ASHBURN, Va. – This was not the life Kirk Cousins dreamed for himself.
His shot at the NFL was not supposed to be behind a quarterback who comes along once a generation. If there was a place he expected to be taken on the last day of the 2012 NFL draft, it wasn't with the team that had picked Robert Griffin III just two evenings before.
What was the point? Nobody understood. Why would one team take two highly regarded quarterbacks in the same draft? Cousins himself seemed as confused as everyone else when the Washington Redskins took him in the fourth round. Of all the teams and all the places, he went to a franchise where his path to the top seemed highly likely.
But the following months in Griffin's shadow taught him something. He watched RG3 smile through practice. He watched him laugh before big games. He watched him move with a relaxed assuredness Cousins never had through four seasons at Michigan State.
And Cousins realized what he needed to take from the man who blocked his path to a starting job in the NFL.
"What I've learned from Robert is to have fun and enjoy it," Cousins said Thursday as he stood on the side of the field following a Redskins organized team activity (OTA). "He didn't look like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders even though he had every right to. You don't have to be serious to be a great leader."
Looking back, Cousins understood he had been too hard on himself in the past. He wanted success so much he burned to have it. He pushed and pushed and pushed to be good until the consumption to find greatness stopped being a virtue. Watching Griffin glide through the NFL, Cousins wondered if perhaps he wanted success too much.
For a year now, he has been searching for an answer. He is a Christian man who often sprinkles his sentences with expressions of devotion. Several times in interviews, he has said he believes God put him in what appeared to be an impossible situation for a purpose, but he had no idea what that purpose was. Only recently has he come to think that maybe he needed to see how RG3 handled the burning light of celebrity that follows him everywhere. Perhaps he needed to learn what fame is about before he was handed a team of his own.
In a way, the Redskins belong to him these days. With Griffin still recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL and LCL in his right knee, the Redskins' offense has been placed in Cousins' hands for the OTAs and minicamps. There's a chance he will even start the preseason as the No. 1 quarterback until Griffin is ready to practice. There even looms the possibility he will have to start in RG3's place to start the regular season if Griffin's knee doesn't continue to heal as well as it has, just as there remains a serious chance Griffin could get hurt again and Cousins will have to replace him as he did for parts of three games last season.
He speaks of these weeks as the temporary No. 1 as a great experience, a chance to run plays he otherwise wouldn't have run. "Even if Robert were to return tomorrow I'd have had six days of practice with the first team, that's invaluable," he says.
But there is a sense of something bigger, a future somewhere other than in Washington. While Redskins coach Mike Shanahan talked forever last year about wanting to have a strong backup for RG3 should something go wrong, there was also speculation that the coach had taken Cousins with the idea of trading him after a year or two to a team that was desperate for a starting quarterback.
And so these practices are as much for Cousins' potential next team as they are for the Redskins. Even as he runs an offense designed for RG3, he is also potentially running for a trade or a free-agent signing two or three years down the road. He is possibly running for an offensive line and wide receivers and a coach he has yet to meet. Somewhere that next chance lingers in the future.
"Well every game is filmed so even if coaches are coaching other games they are going to be able to go back and watch tape and see what I can do," Cousins said recently.
When that chance comes he will take that lesson from last year's offensive rookie of the year. He will smile when he walks onto the practice field. He will laugh before the big games. He will move with an assured confidence of his own.
Just like he did Thursday in a team drill, when he was running Griffin's offense and a play broke down, and he had to cut to the outside and make like RG3 racing down the sideline. He skipped past the defensive linemen and accelerated by the linebackers and safeties. And as he ran, his feet moving him faster, he began to laugh. It was a chuckle at first, growing to something bigger and louder. Soon he was cackling.
"HA HA HA Whooooo!" he shouted.
And the man who had been too serious for his football life took the best lesson Robert Griffin III had given him and lived it as he ran toward the end zone.
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