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.