September 06, 2016

ASHBURN, Va. (AP) Kirk Cousins worked his way up from not being heavily recruited to becoming the starting quarterback at Michigan State. At least he thought he had.

Going into Cousins' sophomore season in 2009, Keith Nichol transferred from Oklahoma, and it was game on.

''He took that as an insult and felt like he had to prove himself all over again and win the starting job there,'' then-Michigan State quarterbacks coach Dave Warner said last week. ''I think the same thing's happening right now at (the NFL) level. He had a very good year last year, but maybe people are wondering if he can do it again.''

Cousins was at his best when he was in prove-it mode in college and finds himself in a similar position as the Washington Redskins' new franchise quarterback. A fourth-round pick in 2012, Cousins sat behind Robert Griffin III before winning the starting job a year ago. Cousins is unquestionably No. 1 but didn't get the long-term deal he wanted.

Cousins is playing this season with the franchise tag - which means a ''pretty good raise'' to $19.95 million - and said he isn't lying awake at night worrying about his future. Instead, he's focused on the next step of becoming more consistent and earning a contract and elite status in the NFL.

''I had a four-year deal as a rookie, but it didn't feel like a four-year deal - it felt like a one-day deal every single day I was here,'' Cousins said. ''I don't think things have changed a whole lot in that regard. I've got to go out there and prove myself each and every game of every season. When you do that, I think the rest will take care of itself.''

At 28, Cousins has made the Redskins his team in his own way, less flashy than Griffin except for his demonstrative celebrations in games and on the practice field. He wants the Redskins to be the San Antonio Spurs of the NFL: somewhat boring and without drama but unflinchingly successful.

While Cousins aims to get the job done without much fanfare, teammates and coaches see a defiant confidence in him. Coach Jay Gruden believes it's at ''an all-time high'' but without cockiness.

''He also understands he's got a lot of work to do and he's not afraid to put the work in,'' Gruden said. ''He's a gym rat, he's a film rat. That's just what you need to be a successful quarterback in this league.

''The great quarterbacks are that way in their first year and in their 15th year. That's the way you have to be at the position, and he's got the mental makeup to be a great one.''

Cousins believes he's better than he was a year ago - ''I don't know how to measure it, but you give me a measuring system and maybe I can tell you,'' he said. Quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh points to a comeback victory against Tampa Bay last season as a moment of growth for Cousins, who he said has the knowledge of the offense down and is working on different cadences, fakes and targets.

Now Michigan State's co-offensive coordinator, Warner sees Cousins more comfortable and willing to take off and run with the ball. Just as Cavanaugh believes no quarterback turns pro knowing how to do it all, Cousins remains a work in progress.

''The good thing about him is he's not content,'' Cavanaugh said. ''He sees a lot more improvement to be made, and that's what he's striving for. Being on the bench watching is OK, but there's nothing like getting your reps and making something happen to start to believe in yourself.''

Cousins threw for 29 touchdowns and a franchise-record 4,166 yards and had a league-best completion percentage of 69.8 in his first season as the starter. That made the Redskins' decision to start him over Griffin look like a smart move.

Not having to win the job at training camp, Cousins looked more relaxed and appeared to be having more fun.

''The biggest thing that's changed has been his confidence,'' running back Chris Thompson said. ''I think for him, also, it's sort of a relief now because he knows he's the guy. At some point in their career, every quarterback wants to feel that because then the nerves sort of go away and they're able to relax a little bit.''

While relaxed, Cousins is far from complacent though he can be comfortable in his job status. Teammates rallied around him as he led the Redskins to the NFC East title last season and Griffin is now in Cleveland.

''He's the franchise quarterback,'' receiver DeSean Jackson said. ''He doesn't really have to worry about nobody on his heels and he's doing everything you ask to do in a franchise quarterback.''

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