Kyle Shanahan's belief helped fuel Kirk Cousins' rise

Clark says Redskins are the cream of the crop in NFC East (1:56)

Ryan Clark defends Washington as the best team in the NFC East despite the Eagles' first-place standing. (1:56)

ASHBURN, Va. -- The early conversations during his rookie season let Kirk Cousins know maybe he should aim higher. He entered the NFL with one goal: Make the roster. But his coaches that first season, notably Kyle Shanahan, altered his vision.

Their original plan involved developing Cousins and trading him, anticipating success by fellow rookie Robert Griffin III. The coaches -- also Mike Shanahan and then-quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur -- were confident in what they could do with Cousins.

"Kyle believed in me when it was just potential," Cousins said. "I hadn't done anything to earn his belief and he believed in me. Mike did, too, and Matt LaFleur for that matter. That's when I look back and say, 'Wow, those guys knew what they were talking about,' because I hadn't done anything and they told me I had a lot of potential and could do something."

That's one reason Cousins remains appreciative of how those coaches helped shape his career. Cousins only started four games with Shanahan, winning one for an injured Griffin his rookie season. There were whispers after that rookie season -- as friction began with Griffin -- that Shanahan thought he could win with Cousins.

That belief trickled down to Cousins, a fourth-round pick curious why a team that had selected a quarterback second overall would take another the same year. The Washington Redskins, though, had struggled to find not only a starter but quality depth at quarterback. So they selected two -- had Russell Wilson still been available in the fourth, they likely would have taken him. Regardless, they liked Cousins.

"We were excited from what we saw in his college film," Kyle Shanahan said, "and that's what we liked the most about him and that's why we wanted him. What we saw on tape, he was everything the same in practice and the more you are around the guy you became even more impressed of how special of a person he is.

"[Cousins was] like all these pocket passers ... guys who can hang in the pocket, deliver the ball, who are accurate, don't watch the rush, very tough and can go through a progression very easily."

Shanahan joked he has to be careful "talking too much." After all, the less-than-quiet rumor involves Cousins eventually signing with San Francisco as a free agent. It's a realistic option.

Setting sights higher

Cousins was tight with Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay as well, giving him a jersey in which he inscribed, "I owe you my career." McVay was the only offensive coach to stay after Jay Gruden took over. And McVay remained firmly in Cousins' corner.

But it was Shanahan who was there first.

"Some guys come into the league really having a lot of confidence and believing, 'I'm going to be a Pro-Bowler someday. I'm going to be a Hall of Famer. It's just a matter of time,'" Cousins said. "My mindset was, 'I've got to make the team and I've got to find a way to stay in this league.' Hearing that belief from Mike, from Kyle, from Matt right away, gave me a chance to set my sights a little higher and to expect a little more out of myself and to work for more."

Cousins made it clear he's been surrounded by good coaches throughout his career, including the current staff. But he called the early confidence a "shot in the arm."

As a rookie, Cousins studied during every break -- often seen sitting on a couch outside the locker room while others spoke with the media. He understood what he must do. During one preseason game, Cousins delivered a strike down the sidelines against a Cover 2 defense, slipping it in between the corner and the safety. But he bemoaned the throw later in the week, saying it wasn't the right throw for that look -- and that he would learn.

A different QB

He's obviously a different quarterback, developing in all aspects -- from handling protection calls and audibles and reading defenses to managing the run game.

"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," Cousins said.

Teammates have noticed.

"I think of games where my second year [in 2014] when he had to come in, he was a little nervous at times," Redskins running back Chris Thompson said. "Now everything flows better. He knows the ins and out of the offense. ... He feels more comfortable and his play has been showing."

Cousins will start his 37th straight regular-season game Sunday, so he's far removed from being a rookie. Gruden said he's not yet a finished product, either. He still calls him a young quarterback -- because of to starting experience, not age.

"His entire game is evolving," Gruden said. "He's just going to continue to see things and adjust to the different defenses and the fronts and the coverage that he sees, understand different concepts are good for different coverages, and then sometimes you're going to have to ad-lib, like he did against Kansas City a few times and he's getting better at that. Playing quarterback is all about experiences, learning from your mistakes, moving forward and continuing to compete at a high level -- on a consistent high level. And that's what he's so far doing."

How much further Cousins can go is up for debate -- and already has been the subject of many. But he'll always have a fan in Shanahan.

"He looks like the same guy I've always seen," Shanahan said. "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 and I know he will be a tough challenge for our defense."