Kirk Cousins is a planner. The Redskins quarterback schedules his days with such specificity that it raises the question of how much time he blocks off just to make the schedule in the first place. When it comes to getting ready to play, unpreparedness doesn’t suddenly give way to preparedness. Cousins has a four-step process, derived from a theory of learning called the four stages of competence developed under psychologist Thomas Gordon.
The first stage is unconscious incompetence. As Cousins puts it, “I don’t know what I don’t know.”
Then comes conscious incompetence. This is when Cousins figures out what he needs to learn. That leads to the third stage, conscious competence.
“The point is,” Cousins says, “you start to be able to play but you’re still having to think a little bit. And then, the final stage is where you’re able to kind of turn your brain off and still execute at a high level so that’s where we’re all trying to get.”
The fourth stage is called unconscious competence.
Why is this relevant? Cousins says that it’s important for a quarterback to get to, or at least close to, the fourth stage in order to devote the conscious thought he’d otherwise spend on his own game to organizing and leading others.
“The more you move through those four stages and get to the final stage the more you’re able to lead,” he says.
As he enters his third season as the Redskins starter, Cousins has felt a change in his comfort level. No longer fighting for a spot on the team, he can relax and focus on the big picture. Cousins goes through the four-stage process on a week-to-week basis, but if he had to pick one stage to describe where he is in his career, he’d go with the third. He’s grasped the offense and his place on the team, but sometimes he still gets caught up inside his own head.
“Kirk sometimes floats in real deep water, I tell him,” says Jon Gruden, Jay’s brother who works with Kirk during the offseason. “He’s a deep and philosophical guy. Sometimes I think maybe if he has one thing that I try to just push him on is to quit overthinking everything. You know? Just try to keep it simple, trust your preparation and let it rip.
“But there’s a great kid, that Kirk Cousins.”
This year, Cousins will get more freedom to change calls and make decisions in the huddle than he’s had in years past. It isn’t a drastic change, but Jay Gruden wants to get his calls in quickly and then let Cousins’ mind take over.
“I know Jay wants Kirk to do more and more,” Jon Gruden says. “I mean, that’s what the great quarterbacks do. Who are we kidding, you think Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady and Drew Brees don’t dominate at the line of scrimmage? Their ability to recognize defenses and get to the best possible play is the key to their success. And that’s what my brother believes in, that’s what we believe in, that’s what the Gruden family believes in in football.
“Get up there quickly, we’ll give you a good play, we’ll get you started, if you see something better please get to it and know the matchups, know the personnel that’s on the field, know the formation we’re in and hey, get after the defense, man. That’s what it’s all about.”
Cousins cautions that there are many situations in which he just has to line up and run the play that’s called, but he says he’s ready to embrace new responsibility.
“I think both of our recognition of my experience does create a little bit more freedom, understanding, a longer leash knowing that Kirk has experience now and you coach a guy a little differently as a result,” said Cousins, referring to himself in the third-person.
As Cousins takes on more responsibility between the lines, it’s easy to wonder whether the same will be true off the field. Cousins has noted multiple times this offseason that he feels more comfortable in his role as starting quarterback. Three years may seem like a long runway to establish that feeling of comfort, but consider the manner in which Cousins won the starting job.
“It’s hard the first couple of years,” coach Jay Gruden said. “It really was. You know, he had a lot to deal with. He’s trying to just get any rep he could because Robert [Griffin III] was here, and when he did get some he’s like ‘I’ve got to make something happen or they’re going to boo me,’ and all that stuff.
“It really takes time for a quarterback to settle in and establish himself as a starter and he’s worked himself into that role which is unbelievable in a short amount of time what he’s accomplished.”
The question is, what will Cousins do with more time? Will he become more assertive not just in the huddle but with the team as a whole. Cousins, as is well documented, is an earnest type who can be a bit of a goof. He was overjoyed this week when the Redskins granted him his own personal “quarterback nook” to study in private. On Thursday, he strolled into the Redskins locker room singing — in Franki Valli’s falsetto — “Sherry” by The Four Seasons. Does his enhanced comfort this year extend beyond those things?
Cousins has never been the type, as some quarterbacks are, to chew his teammates out in practice over mistakes. Gruden said he doesn’t need to.
“Some quarterbacks take it upon themselves,” Gruden said. “I’ve seen different practices where quarterbacks can yell at players but it’s not necessary. I think coaching and correcting is more necessary than actually hollering at them unless it’s an effort thing, you know? Andy [Dalton] wasn’t that type where he’d jump on anybody, Kirk’s not that type either.”
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