EAGAN, Minn. – Kyle Shanahan never got to see Kirk Cousins become an every-game starter when the two were together with the Washington Redskins, but Shanahan knew one day Cousins was bound for success.
Cousins was the fourth-round draft pick added in Washington the same year the Redskins drafted Robert Griffin III second overall. Now an $84 million-franchise quarterback with the Vikings, Cousins got his start learning from Shanahan, then Washington’s offensive coordinator, even as the team put most of its resources in Griffin’s development.
“I think that was very tough on him,’ Shanahan, now the San Francisco 49ers head coach, said on Wednesday as San Francisco prepares to face Cousins and Minnesota. “We were totally dedicated to RG3 and working with him for the two years I was there, just the way Kirk was in meetings, knowing that he wasn’t getting an opportunity to play unless there was an injury, the way he worked each week, the way he didn’t sit there and sulk even though it wasn’t the best situation for him.
“His technique, learning offenses, not just watching us but watching everybody. He showed that he had the talent, but he also showed that he had the mindset that you could tell this guy was only going to get better once he got some experience and some reps.”
Shanahan and Cousins both faced a rocky departure from the Redskins. Shanahan was gone after two seasons with Griffin and Cousins. Cousins eventually got the reps and developed into Washington’s starter. He passed for at least 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in three straight seasons but was never rewarded with a long-term contract extension.
The Redskins’ loss was Minnesota’s gain and Cousins leads the Vikings against his former tutor on Sunday in the regular-season opener.
“I could be here a long time on how did Kyle develop me as a player,” Cousins said Wednesday. “I don't know that my answer could do it justice, but he certainly had a big role in my going to Washington and my development as a player and much of the way that I play the position to this day is a result of the way that he taught me as a young player.”
Shanahan has watched Cousins from afar. The coach wondered if his former student would end up joining him in San Francisco before the 49ers traded for Jimmy Garoppolo last season.
“I’ve been very happy for him,” Shanahan said. “It’s always been tough because I’ve always had mixed emotions about Washington. So, when I watched them, there’s always been a lot of players I’ve pulled for there and Kirk’s been one of them. I felt like he’s the guy who gave them a chance to win for about four years. So, I was really happy for him doing that and I’m even more happy that he’s out of there doing it for someone else. I just hope it’s not Sunday.”
Cousins’ preseason was much like his start in Washington, showing glimpses of the potential for the Vikings’ offense and periods where more growth is needed. Cousins opened the first preseason game with a dazzling drive against Denver when he went 4-of-4 passing for 42 yards and a touchdown.
Cousins finished the preseason completing 60 percent of his passes for 5.90 yards per attempt. He had an 85.0 quarterback rating. With Cousins joining an offense with a new coordinator in John DeFilippo, Minnesota is still a work in progress.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in Kirk and the things that he’s done in practice,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “I’ve got confidence in our football team. I have lots of concerns because it’s the first game, but that’s just the way it is. I like this football team. They work real hard. They been at the meetings this morning and they pay attention to what we’re trying to accomplish in this football game and I think we’ll go out and play hard.”
Cousins said he’s “pacing himself” and taking a measured approach into the first game with his new team and against his former coordinator.
“I can't play the game today, so there's no point in being antsy,” Cousins said. “I think my focus has to be having a great walkthrough from 10:20 to 11 a.m. and then we're making sure I say the right things here in this press conference and then have a good meeting at noon and take it the next hour at a time, so my focus is right now on Wednesday and preparing all I can for the 49ers.”