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In His Vikings Debut, Kirk Cousins Showed Kyle Shanahan What Could Have Been

Kyle Shanahan is thrilled with the quarterback he got, but on Sunday it was the passer he originally wanted that shined brightest. The differences between Cousins and jimmy Garoppolo in their season debuts

This time last year, people close to Kirk Cousins were predicting that the then-Redskins quarterback, a looming free agent, would wind up in San Francisco with his former offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan. Cousins knew the intricacies of Shanahan’s cutting-edge zone scheme, and his winsome personality jibed well with Shanahan’s sharp (but lovable) edge.

But in October, Bill Belichick called the Niners, asking if they’d take QB Jimmy Garoppolo for a second-round pick. It was like someone offering their timeshare in Maui for your bus ticket to Omaha. It took Shanahan and 49ers GM John Lynch less than 10 minutes to discuss and say yes. Just like that, they had their franchise QB, and Cousins had one less stop on his impending free agency tour.


“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,” Lynch admitted five months later. Garoppolo made that mourning process easier. Despite not yet knowing Shanahan’s system, he went undefeated in his five start last seasons, averaging an NFL-best 8.8 yards per attempt and completing 67.4% of his passes. The hype machine was whistling by early January, and nearly exploded in February, when the Niners made Garoppolo (at the time) football’s highest-paid player.

That deal helped set Cousins’s market price a month later, making the 30-year-old—temporarily—the NFL’s new most-hyped QB. Perhaps not coincidentally, the NFL scheduled these two quarterbacks to face off in Week 1. Now that those results are in, their hype is about to travel in different directions.

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There’s no question the best QB on the field Sunday in Minneapolis was the one Shanahan had wanted before the ’17 season. Cousins went 20-for-36 for 244 yards and two touchdowns, capitalizing on new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s zone-beating route combinations and making plays with his legs both by design and on improvisation. The Vikings struggled against some of San Francisco’s third-down slot blitzes, and with dark horse Defensive Player of the Year candidate DeForest Buckner (2.5 sacks), but Cousins threw well under stressful movement—something many NFL coaches have long believed he can’t do consistently.

Making plays under imperfect conditions is why you pay a QB $84 million (all of it guaranteed!). That’s what Garoppolo, on Sunday, too often failed to do. The 49ers, with injuries striking their O-line and taking top receiver Marquise Goodwin out of the equation, were overwhelmed by several of Minnesota’s brilliantly disguised overload blitzes. Yes, Garoppolo still made some plays, flashing his scintillating quick feet and efficient, compact mechanics. His 22-yard fallaway touchdown throw to rookie wideout Dante Pettis was downright artistic.

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But these flashes didn’t outweigh a handful of mistakes. There was the interception to Xavier Rhodes where Garoppolo was high and wide on a slant to Pettis. There was the loss-sealing pick to Harrison Smith, whom Garoppolo failed to register on the back side in Minnesota’s foundational Cover-4. In between those plays was another throw high and wide that resulted in a missed red zone touchdown to tight end George Kittle. The game’s biggest play, Vikings corner Mike Hughes’s pick-six immediately following a Kittle drop, was a product of receiver Kendrick Bourne falling, but the entire play had a frenetic energy brought on by Minnesota’s blitz. It was an illustration of QB and offense being swarmed.

Some of San Francisco’s downfield zone-beating designs worked perfectly on Sunday, creating opportunities for Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, but overall, the offensive execution was too hit or miss to win on the road against football’s best defense. From the QB hype machine comes reactionary articles (like this one), resetting the narrative. Cousins, through (let’s remember, only) one week? Well worth the money. Garoppolo? For the first time in his nascent career, he has something to bounce back from.

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