem to satisfy either the Christian or quarterbacking demographics.

A sampling of Cousins’ recent conquests:

• If: Trading Your If Only Regrets for God's What If Possibilities, by Mark Batterson

• The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, by Bruce Feldman

• Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent, by Ben Patterson

• The Five Thousand Year Leap: Twenty-Eight Great Ideas That Are Changing the World, by W. Cleon Skousen

• Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything, by Charles P. Pierce

That last one Cousins finished during the bye, after leading a 31-30 comeback win over the Buccaneers that prompted his triumphant “You like that!” epilogue. The clip spawned a meme and a line of t-shirts (Cousins donated all the profits from the shirts, more than $41,000 so far, to Washington’s International Justice Mission), and became a sort of tongue-in-cheek rallying cry for teammates amused and excited by Cousins’ public show of candor.

What stuck out to Cousins about the Brady book was not the spectacular performances of Brady’s 2005 Patriots season, but the three-time Super Bowl winner’s preference for doing press conferences at his locker rather than at a podium.

Writes Pierce: “Tom Brady—NFL superstar and national celebrity, renowned for his ability to remain icy under pressure—stood behind a podium and looked as comfortable as a reluctant mob witness.”

Pierce goes on to question Brady’s humble “I don’t need to be the showstopper” line with his lifestyle those days, which included cavorting with Donald Trump and judging the Miss USA pageant. But the larger point resonated with Cousins: Quarterbacks, like politicians, must maintain a certain air of everyman status in order to lead.

“He ended up doing the podium,” Cousins says, “But just the way that he’s thinking about it, to want to be one of the guys and not be singled out, I thought that was a good reflection on the way quarterbacks lead and the personality necessary to play the position.”

John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Over his three years as a backup, Cousins constantly observed and read about quarterbacks, picking up several habits that create a sense of equality and collaboration on the field. “He started asking guys after plays, the guys he didn’t throw to, ‘Do you like that look right there? Were you open?’ ” says Jordan Reed, third-year tight end.

When Cousins makes a throw in practice, he’ll then go through the rest of his reads and mimic a throwing motion to the rest of the receivers in his progression after the play is over. “I try to keep those guys engaged and make sure they know I’m thinking about them and trying to get them the football,” Cousins says. “It’s important for me to let them know I want to get them the football.

“I think as a quarterback it’s so important to raise the level of play of the other 10 guys, and if you can get those 10 guys to play at a high level, hopefully your play will coincide.”

* * *

“It’s here in this place of privilege where perhaps danger lies. I’ve been taught that the place of privilege most often and most naturally leads to a sense of entitlement. The notion that I deserve to be treated as special because I’m privileged… I’ve been raised and taught to believe that privilege should lead to responsibility. We have a responsibility to give our all.”

Kirk Cousins, Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon, 2011

Cousins hits the pile for a TD against the Giants, in the game that gave Washington a tenuous lead in NFC East.
Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Wearing an ill-fitting black suit with bulky shoulders and a thick, green tie, Cousins took the podium at the 2011 Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon as the representative for the players does each year, to deliver a speech. In a clip that’s been viewed almost 400,000 times on YouTube, Cousins sped through a speech so beautifully written and honestly delivered, it brought the audience to its feet.

Football players, he said, were privileged individuals, and their behavior ought to be a beacon for the rest of society.

“We can set a new standard for how to treat others,” he said.

A few years later in D.C., the quarterback race was supposed to be an ugly one. Early praise for Cousins in his several appearances during the 2013 and 2014 season were seen by some sports media pundits as indication of a racial bias among media and fans against Griffin and for either Cousins or, later, McCoy. And as Cousins turned in mistake-filled performances over the first two months of the season, that sentiment grew.

Early in the season, RG3 remained ahead of Cousins on the shirt rack.
Simon Bruty for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

In a mid-October exchange with Dan Steinberg on DC Sports Bog, ESPN’s Bomani Jones wrote: “Now, Griffin is on the bench. It makes sense, in many ways, for all parties involved. But the scrutiny he was under, the way his play was critiqued, simply isn’t the same as what’s happening with Cousins. The difference in how he’s treated by media, fans and his head coach is startling. It’s unavoidable. It’s comical. And it’s also disturbing.”

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For Cousins it must’ve been confusing. He grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, where two of his closest friends were minorities. “We raised our kids to be color-blind,” Don says. Adds Dantonio: “He brought people together, no matter their color or background.”

Cousins was encouraged by his agent, Mike McCartney, to tune out the media noise. The news he received in July helped Cousins focus on what was important.

After the summer diagnosis, Don Cousins underwent two surgeries in his neck and jaw to determine the source of the cancer. The tonsils were removed but found to have no trace of sarcoma. Then the lymph nodes were identified and operated on. Subsequent chemotherapy drained him and prevented him from attending games or giving sermons.

“You remember the negatives,” Kirk Cousins says. “What do I need to learn from this experience so I don’t repeat it?”

Then, last month, he got the all clear from doctors. Pending a January screening, Don Cousins is believed to be cancer-free. Three weeks ago he attended his first game all season and saw his son score four touchdowns at home against the Saints as Washington improved to 4-5. Kirk Cousins cradled a ball for most of the second half on the sideline, and delivered it to his father after the final whistle.

Kirk celebrates with his dad after the 47-14 victory over the Saints, his best day as a pro and the first game Don could see in person this season.
Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

“You just kind of work through it and trust God’s plan,” Kirk said that day.

But the danger is right around the corner. Danger in complacency. Cousins keeps a list in his phone of all the mistakes he sees recurring on film. In Sunday’s victory over the Giants, he nearly threw a pick-six on a short out route in the first quarter, but New York cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie dropped the ball. Add it to the list. He can remember, with astounding accuracy, the circumstances of his interceptions dating back to his first start in the NFL—a 38-21 victory over the Browns in 2012 in which he threw two touchdowns and one pick.

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“I remember it was a deep in cut by Pierre [Garçon] on third down,” he says without missing a beat. “Man coverage. They played 11 lurk. I threw the ball, and the defensive back undercut the route and made the interception. Actually it got tipped and intercepted off the tip.

“You remember the negatives because you have the mentality of, I can’t allow that to happen again, so what do I need to learn from this experience so I don’t repeat it? And you find yourself going back and playing it over and over to prevent it, and as a result it gets implanted much stronger than the successes.”

Here's Kirk Cousins at 27: He flies out to Tampa on his own dime to study film with Jon Gruden for a week in the offseason. He uses a Michigan-based company called Neurocore that aims to train the brain to better deal with stressors. He wakes up an hour early to pore through books about quarterbacks.

Why? Is it a profound sense of responsibility, or perhaps a fear of failure?

“He’s got a love for God, and a love for his fellow man; he looks to do things for other people. He extends himself,” says Dantonio. “But I think what motivates Kirk Cousins is excellence.”

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

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