Had it not been for the trade of Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017, Kirk Cousins could have been the 49ers’ quarterback under Shanahan.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On Monday Night Football, the 49ers will face the Minnesota Vikings, and the quarterback will be a familiar face.
He’ll move through his progressions with poise and precision, likely completing a high percentage of his passes.
Actually, two familiar faces. Because Kyle Shanahan taught both the 49ers’ Brock Purdy and the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins how to play quarterback in the NFL.
One of the NFL’s worst-kept secrets is that Shanahan has had a soft spot for Cousins since their days together in Washington. Shanahan worked as the offensive coordinator for his father, Mike Shanahan, and Cousins was a fourth-round draft pick out of Michigan State who was overshadowed by Robert Griffin III, the No. 2 pick behind Andrew Luck.
Kyle joined his father’s staff in 2010, with Donovan McNabb starting over Rex Grossman the first year and Grossman starting over John Beck the following year, with Washington going 11-21 in both seasons.
Kyle Shanahan made no secret of his feelings about Cousins, whom he hoped his father would draft in the second round. Mike Shanahan wanted two quarterbacks, according to his son, and was considering Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill with the No. 6 overall pick and Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson in the fourth round.
However, Washington moved up to No. 2 in the draft by trading three first-round picks and a second-round pick to the then-St. Louis Rams in exchange for Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor.
Kyle Shanahan had moved on by the time his father arrived in his room the night before Rounds 4 through 7. Mike still wanted two quarterbacks, and Wilson had already been selected by Seattle in the third round.
“Do you still want your guy Kirk?” Kyle remembered what his father had said. “So we ended up taking Kirk, which I was pumped about because I wanted him originally.”
Even though Cousins only started four games with Kyle calling plays in Washington, a mutual admiration relationship was formed.
“He was a big reason I was drafted there, and I was fortunate to get to play for him for two years,” Cousins said Thursday in Minnesota.
Griffin was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, rushing for 815 yards and passing for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns. Cousins started a late-season game against Cleveland when Griffin missed time with a mild knee sprain, with Griffin returning to the lineup and suffering a more serious knee injury in a season that ended with a playoff loss to Seattle.
“I know it was a weird situation, but he just kind of sat there and soaked everything in and learned a lot and it was a fun two years working with him every day,” Shanahan told reporters.
Griffin never regained his pre-injury form, and Cousins started three games at the end of a season that spiraled out of control. Owner Daniel Snyder fired the coaching staff, which included both Shanahans as well as future head coaches Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur, and Mike McDaniel.
“When he left, we had just gone 3-13, I had played the last three games and went 0-3,” Cousins told reporters. “We were all in disbelief about how we were. It’s been incredible to see where everyone’s paths have taken them since then… you kind of believe the cream rises to the top in time, and I think that’s proven in the case of those coaches.”
Kyle Shanahan worked as an offensive coordinator in Cleveland (2014) and Atlanta (2015-16) before becoming the 49ers’ head coach in 2017. Shanahan watched from afar as Cousins passed for 9,083 yards and 54 touchdowns in 2015-16, hoping to one day make Cousins his quarterback when he became a head coach.
Cousins’ chance to sign as a free agent before Shanahan’s first season with the 49ers was snuffed out when Washington gave him the franchise tag. Mike Shanahan told The Athletic that his son wanted to trade the 49ers’ No. 2 overall pick to Washington for Cousins, but he didn’t get a call back.
The 49ers then traded Jimmy Garoppolo to New England on Halloween of 2017. The 49ers chose to sign Garoppolo to a five-year, $137.5 million contract rather than pursue Cousins in free agency after he won his last six games.
“You think about it all the way up to the moment,” Shanahan explained. “And we were still thinking about it when we traded for Jimmy.” But after those six games, we moved on, and he moved on, and you don’t look back.”
Cousins received three years and $84 million guaranteed in Minnesota in 2017, and the contract was restructured at one point. He will be eligible for free agency after this season, and with the Vikings 2-4, he has been the subject of trade rumors ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline.
Cousins won a game against Shanahan as the head coach in 2017 with Washington and has lost twice to the 49ers as the head coach — once in the NFC Divisional playoffs following the 2019 season and again at Levi’s Stadium in 2021.
Klint Kubiak, who coached quarterbacks and was an offensive coordinator in Minnesota for three years, is another source of Cousins information.
“I know Kyle has a ton of respect for him and he spent a lot of time in the team meeting talking to the defense about how he operates and what his process is like out there,” Fred Warner, middle linebacker for the Ravens, said. “I feel we’ll be real prepared when Monday comes around.”
“He plays the position to a T,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. He goes through his reads, he’s accurate and smart, and he’s on time with the ball.”