ASHBURN, Va. — When the Washington Redskins navigated the difficult process of replacing Robert Griffin III with Kirk Cousins as their starting quarterback a year ago, Matt Cavanaugh was the man in the middle of it.
Griffin, Cousins and veteran Colt McCoy all wanted to start. Only one could, so Cavanaugh had heart-to-heart conversations about the situation.
Cousins threw for 4,166 yards and 26 touchdowns and led the Redskins to the NFC East title. Afterward, McCoy called Cavanaugh the team MVP for his stability and oversight.
“His ability to be the voice in our room, to take away the distractions, the things that went on and all that and for him to help Kirk the way that he did and silence a lot of things that could’ve got out or went wrong, Cav did a great job,” McCoy said. “Cav really deserves a lot of credit for the way Kirk played and the way that our room was handled throughout the year.”
Cavanaugh played 13 seasons in the NFL and has coached at the pro and college levels for more than two decades. After helping Cousins establish himself, Cavanaugh goes into his second season as Redskins quarterbacks coach with a very different challenge.
In Cousins the unquestioned starter, McCoy the entrenched backup and rookie Nate Sudfeld the long-term project, Cavanaugh must tailor his message to three very different quarterbacks. That’s pretty much a wheelhouse for Cavanaugh, who has made a career of being a quarterback whisperer.
“He played with Hall of Famers, played in multiple organizations, won Super Bowls,” Cousins said. “He’s coached Pro Bowlers, he’s coached Hall of Famers and he knows what it looks like.”
Cavanaugh was offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens in 2000 with Trent Dilfer, and he coached Steve Young with the San Francisco 49ers in 1996. Dealing with the Griffin-Cousins-McCoy quarterback triangle was just another chapter.
“I’ve been in those positions personally, so for me it wasn’t a huge deal,” Cavanaugh said. “Maybe they relied on me at times because they know that I did play and that I probably experienced what they’re going through and it was easier to relate some situations that I had.”
It’s that same experience that makes Cavanaugh qualified to help Cousins prove he deserves a long-term deal, keep McCoy prepared on a moment’s notice and coach up Sudfeld for the years ahead. Cavanaugh can pull from his time as a New England Patriots rookie and young starter and as Joe Montana’s backup.
Cousins developed into a leader as the franchise quarterback at 28, and his ascent with a career year is thanks in part to Cavanaugh’s tutelage.
“He’s helped simplify the game for me coaching me through my reads and trying to reduce the amount of clutter in my head as I read a defense,” Cousins said.
McCoy didn’t start until a meaningless Week 17 game at Dallas last season, but he said Cavanaugh pushed him to stay sharp. Without practice snaps, McCoy leaned on Cavanaugh for details and philosophy.
That’s what coach Jay Gruden and prodigious offensive coordinator Sean McVay count on Cavanaugh for.
“I can’t say enough about him, what a great job he’s done as far as leading that room, giving those guys a plan, helping develop the fundamentals and the mechanics of what we’re trying to get done at that position,” McVay said.
Already, Cavanaugh has devoted a lot of his time to Sudfeld, a sixth-round pick out of Indiana who has prototypical size but is raw at age 22. Sudfeld glowed about Cavanaugh months ago at rookie minicamp and has picked up a tremendous appreciation for the 59-year-old journeyman coach.
“He was very successful as a player so he automatically has that credibility and he can really relate to us,” Sudfeld said. “There’s some things where he’s like, ‘I know how it’s difficult, you’ve just got to work through it on a certain read or a throw.’ It’s really good to have that insight.”
Cavanaugh has been coaching since joining his alma mater, Pittsburgh, in 1992, yet he still feels like a developmental prospect. On a quarterback-friendly staff, the Youngstown, Ohio, native considers himself a student.
“I don’t care how long you’ve been doing it, I’ve been doing it for a while — you come in and you feel a little behind,” Cavanaugh said. “You’re not quite sure of how everything’s supposed to sound and you’re trying to visualize a play when it’s called and in a split-second have an answer for the quarterback when he makes a decision. So I’m feeling more comfortable with that and I’ve got two great teachers in Jay and Sean, who know this system extremely well. I’m here to learn, too.”