SANTA CLARA -- Kyle Shanahan is a Kirk Cousins fan. That’s no secret.

The 49ers head coach gained great respect for the quarterback during two seasons together in Washington, when he was that club’s offensive coordinator and Cousins was a fresh-faced kid out of Michigan State.

“I liked how efficient he was coming out of college watching him on film, and then being with him for years and seeing firsthand how talented he was as a thrower,” Shanahan said Tuesday. “I also saw how his mind worked and how he worked at it. He understood everything that was happening whether it was good or bad, and always tried to learn from things.”

Mutual respect built during those two seasons in Washington was so strong that Shanahan eyed a reunion and a long-term pact leading this 49ers era. That was Plan A.

Cousins struggles getting free from Washington and Jimmy Garoppolo’s availability in a trade created an attractive Plan B that set us on this current course, with Shanahan and Cousins on opposing sidelines Saturday when the 49ers and Vikings collide with a season at stake.

Maybe a butterfly flaps its wings one more time and this whole thing lines up differently. Maybe there’s a parallel universe where Shanahan and Cousins are a tandem.

This reality worked out well for the 49ers. Instead Shanahan and Garoppolo are attached in a prolific partnership that has the San Francisco set up as the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a real shot to win the Super Bowl.

 

Cousins and the Vikings are standing in the way of all that.

Shanahan doesn’t believe his history with Cousins offers a leg up in this divisional-round showdown.

“I think that’s overrated,” Shanahan said. “It’s not if a guy doesn’t have much tape out on him, but Kirk has so much tape. And I only coached Kirk for three games. I was with him for two years but other guys were playing. I’m sitting there going up against Kirk. He has been in a lot of places and he can do a lot of things I don’t know about.

"That’ll be between [coordinator Robert] Saleh and our defense trying to stop him.”

Cousins has taken some lumps as a passer with great stats and few notable wins. Massive paychecks exacerbate that point, especially with a Vikings fan base dying for a deep playoff run. Cousins was awesome Sunday in a late push to beat the Saints in New Orleans, showing up big in a huge moment that might erase more negative parts of his reputation.

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Shanahan hasn’t seen lulls at any time, going from his role as a backup in Washington to a starter getting paid a ton on franchise tags to the guy he sees on film with the Vikings.

“I think he has been the same. Every time he has gotten more opportunities, he has gotten better,” Shanahan said. “When he has had bad games, he has always learned from them and come back and responded well. He has been given the right opportunity in Minnesota and, whenever he has been given an opportunity, he has shown people he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this league.”