Kyle Shanahan believed in Kirk Cousins before the quarterback believed in himself.
Cousins was a fourth-round pick the same year the Washington Redskins traded up to draft Robert Griffin III second overall. As Cousins focused on making the team, Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator and his dad, Mike, as coach helped set his sights higher, and he hasn't forgotten that.
“Kyle believed in me when it was just potential,” Cousins said. “There was no production. I hadn't done anything to earn his belief and he believed in me.”
As Cousins faces Shanahan's San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, he's a much more polished player but exactly on the progression his former mentor expected.
“I feel like he looks like the same guy I've always seen,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “Obviously the more you play, the more opportunities you get, the better you get with reps. But he looks exactly like the guy I remember from practices out there.”
Shanahan only got to oversee Cousins' development for two seasons before being fired as part of a sweeping regime change. In 2012 and 2013, Cousins completed just 56.2 percent of his passes and had eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Since then, with some help from Gruden and now Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, Cousins has completed 67.2 percent of his passes with 71 TDs and 33 INTs and twice has thrown for over 4,000 yards in a season.
Cousins is 29, but Gruden still called him a “young quarterback.” Cousins feels that way, too.
“I've developed every area of my game from the end of year two to now in the middle of year six,” Cousins said. “Everything from protections, audibles, understanding the run game, reads, coverage recognition, blitz recognition, just how to handle a 16-game season and how to win in this league, how to play on the road. There's so many elements of being a quarterback that as I've played, I've picked them all up and I feel like every year I take another step.”
Many have linked Cousins' next step to Shanahan. Cousins is playing a second consecutive season on the franchise tag and faces another decision point next spring.
Shanahan was careful not to praise Cousins too effusively but said he's accurate delivering the ball, isn't worried by the pass rush, is tough and can go through route progressions very easily. Gruden figures Cousins will get better at reading defenses and adjusting to coverages as he gets more snaps.
Teammates already see that evolution in Cousins over the past five-plus seasons.
“With experience has come maturity,” third-down back Chris Thompson said. “I can think of games where my second year when he had to come in after Griff had his injuries and everything, he was a little nervous at times. I think he would agree with that, as well. He was a little nervous and now it's just like everything flows better because he's had the time, he's had the experience.”
Veteran tight end Vernon Davis isn't worried about Cousins continuing to handle the physical rigors of the NFL and compared his mental improvement to that of now Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
“He has all the physical attributes he needs in order to play this game, but mentally I feel like he's going to keep on improving mentally, kind of like Alex Smith,” Davis said. “Alex had some rough years in San Francisco. It's all in your mindset. ... If Kirk has the passion and desire to get better, then he's going to keep getting better.”
One thing that's already different in Cousins' mindset is being a father after his wife, Julie, gave birth to their first child Sept. 29. Cousins recalled Drew Brees writing in his book that he was better at time management after having a child and that now 49ers strength and conditioning coach Ray Wright said a player becomes his best self after he's married.
Cousins hopes the same is true now that he has his son, Cooper, at home.
“I think you could maybe even become a better football player after that happens,” Cousins said.