Before the 49ers traded with the Patriots for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo last October — and before Kirk Cousins signed with the Vikings in March — 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan had wanted to bring Cousins to San Francisco by any means necessary.
This is what 49ers General Manager John Lynch said in an interview on ESPN radio in March: “For Kyle, I think the thing I would tell people is we made the trade, but then there were some days that Kyle Shanahan was like in mourning, because I think everybody knows his master plan was to have Kirk Cousins come in eventually.”
Shanahan and Cousins will be on opposite sidelines Sunday when the 49ers come to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday to face the Vikings in the season opener.
The history between Shanahan and Cousins goes back to former Gophers offensive coordinator and three-time Super Bowl champion Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father, who drafted Cousins in the fourth round of the 2012 draft when he was the head coach of the Washington Redskins and Kyle was his offensive coordinator.
Mike Shanahan recalled the early days of Cousins’ pro career.
“I remember the first day that I got him, you know you’re never sure about what type of skills that they have until you actually practice with them on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “It didn’t take long to figure out that Kirk Cousins was going to be an excellent quarterback in the National Football League. He possesses all the things that you look for in a quarterback. He is a natural leader, and people in Minnesota will find out what level he is at the more time you’re around him. But in my opinion, they got the perfect guy.”
Perhaps Cousins’ most important professional relationship was with the younger Shanahan. Cousins told the Washington Post earlier this year: “Kyle believed in me when it was just potential. There was no production. I hadn’t done anything to earn his belief, and he believed in me.”
Mike Shanahan remains a big fan of Cousins.
“A great family, one of the finest guys you’re ever going to be around,” he said. “The best character. I’ve always kept an eye on him.”
A perfect fit at QB
While Cousins had his greatest success after Mike Shanahan was fired by Redskins owner Dan Snyder in 2013, the future Hall of Fame coach said he saw early signs of Cousins’ capability.
“He’s the type of guy that is not afraid to be hard on himself,” Shanahan said. “He’s got everything you look for in a quarterback. People will find that out in Minnesota this year.”
Does he think Cousins will fit in with the Vikings?
“I really do think so, he’s got the ability to run any system,” Shanahan said. “He is extremely accurate, gets rid of the ball quickly. He will adjust to anybody’s system. He’s got the skill set to make all the throws. He doesn’t have many weak points. He’s got the ability to make throws, and he is extremely bright and he processes things very quickly. He is a natural thrower of the football, and those guys can be very hard to find.”
Early Gophers ties
The Shanahans have a fondness for Minnesota. Kyle was born here when Mike was Gophers offensive coordinator under Joe Salem for the 1979 season.
The Gophers were only 4-6-1 (3-5-1 Big Ten), but they did have a tremendous offense that pushed Ohio State in a 21-17 loss that September at Memorial Stadium. The Buckeyes went 11-0 during that regular season before losing the Rose Bowl 17-16 to No. 2 USC.
“I remember having 350 yards in the first half [against Ohio State],” Shanahan recalled. “… We introduced the run-and-shoot offense, and they were not ready for it. And even though we didn’t have a great year that year, we did a lot of good things offensively.”
Shanahan was a 27-year-old offensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois when Salem hired him. Salem recalled last week that Shanahan did such a great job in that one season with the Gophers, several schools were after him because they wanted to use the run-and-shoot offense. Salem wanted to keep Shanahan here, he said, but there was no hope of that happening. Shanahan left to become offensive coordinator at the University of Florida in 1980.
Shanahan said that from an early age, son Kyle took a keen interest in coaching.
“He would go with me to training camp, so every place I was at [on] the pro level, he came with me,” he said. “When he was in sixth, seventh and eighth grade, I was [offensive coordinator] in San Francisco. This was ’92, ’93 and ’94 and he was actually like a ball boy there for three years.”
Shanahan said he keeps in close touch with his son, but also understands the demands on a head coach’s time during the season.
“Oh, we talk quite a bit since he’s been the head coach at San Francisco,” he said. “He’s trying to get ready for the season, but we do talk quite a bit. But he’s always so busy, so you know, you just talk when you get the chance.”
Scouting his son
When asked about Garoppolo, who was the heir apparent to Tom Brady in New England before the Patriots traded him, Shanahan said he is fitting in great with his son’s offense.
“Well obviously, he comes in and wins five games [in 2017] and he plays extremely well in the system,” Mike said. “The expectations are very well known. But Kyle really likes him and knows he is very talented. He is getting more comfortable with the system every day.”
And what does he think of his son’s chances of winning in Minneapolis this weekend?
“Anytime you go up against the No. 1 defense in the National Football League from the year before, it will be a great challenge for San Francisco, because [the Vikings’] defense has been so good,” he said. “It will be the same on the other side, even though San Francisco doesn’t have the statistics that Minnesota does. They have a lot more confidence in their defense. It should be a great game.”
• Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck is bringing back memories of how former coach Lou Holtz persuaded top business leaders to become involved with the program and asked their help in fundraising and providing summer internships or jobs. Take U alum Harvey Mackay, who hasn’t worked with Gophers athletics for many years, and is again helping the program. Fleck awarded Mackay a game ball after the Gophers’ 48-10 victory over New Mexico State last Thursday for all he has done. The Goal Line Club still provides support, too, but Fleck is trying to entice local Fortune 500 businesses to get involved with the program. … Fleck also presented game balls to university President Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle.