How Kaepernick’s rise in 2012 season could help Kyle Shanahan with 49ers’ quarterback decision

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) against the Seattle Seahawks during an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

In their 75th season, the San Francisco 49ers are honoring their past with commemorative shirts, exhibits in the team museum, and wearing throwback jerseys matching those worn by the team in 1955 and 1994.

Another throwback for the team this year has been controversy at the quarterback position. This one isn’t Joe versus Steve, those two went on to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The 2021 quarterback controversy is more like what took place in 2012 between Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, and so far, Kyle Shanahan is handling it the same way as Jim Harbaugh.

The 49ers made Kaepernick the 36th of the 2011 NFL draft, and while he played in three games, he was relegated to handing the ball off or kneel-downs. As the 2012 season approached calls from the fan base for Kaepernick to play began. Then came the preseason finale against San Diego. During the first half, Kaepernick shredded the Chargers’ defense through the air and with his legs. From that moment on, it seemed inevitable that Harbaugh would need to make a change at quarterback at some point during the season. But how?

That 2012 team had just come off a season that saw the resurrection of the 49ers, getting to within two muffed punts of a trip to the Super Bowl. Many members of that team were veterans, and they believed fully in Alex Smith.

During the early portion of the schedule, Harbaugh would try to find spots to get Kaepernick onto the field for a few plays here and there with mixed results. Eventually, Harbaugh would back off the quarterback rotation and Smith would respond by playing some of the best football of his 49ers career, including a performance against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football that would see him throw three touchdown passes with only one incompletion in the game.

Smith’s strong play would carry over to the next week against the Rams. Smith would hit on seven of his eight throws including a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree. The veteran appeared to be on a roll.

On the next series after the touchdown to Crabtree, Smith would be replaced by Kaepernick. During a scramble on the final series of the first quarter, Smith took a blow to the head. Although he continued on, the symptoms became worse and he would be diagnosed with a concussion.

Kaepernick would enter the game with San Francisco trailing 14-7, and lead them on a comeback. The game eventually went into overtime, but a 41-yard field goal attempt by David Akers was no good and the game ended in a 24-24 tie.

As the team prepared for a Monday Night contest against the Chicago Bears, although Smith was dealing with symptoms from the concussion there was no word from the 49ers that he would not be able to play. It wasn’t until late Monday morning that news began to break that Kaepernick would be making the start in place of Smith.
Kaepernick came out firing in his first NFL start, leading the 49ers to a 20-0 lead before halftime. San Francisco would go on to defeat the Bears 32-7. Following Kaepernick’s performance, 16-23 for 243 yards and two touchdowns, Harbaugh would tell reporters that we would be going with the hot hand moving forward. This was Harbaugh’s way of moving forward with Kaepernick while not having to officially name him the starter.

While some of the veterans felt Smith should not have lost his job due to injury, it was hard to argue with the results as the team kept winning on the way to a spot in the Super Bowl. Eventually, the team would trade Smith to Kansas City, and Kaepernick would take San Francisco to the NFC Championship game in 2013.

Fast forward to 2021 and while the names of the characters have changed, we are seeing a similar situation play out once again in Santa Clara.

From the moment San Francisco used three first round draft picks along with a third rounder to select Trey Lance the question has been when he would take over from Jimmy Garoppolo. While Kyle Shanahan did his best to tamp down expectations, the quarterback situation has been a constant source of discussion.

Garoppolo would be named the starting quarterback prior to training camp and get the lion’s share of snaps with the starting offense with Lance rotating in for a snap here and there. This would be magnified in the final preseason game with the quarterbacks shuffling in and out of the lineup during the first two drives.

In the opening game of the season, Garoppolo would lead the team into the red zone on the second possession with Lance coming on to finish the drive and throw for the 49ers’ first score of the season.

After a hot start in Detroit, the offense would sputter the next three weeks, scoring a total of 21 points during the first half of those games.

When the offense took the field after halftime last week against Seattle it was Trey Lance behind center, not Jimmy Garoppolo. Lance’s performance was about what you’d expect from a rookie with a number of ups and downs. In fact, the play of Lance on Sunday was very reminiscent of Kaepernick’s from that Rams game in 2012.

Heading into this Sunday’s game against Arizona with Jimmy Garoppolo unlikely to be at full strength, Kyle Shanahan should take a page out of Harbaugh’s book.

Shanahan and the 49ers should let this situation draw itself out throughout the week. There is no reason to give the status of Garoppolo until 90-minutes before the game when the inactive players are announced. This could give San Francisco a strategic advantage as it would force Arizona to prepare for both quarterbacks.

Just like Harbaugh in 2012, Shanahan is faced with a locker room with a number of veterans who favor Jimmy Garoppolo. After all, he’s the one who led them to the Super Bowl in 2019.

With the 49ers having their bye next week and Garoppolo not at full strength, this is the perfect opportunity for Shanahan to go with Lance. If the rookie goes out and plays well, it’s easier for Shanahan to sell sticking with Lance moving forward to the veterans. Should Lance struggle, Shanahan can go back to Garoppolo following the week off since the injury should be healed.

The correct move for Shanahan this week is to start Trey Lance. Let’s see if he has what it takes to make it happen.


Jimmy Garoppolo once again did not participate in practice on Thursday. Joining Garoppolo on the sidelines were Arik Armstead (rest), Samson Ebukam (hamstring), D.J. Jones (knee), George Kittle (calf), K’Waun Williams (calf). 

Javon Kinlaw (knee), Elijah Mitchell (shoulder), and Josh Norman (chest) were limited participants in practice.

This article has 27 Comments

  1. Hammer,
    Nice write up.
    There are some similar circumstances between CK and Lance. I remember a few people here, saying that the Bears were going to kill Kaepernick in that game. Instead it was the game that made Kap the 49ers starter.

    It would be nice if history repeated itself with Trey this Sunday. But, unlike Kaepernick, I believe that the current fan base expects Lance to eventually takeover per his draft status.

    At the beginning of the season, I said that Jimmy would need to play his best football to keep Lance at bay. He’s been good, but not at his best.

    We all knew that Trey was our QBOTF, maybe the future starts this Sunday.

  2. AES, I wouldn’t think this is a very good comparison. Colin Kaepernick didn’t start as a rookie. In fact, Kaepernick completed only 3 passes during his entire rookie season, so history won’t be able to repeat itself. Kaepernick didn’t start an NFL game until week 11, of his second season. By then Greg Roman had been able to implement an offense that really benefitted Kaepernick, and if you remember, it was an offense that was well ahead of NFL defenses of that time.

    1. 49,
      I never said that Kaepernick started as a rookie. I mentioned that he did not start until the game against the Bears, which obviously was his second year.

      On the other hand, Shanahan made it clear before this season began that Jimmy was the Starter.
      We knew that going into the 2021 year.
      My thoughts are that the similarities between CK and TL has a chance to repeat itself IF Trey can beat the Cards and look very good in doing so.
      Hence, my TBD acronym.

      1. Let me ask you this, AES:

        Are you surprised Jimmy is hurt, and also, if he does only miss a week or 2, do you think this will be his last significant injury this season?

        I ask, because this to me, seemed like the most likely outcome. I was pretty sure Jimmy was going to miss a significant number of games this season. After all, he’s statistically the most injury prone starter in the league, by a wide margin.

        Also, aren’t you concerned about this start for trey lance, considering the circumstances?

        I don’t think Trey Lance is anywhere near as ready to start as Colin Kaepernick was, because for Colin, it was 26 regular season games into his 49ers career, while this is Trey’s 5th game. I remember how unsure Colin looked as a rookie, and it wasn’t very pretty, even though luckily he only took a handful of snaps.

        1. “Are you surprised Jimmy is hurt, and also, if he does only miss a week or 2, do you think this will be his last significant injury this season?”

          Not sure, to be honest.
          If I want to focus on Jimmy’ injury history, my answer is no.
          If I want to focus on Jimmy’ SB run, then I would say, yes.

          But, that said, though Garoppolo is injured, that doesn’t necessarily mean that his season is over.
          Imho, there are 3 reasons that would precepitate Jimmy losing his job.
          A. Sustaining a season ending injury.
          B. Not producing.
          C. A “great” winning game by Trey against the Cards.
          There may other reasons, but these are my top three.

  3. No one was calling for Kaep to play in 2012, he hadn’t shown anything as a rookie and AS was having a Pro-Bowl year before going out with concussion.

    Also, CK was a Div 1 qb who had played over 3 years of college ball and had a year learning…Trey is a guy who played 1 season in Div 1aa and has 4 games in the NFL under his belt.

    This is apples to bananas. Bananas the key word.

  4. At some point Lance will take over from JG – that is a forgone conclusion. It is just a matter of when. It’s pretty rare these days that QBs get time to acclimate to the NFL before being thrust into action. And there is little evidence either way to suggest one approach is better than the other.

    There are certainly similarities between this situation and the Alex Smith/ Kaepernick one. Yes, Kaep didn’t take over until his 2nd season, but he was still largely considered very raw and more an athlete than QB. Like Kaep, it looks like Lance may get his opportunity to start due to an injury. Unlike Kaep, when Lance came in as the backup to replace the injured starter he didn’t look comfortable.

    Let’s see if Lance can play well against the Cards (assuming he is the starter), and if he does, then the conversation around whether Lance should take over moving forward will be an interesting one and will be fascinating to see what direction Shanahan goes. If Lance doesn’t play particularly well I don’t think Shanahan will even hesitate for a second to go back to JG after the bye, so long as he is healthy.

    1. Well, our offense has scored ONLY 7 pts in the 1st half the last 3 games… that is not something to feel good about…
      Wilson > JG
      Stafford > JG
      Murray > JG
      And you are not going to find a lot of people who will disagree with that opinion outside this fanbase.

        1. Rib, my point was, to use the low scoring game of the 1st half of the Seahawks and Rams to indicate that we have a better offense than them while the Niners had ONLY scored 7 pts in the 1st half the last 3 games does not make any sense.
          But yet, we are currently the 3rd best offense in our division behind AZ and Rams when it comes to points scored. This with a loaded talent in offense and arguably the best play-caller in all of football.

    2. FYI, if you’re seriously trying to argue that Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t the weakest QB in the NFC West, that’s an argument you are never going to win, rib, and that’s not even factoring in his lack of durability.

      And it’s a quarterback driven league, so ….. do the math. Again, this isn’t rocket science. Everyone knew Garoppolo had been the most injury prone QB in the league, so it’s hard to argue that it makes sense to back him up with the least experienced QB prospect we’ve seen in years. There hasn’t been a QB with as few of college snaps under his belt, drafted in the first round, maybe ever, so the pain the 49ers are about to suffer as a result, was in fact, very predictable, and that’s the biggest problem.

      Have you ever heard the saying: Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me?

      1. And, btw, I was just listening to KNBR in my car, and the host said:

        Host: I don’t know about you, but I am over Kyle Shanahan.

        And do you want to know what the co-host’s response was?

        Co-Host: Yes, I’m done with all of his excuses!

        So like I said, you guys can continue to give Kyle Shanahan a pass if his 49ers have their 4th losing season in his first 5 years, but you’re going to be in the minority, I’ll tell you that much!

        And again, the biggest shame is that this was all so frickin predictable!

        1. So Reasons, this weekend it’s heads you win, tails Shannie loses. Trey looks good, maybe even pulls off the win, then Shannies an idiot for not starting him from the outset. Conversely, Trey stinks up the place, then Shannies an idiot for not preparing him and stunting his development. Either way we’ll get treated to dozens of 1000 word postings on multiple sites saying I told you so. You really are a piece of work.

          1. Whoa there, rib, I’ve been consistent in my belief that they absolutely, positively had to move on from Garoppolo since last November, so don’t come at me with that BS!

            Kyle’s the one who’s being wishy-washy, and trying to have it both ways, not me! I’ve been consistent!

            1. In fact, I was absolutely gobsmacked when Kyle apparently did a 180 and decided to run it back with Garoppolo again, even though Kyle was clearly at his wits end with him, as far back as the 2019 post season, and most certainly last season.

              The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results. And don’t talk about them getting to the Super Bowl in 2019, because you know that season was all about their defense, and their dominant rushing attack!

              Kyle’s problem isn’t as a play caller, it’s his decision making as a head coach. And he is what his record says he is as a head coach. I’m not sure how much longer you’re going to tolerate them finishing in last place in their division, but I’m over it. I was over it after last season.

              1. And I have NO confidence in Rich Scangarello either. I mean who is this guy? Has he developed a mobile QB, because as far as I can tell, he hasn’t. Check out his resume.

              2. But in response to your post, Rib, I’ll make you a deal –

                I feel so strongly that Kyle is currently setting Trey up for failure, that if Trey starts, and he plays well, I’ll admit I jumped the gun, and I’ll get lost and stop posting on here for the next month.

                However, if Trey starts, and struggles mightily, you have to admit that I am justified in my criticism of Kyle Shanahan.

                What do say, Rib, do we have a deal?

              3. However, if Trey starts, and struggles mightily, you have to admit that I am justified in my criticism of Kyle Shanahan.

                What do say, Rib, do we have a deal?

                F* no.

                We have no indication that Trey, like all the other rookie QBs starting this season (with the possible exception of Jones), is ready for an NFL starters role no matter the amount of prep and first team snaps. It might not take until next season, or the one after, to gauge Trey’s progress.

                It might also be the Niners made a bonehead choice in trading up for a dud. Statistics say that is quite likely:

                And with the trade of Carson Wentz, there will now not be a single QB drafted in the first round from 2009-2016 that is still with his original team.

                0 out of 22 total.


                If that turns out to be the case, I’ll join you in demanding Shannie’s and Lynch’s heads.

              4. I feel so strongly that Kyle is currently setting Trey up for failure, that if Trey starts, and he plays well, I’ll admit I jumped the gun, and I’ll get lost and stop posting on here for the next month.

                However, if Trey starts, and struggles mightily, you have to admit that I am justified in my criticism of Kyle Shanahan.

                So KS traded up to set Trey Lance up for failure???
                This has to be the craziest endorsement of insanity! Circular thinking will keep you running around in circles…
                When are you going to proclaim that KS is a racist for playing Jimmie?

        2. And, btw, I was just listening to KNBR in my car, and the host said:

          Cool. You are going to report what every opinionated loudmouth on sports talk radio says?

          1. Montana says:
            “As a rookie you always think you’re ready and everyone wants to play right away — a lot of it depends on the sophistication of the offense,” said Montana. “Having what it takes for that because I think a lot of these guys that you’ll see in college all of a sudden look to the sideline and teammates go, ‘Why are you looking over there?’”

            Montana explains that without a developed acuity to read defenses or deviate from the coach’s commands, rookie QB’s are setting themselves up for danger against professional defenses. “But they’re telling him everything. They’re telling him where he wants to throw the ball, where the defense is. They’re giving them all of the information instead of teaching them how to do it themselves. Those are the guys that suffer once they get to the NFL.”

            “You don’t learn to read defenses once you get to the NFL,” admitted Joe Cool.

      1. Sad but true… But I still cannot believe we lost to the Seahawks at home facing that bad Def. We seem to find a way to lose to them time and time again… Ugh!

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