Sit down before reading this. Don’t read this while eating; you might choke. I’m going to tell you something that you probably intuitively know but will look strange when you first see it. The San Francisco 49ers want something the Minnesota Vikings have. The Niners may have trampled the Vikings in the 2019 playoffs and reached the NFC Championship this season, but they did so on the back of Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy.
You already knew that Kyle Shanahan is a Kirk Cousins fan. But he may be more so after navigating this season. The Niners began the year with Marshall, Minn.’s Trey Lance as their starter and turned to Garoppolo when Lance got hurt. When Garoppolo went down in Week 13, they turned to Purdy, the last pick in the 2022 draft. Still, the Shanahan system kept humming – until Purdy got hurt.
Josh Johnson, 36, stepped in, and the game went haywire. The Philadelphia Eagles pounded San Francisco 31-7, and the Niners will enter next season with Purdy as their starter. Or maybe Lance, who they traded up to get at third-overall selection in 2021. So they’ll either have 2022’s Mr. Irrelevant or a guy who has made four pro starts leading a team with championship aspirations. That’s hardly an enviable position.
You may be out on Kirk Cousins, or perhaps he made a believer out of you this season. Regardless, the Minneapolis-born Shanahan has been in Cousins’ corner since their time together in DC. Shanahan was the Washington Commanders’ offensive coordinator when they took Cousins in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. He once told Cousins that his swag was that he had no swag and to never change. Shanahan has embraced Cousins as a player and a person and actively tried to get the Niners to sign him before the 2018 season.
In March 2021, he praised Cousins’ consistency.
There’s a number of quarterbacks like [Cousins], but that’s the only one I’ve been associated with because people thought I was trying to bring him here, which I was at the time. It’s not because that’s how you draw it up. If you’re going to draw it up, you’re going to draw the biggest, fastest, strongest, and best quarterback in the pocket. So, I think that’s pretty ridiculous to say that, but I also tell you, I love Kirk. I know I’m not allowed to talk about other players, but Kirk’s a hell of a player, and a lot of people would be lucky to have a quarterback like that.
You may be familiar with that quote. Pro-Cousins fans have occasionally used it as an illustration of a great coach who loves Minnesota’s quarterback. It always felt odd that Shanahan was infatuated with Cousins while Mike Zimmer seemed nonplussed. It would be like if Shanahan was irked by Fred Warner, and Zimmer felt Warner was the missing piece of his defense. But who can blame Shanahan after seeing San Francisco lose in Philadelphia? Why wouldn’t he want a steady hand running his offense?
We’d be taking a different approach if the Niners had advanced past Philadelphia, especially if they won the Super Bowl. Maybe Shanahan had found an NFL hack the Vikings should look to exploit. Every executive knows that once you draft a great quarterback, you have to act fast to build a contending team around him. A talented quarterback on a rookie deal is a team’s greatest asset. It’s the shame in Justin Herbert’s situation and why the Jacksonville Jaguars are pushing their chips in with Trevor Lawrence.
But what if Shanahan was able to take it a step further? What if he had created a system impervious to his quarterback’s play? Niners GM John Lynch would be able to save cap room at quarterback and load up on weapons and the defense. Furthermore, he wouldn’t have to pay top dollar for a non-elite signal-caller, which can deconstruct an otherwise great team. Eventually, the best pass rushers and receivers want to get paid, too.
Unfortunately, that reality doesn’t exist. The AFC is the superior conference because it’s chock-full of elite quarterbacks. From seeds 1 to 7, every team had a young star under center:
- Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes
- Buffalo Bills: Josh Allen
- Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Burrow
- Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence
- Los Angeles Chargers: Justin Herbert
- Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson (at least for most of the season)
- Miami Dolphins: Tua Tagovailoa (until he suffered multiple concussions)
There are caveats with Jackson and Tagovailoa, but quarterbacks get paid because they drive winning. Conversely, the NFC was mediocre because of the absence of great quarterback play. Philadelphia and San Francisco arrived in the NFC Championship because they had the most talented rosters. Jalen Hurts stepped up this year, but he’s hardly the caliber of Mahomes, Burrow, or Allen. Shanahan schemed his team as far as they could go.
Ultimately, Shanahan would take Cousins in a heartbeat because he is a steady hand in command of his offense. He’s meticulous in his preparation, makes safe throws, and is explosive off of play-action. Give him a solid run game and a stout defense, and Cousins creates a floor. However, the other players have to drive winning. That’s the bet the Vikings made when Rick Spielman signed Cousins, and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell doubled down on it last offseason.
But the Vikings are in a predicament. Their defense cost them in the playoffs, and it wasn’t solely Ed Donatell’s fault. They need to quickly fill it out with young players who fit the new 3-4 scheme. O’Connell needs to find the right defensive coordinator, and Adofo-Mensah has to hit on his picks. Otherwise, Minnesota will keep spinning its wheels with an expensive roster and 13-win expectations.
Conversely, the Niners have a talented, smashmouth defense and an arsenal of offensive weapons. But quarterback may always hold them back. Lance is inexperienced, and Purdy is a limited player. Shanahan’s interest in Cousins is evidence that great teams see him as the missing piece, even with his limitations. Cousins isn’t a $150 million player because he’s elite. He makes that kind of money because he has the leverage to negotiate for it.