May 27, 2024

For much of their NFL careers, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan have been the proverbial ships passing through the night. They’ll make another pass Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC), the timing once again wrong for a long-anticipated but now almost certainly unattainable reunion.

Just as Cousins, who worked with Shanahan for two seasons in Washington in 2012-13, has laid a path toward free agency and a possible exit from Minnesota the next spring, Shanahan’s 49ers have landed on what appears to be a long-term answer at the position Cousins once seemed destined to fill.

The 49ers reached out to Washington about trading for Cousins in 2017, hoping to capitalize on the connection between Shanahan and the quarterback. Speculation then moved to 2018, when Cousins was set to hit the free agent market, but by then Shanahan had acquired Jimmy Garoppolo from the New England Patriots.

In 2022, the Vikings extended Cousins’ contract and, according to multiple sources, heavily pursued a rookie quarterback from Iowa State named Brock Purdy in the final hours of the draft, hoping to sign him to a UDFA deal. Purdy told ESPN last week he was considering the 49ers, Houston Texans and Vikings if he had gone undrafted. The 49ers, however, swooped in and made Purdy the final selection of the seventh round. When the 49ers lost Garoppolo and fellow quarterback Trey Lance to injury during the season, Purdy stepped in and won the job.

Monday night’s matchup will provide a public backdrop for a private conclusion: Kyle Shanahan has found his Kirk Cousins. Purdy, who entered Week 7 leading the NFL in Total QBR (76.9), is 12 years younger, will earn $29 million less than Cousins this season and won’t be eligible for a contract extension until 2025. Cousins, meanwhile, is left playing out what might be a fourth non-playoff season of six in Minnesota — where he has had one postseason win — followed by a likely trip to free agency next spring.

Cousins said Shanahan is “a big reason” Washington drafted him in 2012 and “we’ve kind of followed each other ever since then.” But in all likelihood, Purdy’s emergence has shut the final door on a Cousins-Shanahan reunion.

Shanahan remains a staunch believer in Cousins. But when asked last week if he had ever allowed himself to wonder what would have happened if he followed through on the initial Cousins plan while his team was cycling through injured quarterbacks for the past six years, Shanahan said, “Not really.”

San Francisco’s belief in Purdy has made it easier to avoid that hindsight.

“He earned a lot of trust with me, earned a lot of trust with the players,” Shanahan said. “Going into the offseason, how he handled his injury, how he just handled himself when he wasn’t able to practice, just in the meeting rooms and everything. And through every experience with him in games this year, he has earned as much trust as you could have in a quarterback.”

FROM THE TIME Shanahan became Niners head coach in 2017, the idea of Cousins landing in San Francisco seemed to almost be a foregone conclusion. As Washington’s offensive coordinator, Shanahan pushed to pick Cousins in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft, and they forged a close bond.

Upon Shanahan’s departure from Washington after the 2013 season, he coordinated offenses in Cleveland (2014) and Atlanta (2015-16) before landing his first head-coaching job with the Niners. Meanwhile, Cousins ascended to the starting role for Washington, earning his first Pro Bowl nod in 2016 but never receiving the long-term commitment he sought from the team.

Washington used two franchise tags on Cousins, the second of which came in 2017, and his departure, by the Niners’ design, was set to align with when they’d need to pick up a franchise quarterback. To call the idea of Cousins to the Niners the worst-kept secret in the NFL would be silly because nobody was interested in hiding it.

As far back as the 2017 NFL owners’ meetings, the Niners’ top decision-makers were open about the plan to land Cousins, even if it meant waiting a year. They’d broached the idea of trading for him, but lingering issues between the Shanahans and Washington owner Daniel Snyder made the move a relative nonstarter.

That offseason, the 49ers signed veteran Brian Hoyer as a placeholder and selected Iowa’s C.J. Beathard in the third round of the draft, spending little time looking at top quarterback prospects such as Mitch Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson despite owning the No. 2 pick in that year’s NFL draft. That choice was eventually dealt to Chicago for more picks, including the No. 3 pick, which they used on defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. They kept an eye toward building the rest of the roster and using a big chunk of their more than $100 million in salary cap space to land Cousins when he became a free agent in 2018.

San Francisco’s patience was tested right away, as it lost the first nine games of the Shanahan era. Just before that ninth loss, the Niners made a surprising deadline deal, sending a second-round pick to the Patriots for their backup quarterback, Garoppolo.

Niners general manager John Lynch even joked after the trade that Shanahan was in a bit of mourning because Cousins might be out of the picture. But after that deal, Shanahan and Lynch promised each other they weren’t going to dive into a long-term arrangement with Garoppolo without him proving himself.

“You think that [you’re going to get Cousins] all the way up to the moment,” Shanahan said. “When we got the opportunity that we traded for Jimmy, we were still thinking about it, but after those six games [Garoppolo] played we moved on, and we’ve moved on since then and really haven’t looked back.”

On Nov. 26, 2017, Garoppolo stepped in for an injured Beathard late in a loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He threw a touchdown pass on the game’s final play, entered the starting lineup and went on to lead the Niners to five consecutive victories to close the season.

Even with Cousins set to become the rare Pro Bowl quarterback to hit free agency in his prime, the 49ers went all-in on Garoppolo, signing him to a then-record five-year, $137.5 million contract in February 2018. With the Niners out of the mix, Cousins signed a three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed contract with the Vikings in mid-March.

A couple weeks after the quarterback musical chairs had settled, Shanahan acknowledged the scuttled Cousins plan at the league meetings in Orlando, Florida. Shanahan said signing Cousins “was the plan” but that “something else came across us, and we are very happy that it did,” adding that he was “really happy how it ended up for all sides.”

In theory, that’s where the Cousins to San Francisco flirtation should have ended. But in the years since, both sides have been constantly reminded that the only real guarantees for NFL quarterbacks come in the form of the dollars spent on their contracts.

THE VIKINGS PURSUED Cousins in the 2018 free agent market months after backup quarterback Case Keenum spurred a surprise run to the NFC Championship Game. They envisioned Cousins, 30 at the time, as the kind of long-term starter who had eluded the franchise for most of its history, one whose presence would lift a strong nucleus over the final hurdle and into the Super Bowl.

In the franchise’s previous 57 seasons, only two quarterbacks had lasted more than five years as the primary starter. One was Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, and the other was Tommy Kramer, whose final season was 1989. Over the next 28 years, the Vikings used four first-round picks to acquire quarterbacks and had 16 different primary starters.

That was the backdrop for the Vikings’ decision to fully guarantee Cousins a three-year, $84 million contract for a quarterback who had put up glittering passing numbers in Washington while the team compiled a 26-30-1 record in games he started.

The pattern hasn’t been too dissimilar in Minnesota. Since the start of the 2018 season — throwing to a talented group of receivers that has included Stefon Diggs, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen — Cousins has passed for the NFL’s third-most passing yards (22,613), has thrown its second-most touchdown passes (617) and ranked No. 2 in completion percentage (67.7%).

But he has never finished a season among the NFL’s top 10 in QBR, a metric that measures overall play in the context of game situations, in part because of the sacks he has taken. He ranks No. 20 in the NFL in sack avoidance over that period, having taken one on 6% of his dropbacks, and also has tended to focus on shorter, higher-percentage throws. Cousins’ average pass has traveled 7.5 yards in the air while with the Vikings, No. 16 among QBR qualifiers over that period.

Regardless, the Vikings have twice extended his contract and will have paid him $185 million by the end of this season, the third most in the league over that period behind Russell Wilson ($208 million) and Aaron Rodgers ($204 million). The Vikings are 48-37-1 in Cousins’ starts, a .551 winning percentage that ranks No. 14 in the NFL over that time. They have made two playoff appearances, in 2019 and 2022, with one postseason victory.

Stitching his two tenures together, Cousins has proved a talented passer but not the kind of transcendent quarterback who delivers what Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf envisioned following the original 2018 signing. “Our goal every year is to win Super Bowls,” Wilf said.

But as Cousins moves through another Kirk Cousins-like season — entering Week 7 he ranked second in the NFL with 1,679 passing yards and was tied for first with 14 touchdown passes — the Vikings’ looming decision is more fraught than it might appear. On the one hand, Cousins has been good enough to merit one of the longest tenures in franchise history. But when is good no longer good enough?

“We can argue about whether Kirk is a great player. But he’s definitely a good, solid player, and I know I’d be hard pressed to let him walk out the door,” said former NFL GM Mike Tannenbaum, who faced a similar conundrum with seven-year starting QB Chad Pennington with the New York Jets before signing Brett Favre in 2008. “One thing we always talk about with players is that while they’re not perfect, who is coming in the door to replace them and how much is it going to cost to do that?”

FULLBACK KYLE JUSZCZYK was one of the first free agents to sign with the 49ers after Shanahan and Lynch arrived in 2017. Like most everyone else in the building, he expected to catch passes from Cousins at some point and remains at least “a little bit” surprised their snaps as teammates have been limited to the Pro Bowl.

“Our quarterbacks have had success, and it just hasn’t lined up where that happened,” Juszczyk said.

The reasons are largely rooted in the prosperity the Niners have enjoyed even without the dependability Cousins might have brought. San Francisco hoped Garoppolo would be the answer, but a series of injuries limited him to starting one full season (2019). They hoped the same for Trey Lance, but his starting opportunity was also derailed largely by injuries.

It has been a long and frustrating road to quarterback stability that was mostly offset by a run to three NFC Championship Games in the past four years. That circuitous path eventually led them to Purdy.

“Brock is the guy, and I don’t see that changing,” Juszczyk said.

When the 49ers used the final pick in the 2022 NFL draft on Purdy, it was seen as a late-round flier that came with few expectations. When Garoppolo, who replaced Lance as the starter, broke his left foot in Week 13, Purdy stepped into the starting lineup.

The natural assumption was the Niners’ promising season (they were 8-4 at the time) was sunk behind a seventh-round rookie. It was another chance to wonder what might have happened had the Niners kept their focus on Cousins, who has missed one start for health-related reasons — a positive COVID-19 test in 2021 — since signing with Minnesota.

Instead, Purdy has thrived.

In a finishing flourish reminiscent of Garoppolo in 2017, San Francisco rattled off five straight wins to close the regular season with Purdy behind center. He also led the 49ers to two playoff wins, as they advanced to their second straight NFC Championship Game.

Although Purdy tore the UCL in his right elbow early in that NFC title game loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, he had done enough, once healthy, to earn first crack at the starting quarterback job for 2023 and beyond.

“I felt that with Jimmy when he was here, too,” Shanahan said. “I felt we had stability and everything and just those injuries were tough. And then Brock, when he came in last year, you’re not sure. You know how he is in practice. We knew he had an opportunity, a chance to be like that. But those seven games last year that he played in, you knew it pretty well.”

Before Purdy, the Niners’ offense had been good, but his knack for making plays off schedule, pushing the ball down the field and distributing it to his playmakers while making few mistakes elevated it.

In the 12 games before Purdy became the starter, the Niners’ offense averaged 23.5 points (13th in the NFL) and 357.9 yards per game (10th) and had a QBR of 54.4 (17th). Including the playoffs and six games this season, Purdy has started 14 games with the 49ers, leading them to 29.9 points (first) and 366.4 yards per game (eighth) and has a QBR of 70.6 (second). He’s 12-2 as a starter and won his first 10 regular-season games before last week’s loss to the Cleveland Browns.

So far, Purdy has offered the type of reliability the Niners have been desperately seeking. Tight end George Kittle can easily rattle off the names of all the quarterbacks he has played with and when he has played with them since he was part of Shanahan and Lynch’s first draft class in 2017.

“That’s all we are looking for is just consistent play and just the same guy out there no matter what’s happening,” Kittle said. “That’s all I really care about.”

Perhaps most important, Purdy has offered big-time production at small-time cost. He’s signed through the next three seasons at an average salary cap hit of $1,004,253 and can’t even negotiate an extension until after the 2024 season. Largely because of that, the Niners have been able to divert resources elsewhere, such as re-signing defensive end Nick Bosa and paying defensive tackle Javon Hargrave at or near the top of their respective markets.

According to OverTheCap, the 49ers have nearly $40 million in cap space, but that is mostly earmarked to roll over to next year. The current plan for that money is to retain more of their own players, such as receiver Brandon Aiyuk, rather than trying to land Cousins.

That’s not to say the Niners don’t still like or respect Cousins so much as it’s a reflection of how they view their current quarterback.

“He’s a quarterback that any team would like to have,” safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. said. “Unless you have Brock Purdy.”

A FEW YEARS ago, a well-known fact filtered down to the notoriously insulated Cousins: Former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck did not own a smartphone. Instead, he used a flip phone for texts and calls — and that’s it.

“I thought, ‘That’s pretty good,'” Cousins said. So he went into a store and picked one up himself. To Cousins, it was preferable to shut down access to news and other distractions than “deal with it affecting more important things.”

All of which was Cousins’ way of insisting that he didn’t know he has been the subject of public trade speculation ever since the Vikings’ slow start coincided with New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers‘ Achilles tear. Cousins has a full no-trade clause, and citing his ongoing desire to live in a distraction-free world, declined to say whether he would ever consider waiving it.

It would require a “perfect storm” of circumstances to lead to a trade, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Ironically, the likeliest scenario could be a season-ending injury to Purdy before the Oct. 31 deadline. But while a midseason trade remains highly unlikely, there is no consensus either inside or outside the Vikings organization on whether Cousins will return for 2024.

His current contract will void after the NFL’s March 5, 2024, deadline for using the franchise tag. So even if the Vikings want to bring him back, they would not be able to stop him from signing elsewhere. Cousins has made clear he wants to continue playing after turning 36 next summer, having hired a full-time performance coach to work with him to mitigate the damage of the 1,008 hits he has taken since the start of his tenure as a full-time starter in 2015, the third most among NFL quarterbacks during that period, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

And while he has said repeatedly he hopes to finish his career in Minnesota, he almost certainly would be the top free agent quarterback available next spring in a class that could include Baker Mayfield and Ryan Tannehill.

The Vikings have no obvious successor on their roster, a circumstance that speaks both to their ongoing interest in Cousins as well as poor timing. General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell were hired in 2022, coinciding with one of the worst quarterback classes in recent memory. Only one — Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett — was drafted in the first two rounds.

Whether Purdy would have emerged as a starting candidate behind Cousins, who has missed two NFL starts in his career, will never be known. Meanwhile, the Vikings’ surprising 13-4 regular-season record left them at No. 23 overall in 2023, far removed from position to draft any of the top quarterbacks available. They used a fifth-round pick on BYU’s Jaren Hall, but he provided no indication during three preseason appearances that he could be in the discussion to start in 2024.

The upcoming draft has a strong class of quarterbacks, led by projected No. 1 overall pick Caleb Williams of USC, but it will take time to know whether the Vikings will be in position to take one of them. They have won two games already and have the NFL’s 12th-easiest schedule in front of them, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI). That gives them an 8.7% chance of landing in the top five of the draft and a 35.7% chance of securing a top-10 pick, per FPI.

There is also the real, if unspoken, fact that Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell will be entering the third year of their tenure in 2024. Would they place their careers at that point in the hands of a rookie quarterback or another veteran bridge starter? Tannenbaum said executives and coaches “always say” they don’t take such considerations into account. “But the reality is that they all probably do,” he said.

The combination of those factors, Tannenbaum said, should lead the Vikings to consider a third option: Bringing back Cousins while also drafting his replacement.

“If I was them, I would do both,” Tannenbaum said. “I think the way our game is going, you can’t have enough of them. I would be hard-pressed not to say, ‘Hey, here’s whatever the number is, whether it’s $80 [million], $85 [million], $90 million for two years, do that for Cousins, and draft his successor.”

That approach would be costly in a number of ways, especially as the Vikings work to sign Jefferson to a contract extension, and it would minimize the competitive advantage of having a starting quarterback on a rookie deal. But it also highlights the fraught nature of the decision, and how the search for an obvious answer is met with the understandable silence of ships passing through the night.

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