Falcons’ Kirk Cousins: Unexpected competition ‘the norm’ in my career

Falcons quarterback Kirk Cousins spoke publicly for the first time since Atlanta used a first-round draft pick on Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. And as the 35-year-old veteran talked of moving forward and co-existing with a high-profile rookie, his core message was this: I’ve been here before.

“This is more the norm than the exception,” Cousins said Tuesday of his situation and his ability to push through unexpected competition.

Most fans know that Cousins came into the NFL as the second quarterback drafted by Washington in 2012, sitting most of his first two seasons behind Robert Griffin III, but Cousins went even further back to his senior year of high school.

He signed with Michigan State in February 2007 as a highly touted recruit, only to find out nine days later that the Spartans were adding another freshman in Nick Foles. Cousins said he was driving home from a Falcons draft party last month when he got a phone call that the team was taking a quarterback with its top pick. He said it was “similar” to when Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio called to tell him the Spartans were bringing in another quarterback to compete with him.

It was Foles who saw limited action as a backup that fall while Cousins redshirted behind starter Brian Hoyer. Foles then transferred to Arizona the next year, sitting out a season as required before becoming a three-year starter and future Super Bowl MVP. Cousins took over as Michigan State’s starter in 2009, and his experience navigating that situation has helped him in recent weeks.

“We looked at each other like, ‘Hey, one guy’s probably going to play here, and one guy isn’t,” Cousins said of his freshman interaction with Foles. “It doesn’t mean you’re not both great quarterbacks. You learn pretty quickly as a freshman in college [that] you’ve got to compete. That’s the way it’s kind of always been and always will be. This is consistent with my football journey, as opposed to an exception.”

Of course, that competition had one QB transferring as a solution, but there is no transfer portal in the NFL. The Falcons could trade one of their two quarterbacks at some point. They could also cut Cousins after the $100 million in guaranteed money in his four-year, $180 million contract is up, but that’s after at least two seasons in Atlanta. Cousins barely played in his first two years of college, and again in his first two seasons in the NFL, but he has managed to carve out a long NFL career despite a slow start.

So he spoke Tuesday during the team’s OTA practices about making sure the team’s quarterback room is on the same page, working together for the same goal of improving the team, regardless of any perceived awkwardness.

“The quarterback room is a working force for one another,” he said. “That’s never not been the case. We’re all in there as a working force to help each other. That dynamic has always been there and always will be there.”

Falcons coach Raheem Morris has been careful to clarify and compartmentalize his praise for the two quarterbacks, expressing an excitement for Penix’s potential while making it clear Cousins is Atlanta’s quarterback now.

“Kirk’s our quarterback,” Morris said this week. “That will play out as it plays out. We’ve got a guy in the building that we hope can be our potential guy moving on in the future. I really love both of the people. … You might not like the initial reaction of what is going to happen, but if you sit down, if you go through the process, talk to enough people, figure out what the goals are and we get it on the line, let’s go. Let’s go to work.”

Is the Michael Penix Jr. draft pick actually justifiable for Falcons?

Is the Michael Penix Jr. draft pick actually justifiable for Falcons?

Cousins is making progress in his recovery from a torn Achilles tendon that ended his 2023 season in late October. He has two and a half months left in the original nine-month recovery timetable, and he has been pleased by what he’s been able to do in practices. The Falcons are careful not to have him scrambling or moving around much, and these are non-contact practices where there’s no real threat of contact with a quarterback, but he feels good about his trajectory with the start of training camp coming at the end of July.

Penix just had his first practices with the team in the Falcons’ rookie minicamp last weekend, and now he and Cousins will co-exist in OTAs and the team’s mandatory minicamp next month. Both have been complimentary of the other, with Penix talking about how much he can learn from a 12-year veteran like Cousins and all that he’s experienced in his career.

The Falcons, coming off three straight 7-10 seasons and no playoff appearances since 2017, are now the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the NFC South, ahead of the three-time defending champion Bucs, as well as a Saints team that finished 9-8 and beat the Falcons 48-17 in last year’s season finale.

Asked about the expectations his new team is now facing, Cousins said it’s important for him to make sure his teammates understand the work involved in a winning season and not get caught up in external optimism.

“I think there’s perception and there’s reality,” Cousins said. “I don’t want perception to bleed into reality, in the sense that people will just assume things will happen. For me, I don’t want to deal in perception. I deal in reality. What’s reality? Reality is we’ve got a long ways to go. There’s not a lot of time on task to get there, and we’ve got to make up for that quickly. We have to have a sense of urgency about the way we practice, work, communicate, meet. That’s what my reality is and for my teammates. We’ve got to get to roughly Labor Day and feel like we have the screws tied down. We’re not there yet, don’t have to be there yet. I feel a sense of urgency about that.”

Cousins was asked Tuesday if he would have chosen Atlanta in free agency if the team had been upfront about its interest in using the No. 8 overall pick in the draft on another quarterback.

“I don’t really deal in hypotheticals,” he said. “We could go down that path for a long time in a lot of ways. It just doesn’t do us any good. I’m excited for this opportunity I have. I think it’s a real privilege to be a quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, and I’m trying to make good on the opportunity given to me with the way I work each day and the way we play this fall.”

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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