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When Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch first assumed control of the San Francisco 49ers in February 2017, the coach and general manager appeared content to wait as long as they needed to for a franchise quarterback.
Most assumed Shanahan had his eye on then-Washington Redskins starter Kirk Cousins, who had just received the franchise tag for the second straight season. Cousins had worked with Kyle Shanahan while the two were in Washington under Kyle’s father, Mike, from 2012-2013, and Lynch later admitted the Shanahans’ “master plan” was pursuing Cousins in the 2018 off-season.
A wrench was thrown into this plan by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who on the night before Halloween in 2017, offered the 49ers one James Richard Garoppolo for the cost of a second-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Here’s a timeline of the 49ers’ quarterback situation in the Shanahan-Lynch era that highlights just how close the 49ers were to having Cousins as their quarterback.
Feb. 8, 2017: John Lynch says the team will “evaluate” 2016 QBs, warns against starting a rookie
The three quarterbacks Lynch and Shanahan inherited after the 2016 season were Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder.
When asked early in the off-season what the team was planning to do at quarterback, Lynch said, “We’re going to evaluate the guys we have. We’re going to evaluate the draft. We’re going to look hard at free agency, trades, whatever we need to do to get a guy.”
Lynch said he was wary of starting a rookie quarterback, even though the 49ers had the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, a QB class that included Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Mitch Trubisky.
“You get in Kyle Shanahan’s system and you’ve got 15-word plays,” he said. “The coach is in your ear but you still have to replicate that with confidence and authority. It’s a big challenge.”
Feb. 28, 2017: Kirk Cousins gets the franchise tag once again, but reportedly told people he planned on being a 49er eventually
Cousins was slated to be the top quarterback available in free agency, but the Redskins opted to franchise-tag him for the second straight year.
Later in the off-season, Cousins reportedly told people close to him he was “going to be a 49er” one way or another, either in 2017 via trade or in 2018 as an unrestricted free agent. A third straight franchise tag in 2018 would have been wildly expensive, and wasn’t seen as a viable option for Washington after the 2017 season.
Sometime during the 2017 off-season: Lynch calls the Patriots about Garoppolo but gets rebuffed
It’s unclear when exactly this happened, but the 49ers did inquire about Garoppolo early in the 2017 off-season.
In August 2018, Lynch stated that when he first called Belichick to see if New England would be willing to trade Garoppolo, Belichick said his backup quarterback wasn’t available. This prompted Lynch to ask if Tom Brady was available instead.
“Yeah we were calling about Jimmy and we did have that conversation and got quickly rebuffed,” Lynch said of conversations with Belichick. “I figured what the heck, you gotta take your shot [at Brady], right? You can’t score if you don’t shoot, so I had to summon up the courage. Bill laughed at me and basically hung up on me. But hey, I took my shot.”
March 5, 2017: Colin Kaepernick opts out of his 49ers contract and is replaced by Brian Hoyer as the starter. Lynch later said the team would have cut Kaepernick if he didn’t opt out
Not long after Cousins was kept in Washington and Kaepernick opted out, the team moved quickly to sign Brian Hoyer to a two-year deal to be the team’s starting quaterback in 2017.
Lynch later said the team planned on releasing Kaepernick if he didn’t voluntarily opt out and said this of the change from Kaepernick to Hoyer:
“Kyle [Shanahan] had a vision for what he wanted to do, and one thing I think Kyle was very clear and I think Colin appreciated, is that Kyle has an idea of how he’d play with Colin Kaepernick. But he preferred to run the exact offense that he ran in Atlanta last year that was record-breaking in this league. And if you change it for the quarterback, you change it for everybody on that offense. So he had a great discussion that I think gave Colin clarity, so we moved on. Brian Hoyer was one of the guys we pursued. Once we pursued him, we didn’t see Kap as a backup that would really fit in that scheme and we communicated that to him.”
The 49ers could have tried to trade for the franchise-tagged Cousins, but with the team looking at a full rebuild and Cousins likely hitting the opening market in 2018, Shanahan and Lynch opted to roll the dice with Hoyer, hang onto their draft capital and wait to see what happened with Cousins.
April 28, 2017: The 49ers select CJ Beathard in the 2017 NFL Draft
San Francisco traded back into the end of the third round to take the Iowa product. As predicted, the team passed on Mahomes, Watson, Trubisky and DeShone Kizer in the first two rounds, and it was later reported that Beathard was the only quarterback Shanahan wanted.
“He processes the game so well,” Shanahan said of Bethard. “Tough as s—. Got a chance. He reminds me a lot of Kirk Cousins.”
July 17, 2017: Cousins and the Redskins fail to agree to a long-term deal, ensuring he plays the 2017 season on the franchise tag
The two sides failed to come to an agreement before the July deadline for the second straight season, all but assuring Cousins would hit the open market during the 2018 off-season.
Oct. 15, 2017: Shanahan’s 49ers play against Cousins’ Redskins, and Hoyer gets benched for Beathard
The 49ers started 0-5 with Hoyer at the helm in 2017 and traveled across the country to play Cousins and the 2-2 Redskins in Week 6.
Hoyer threw just 11 passes before he was benched in favor of Beathard, who turned in a respectable performance in a losing effort. Cousins had a solid day with 330 yards, two touchdown passes and one interception.
Both Cousins and the 49ers dodged questions all week surrounding a potential future marriage, but in two short weeks, almost none of it would matter anymore.
Oct. 30, 2017: The 49ers acquire Garoppolo from the Patriots for a second-round pick
The phone call that changed everything.
A whole lot of reporting has been done on how and why this trade happened, so here’s the general gist: Belichick is the one who first reached out to the 49ers just before the trade deadline. According to ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, Belichick wanted to keep Garoppolo, whose contract was expiring at the end of the 2017 season. However, Belichick received a mandate from owner Robert Kraft to trade him.
Belichick was reportedly “furious and demoralized” since he planned on having Jimmy G replace Tom Brady, and he specifically contacted the 49ers since he had “respect” for Kyle Shanahan and knew the 49ers previously inquired. Other teams that had been interested in Garoppolo never even got the chance to offer more than the second-round pick the 49ers gave up.
Dec. 17, 2017: Garoppolo leads a game-winning drive in his third start with the 49ers, convincing Shanahan that he is the team’s QB of the future
Lynch stated that while the front office was giddy over landing Garoppolo, Shanahan needed to be won over.
“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,” Lynch said in March 2018. “I was proud of Kyle because I think he knew that this was the right thing for our franchise. And he didn’t hesitate. But then, even then, Jimmy really had to prove himself.”
According to Lynch, Garoppolo won Shanahan over after a 25-23 win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 15, as Garoppolo threw for 381 yards and engineered a drive that ended in a Robbie Gould game-winning field goal as time expired.
“Did Kyle know sooner than he let me know, and he just wanted to be extra sure? That kinda deal? I don’t know,” Lynch said. “But I remember when he came in and said, ‘All right, go.’ That made me happy because, yes, he does have such a high standard. When he said go, it was like. ‘All right, it’s on.'”
Feb. 8, 2018: The 49ers sign Garoppolo to a five-year, $137.5 million contract, locking him in as their franchise quarterback
With the blessing of Shanahan, the 49ers’ front office inked Garoppolo to what was then the largest contract in NFL history on an average-per-year basis. Cousins indeed hit the open market a month later and signed with the Minnesota Vikings.
Prior to this week, it would have been hard to find someone who’d rather have Cousins than Garoppolo.
The former developed a reputation for coming up short in big games, but a 26-20 overtime upset over the New Orleans Saints on Wild Card Weekend has certainly changed the narrative surrounding Kirk Cousins.
He’ll get another chance to undo that reputation when the 49ers host the Vikings in the divisional round on Saturday.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/49ers/article/Kirk-Cousins-Jimmy-Garoppolo-Kyle-Shanahan-almost-14951532.php.