Making sense of the 49ers plan at quarterback

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)

No sports topic has garnered more attention in the Bay Area in 2021 than the 49ers quarterback position.

So much has been talked and written about that it’s difficult to remember what the 49ers plan for the position was, or if they even had one at all.

Using the words and actions of the team, let’s piece together what’s happened over the last 10 months, starting on Jan. 4, 2021.

During their end-of-season press conference, general manager John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan were asked if there was any concern about the quarterback position going into the offseason. “Kyle and I both have spoken and spoken fairly directly as to the fact that we expect Jimmy to be our quarterback,” responded Lynch.

What’s important to remember is Jimmy Garoppolo was the only quarterback under contract for the 49ers going into the 2021 season. The contracts of backups Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard were expiring, and both would become free agents. As you’ll see, it was necessary for Lynch and Shanahan to show support for Garoppolo.

Plan A – Upgrade

The 49ers support of Garoppolo almost didn’t make it past January. During the Senior Bowl, reports began to surface that Detroit was looking to trade Matthew Stafford. It wasn’t long until the 49ers were linked to the Pro Bowl signal caller.

Kyle Shanahan confirmed the 49ers interest in trading for Stafford during an interview on the Flying Coach podcast with Peter Schrager and Sean McVay.

“That was frustrating,” Shanahan said. “Everyone was telling me it was a possibility, and Stafford is the man. I studied him hard coming out of college, and we played against him, so we know how good he is.”

Stafford wasn’t the only upgrade the 49ers looked at. DeShaun Watson requested a trade from the Houston Texans after the team kept Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy off their initial list of coaches who would interview for the team’s head-coaching vacancy.

San Francisco was one of two teams the quarterback reportedly preferred to play for. While there was interest from the 49ers, the option of trading for Watson would go away when he became embroiled in 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct.

Plan B – Cheap veteran and draft a quarterback

With the top two quarterbacks off the market, the 49ers set their sights on acquiring a cheap veteran option to replace Jimmy Garoppolo and drafting their quarterback of the future.

As free agency started up, San Francisco would reportedly meet with Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton along with expressing interest in Mitchell Trubisky. The 49ers would end up missing out on all three, Flacco signed with Philadelphia, Dalton with Chicago and Trubisky with Buffalo.

The only free agent willing to come to San Francisco was former Eagle, Nate Sudfeld. He would join Garoppolo and Josh Rosen in the 49ers quarterback room.

The 49ers didn’t limit their pursuit of quarterbacks to only free agents during this time. The team reached out to the New York Jets about Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers on Teddy Bridgewater and Jacksonville Jaquars on Gardner Minshew. Ultimately, the team would decide the trade capital it would take to bring in any of these options wasn’t worth making the move.

Plan C – Keep Jimmy Garoppolo and trade up to draft a quarterback

Unable to find a replacement, the 49ers decide to stick with Garoppolo. But they aren’t done with trying to upgrade the position.

On March 26, San Francisco sent shockwaves through the NFL, trading their 2021 first-round pick along with their first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and a third-round pick in 2022 to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for the third pick in the 2021 draft.

San Francisco had been looking to upgrade their quarterback room all offseason, and this move left little doubt what direction they would be going on draft night.

With the third pick the 49ers would draft Trey Lance, making him their quarterback of the future. This is where things take an interesting twist.

According to an excerpt from Seth Wickersham’s book, “It’s Better To Be Feared,” as the New England Patriots pick arrived they would make an informal call to the 49ers see what the price for Jimmy Garoppolo would be. It is important to note that the author never mentions an offer being made to the 49ers or even that New England had mentioned what they would be willing to give up.

The 49ers were set on taking nothing less than a first for Garoppolo as they were counting on him for 2021.

Even had an offer been discussed, it would have made sense for San Francisco to turn down anything less than a first round pick at that time. This should be clear when you look at where the 49ers were with the position at the time and the history of the position under the current regime.

With all other options exhausted by this point, having Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance and either Nate Sudfeld or Josh Rosen in the quarterback room was a much better option than Lance, Sudfeld and Rosen.

To better illustrate the 49ers position, consider Kyle Shanahan’s response during a press conference on March 29 when he was asked how the 49ers would act if they received a trade offer for Garoppolo that just blew the team away.

“Yeah, that’s accurate with every player on our team. I mean, probably including myself. If someone blows us away with a trade for me, I bet you John would trade me. I mean, definitely. We’re in a situation where when you bring in a rookie quarterback, to me, it’s always better, especially on the team that you have, if you’ve got a veteran starter there already who you like and you’re comfortable winning with. That’s usually the direction you want to go and not throw someone else out into the fire until they’re fully ready. That’s the situation we’re at. When you look at free agency, if it goes the other way around and you do things differently, maybe. But right now, Jimmy, it’s going to be hard to find a quarterback that gives us a better chance to win than Jimmy right now, especially even a rookie in the draft. So, that’s what you look into. Now, if someone wanted something for that and it can make your team better in a lot of other ways, you listen to that, but also depends on how good you feel about that rookie. We’re not there yet right now and odds are, we probably won’t be. That’s why we’re happy that we don’t have to be that way. We’ve got a guy in here who we know we can win with, a guy that our players love, that we love and we’re excited to have him this year and we’re excited to have a hell of a quarterback right behind him learning for when the time is his.”

Where things stand now

Kyle Shanahan was steadfast throughout the offseason and training camp that Garoppolo would be the 49ers starting quarterback, and other than injury, that has been the case. How long before Lance replaces Garoppolo is the question.

After Garoppolo injured his calf in a week four loss to Seattle, Lance made his first NFL start against the Arizona Cardinals the following week, and it appears that he may have started against Indianapolis on Sunday if he had not suffered a knee injury.

“I think it was really unfortunate that, at the time he got to play, I thought he was ready to take off a little bit after that getting that experience,” Shanahan told reporters on Wednesday. “I thought that that was going to be great for him to come back the next week, especially with Jimmy banged up a little bit, but he had an unfortunate injury and it’s lasting a little longer than expected.”

With the 49ers currently 2-4 and their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, Garoppolo is expected to make the start on Sunday against the Chicago Bears. If San Francisco can find a way to stop their four-game losing streak, I would expect to see them continue with Garoppolo. However, a loss would pretty much drop San Francisco out of playoff contention which could finally make it time for Lance to take over as the quarterback.

Jimmy Garoppolo made the first start of his 49ers career in Chicago. He may make his last there as well.

This article has 23 Comments

  1. Sure it could have played out this way and it also could be something entirely different like they were looking for a better vet option to backup Garoppolo, couldn’t find one they liked and moved on to the idea of drafting one. They didn’t make an offer for Stafford or Watson so how interested were they? One other thing we know is that they did look into whether Rodgers was available because that was confirmed by the Niners themselves. Rumors are fun and all, but I personally look at what the actions show us and their actions seem to show they wanted to run it back one more time with a similar group to the one they had in 2019 and then move on to the next iteration of the team under the young QB.

  2. At the moment you would have to say Lance is more often injured per games played then even JG. There is no guarantee that Lance is going to pan out. I was against moving up in the draft and at the moment my worst fears are being realized. It may prove out in the long run but Shanny needs to get his act together and figure this Gong Show out and get this team going.

  3. Very nice article putting everything together. Early they had said they wanted to upgrade the back ups because of Jimmy’s injury history and the fact that they couldn’t win games with the 2 they had. When they signed Sudfield and kept Rosen, that seemed to be the plan. I think a lot of these inquiries were just doing due diligence. I highly doubt they were interested in Trubisky for example. As for Stafford, I’m sure they would have loved to land him, but not at the price the Rams paid. I believe they thought that if they have to pay a high price like that, they would prefer to draft someone who they might keep for 15 years or more. Anyway it’ll be an interesting rest of the year. I’m hoping that things turn around and that Lance isn’t thrown into the fire like Fields and Wilson are. The Alex issue is still fresh in my mind.

    1. Right and you add in the fact that Lance didn’t even play in 2019. I don’t understand why people are in such an uproar about Lance not playing.

  4. Yep, this lays it out all very clearly. 49ers also inquired about Rodgers too just before the draft.

    Thing is, while it made sense in many ways to keep JG once they couldn’t get an upgrade via trade (for what they were willing to pay), they didn’t properly factor in the human element. Once they made the decision to move on from JG and either trade for a vet starter or draft a future replacement, they should have also made the decision to move him this offseason. And once they made the decision to draft a guy, the team needed to put more urgency into finding a vet QB to act as the bridge and move on from JG.

    The Alex Smith siutation in KC was an anomaly, made possible because Smith is that guy, and he’d been through it before. Very hard to manage such a situation well from a locker room dynamic and motivation perspective.

    1. Now that things are not looking so rosy with regards to a playoff spot, I wonder what the locker room dynamic is like. My guess is there is less support for Jimmy G. and more for starting Lance.

      You brought up a great point several days ago regarding the leaders of the team. Of course I’d heard about their importance before, but I guess I never realized just how important they really are. Losing Staley, Buckner and Sherman no doubt left some voids in player leadership. The defensive front seven isn’t as bad probably because of Warner, but the secondary surely is and that is probably attributable to the loss of Sherman. And correct me if I am wrong, but didn’t Trent Williams say something about not wanting to be a leader or that he wasn’t particularly effective as one or something in that vein?
      The more I think about it, the more I believe that this lack of player leadership, particularly on offense, is a major problem. Jimmy G. probably isn’t so much of a leader (particularly with the young guys) because of his “lame duck” status.

      I guess I’m also surprised because KS has been around football and particularly the NFL his whole life. Surely he must have seen how important leaders are in the locker room.

      I asked it earlier and I’ll ask again: are there any players only meetings happening where the leaders are trying to right the ship?

  5. O.K…….So now we’ve got two dinged-up QB’s….Whatever happened to “Next man up…?” Nate Sudfield has shown that he can play…., why don’t we play him ? He certainly can’t do much than the last 0-4….It was my considered opinion that we didn’t pick up Marcus Marriota….BUT I don’t count, because he’s a Duck….too bad….

  6. I’ve altered my opinion on this topic a bit. When the year started, I thought the 49ers had a Division winning roster and perhaps a SuperBowl caliber roster. That has obviously changed based on the results. If you think you have that type of roster, the best choice is the QB with the most experience in the system and then you draft a guy. It’s unfair to other players on a team to basically waste a year to develop one single player. If the 49ers lose another 2 games then the year is already gone so play the rookie. Everyone will understand that choice. I’m a little curious to find out if the 49ers would trade Garoppolo before the trade deadline. Would be a wild situation if the 49ers play Jimmy G on Sunday in front of 100 family and friends and then trade him on Monday.

  7. Very nice article, Jack. Well-written and well-organized. I’d bet this wasn’t an easy one to write. Glad to see you take on challenges like this.

  8. Lance is a very long way from being a starting quarterback. He is in the learning mode as a passer, and needs lots of practice to get ready. He is injury prone, in large part because he likes to run with the ball and that’s dangerous for a rookie quarterback. Throwing him in now as the starter could result in another version of the David Carr tragedy. Lance has a future with the Niners—but that’s indeed in the far future.

    1. With all due respect, Lance’s only significant injury was due to designed run plays into the teeth of the defense. I’ve never seen a head coach throw a QB to the wolves like that.

      As far as the timing aspect- there is just no way that Shanahan and Lynch are looking into the far future on this. They desperately need to win soon to save their jobs. Coming into this off-season there is just no way two more consecutive subpar seasons (on top of their overall losing record with the 49ers) is something that’s going to be acceptable.

      They’re definitely looking to win now and win some more in the future with Lance. Unfortunate that they may have screwed the pooch on several fronts, including key draft picks not contributing, not anticipating key injuries, ignoring significant weaknesses along the O-line and defensive backfield, understanding locker room chemistry, underestimating leadership voids among other problems.

      The net result is 4 straight losses. I still think they can turn it around- just takes stacking some big wins together. If it doesn’t happen panic will start to set in, and based on some reports, it already has among the players.

      1. I agree with your comment that Shanahan designed those run-into-the-teeth-of-the-defense plays. It’s his supposed franchise QB and the chance of plays like that succeeding is almost zero anyway. But have you noticed that Kyle sometimes has RBs do that too? When that’s happened I’ve asked myself, what am I missing? How is that genius? Is it something that must be done for the sake of the outside zone game? But it seems to me that we don’t do much of the OZ these days. So I don’t get it.

        1. George, yes good point. I remember seeing this quite a few times last year on 4th and 1 or on goal line.

          Now that I think about it, I see it a lot this year too.

          I don’t know what to make of it other than he abandons creativity at times to keep the defense thinking- but it’s not working. I think defenses play it straight up on critical short yardage situations, daring Garoppolo to make an accurate short out pass or fade, both of which he seems incapable of doing.

      2. I agree with you that Lance is not proven to be injury prone but he is a running QB and has a tendency to run if he doesn’t like his first read. He’s going to get running plays because that’s why he was drafted and hopefully he can learn to protect himself. Unfortunately he doesn’t appear to be quick enough to avoid some hits.

        I think you are off base on your assumption that they are in a win now mode at all costs. They are not in any risk of being fired this year. There are 2 reasons to start Jimmy. He currently is the best QB and secondly it affords the team to develop Lance the right way. Hopefully Jimmy stays healthy so they don’t have to throw Lance to the wolves again.

        It’s easy to point out weaknesses in hindsight, but I’ll just remind you that all teams have significant misses in both the draft and free agency. It’s the nature of the game. The other thing is teams have to prioritize their needs because they have a limited number of picks.

        1. I’m not sure you’re at all correct about him taking off after the first read.

          Here’s the Cardinals game- his only start. The videos shows every single snap in which he’s involved in the play:

          I counted two plays in which it was a designed pass and he ran instead. On the first his eyes were downfield then entire time he was scrambling out of the pocket, then tucked it away and made some positive yards. The second McGarbage let his man immediately bull rush him and pressure Lance, who in turn tried to get out of the pocket and make some yards.

          There were a couple RPO plays thrown in which it also appeared he made the right decision to run.

          This is his only NFL start- I have no idea what you and others are talking about. In fact I’m super encouraged by some of his Brett Favrian tosses, the likes of which we’ve never seen here.

          Based on watching the tape again I’m super positive about what he might become given the right conditions to grow. He’s had only one start but that start, if you go back and watch the tape, is quite encouraging. The batted balls need some work but it’s not something he can’t clean up.

          Again, can you point out all these runs that you think Lance was supposed to throw the ball on? The announcer makes it easy and named every single designed QB run except one in the highlights. That one he didn’t is also obvious if you watch the receivers trying to jam defensive players after 2-3 steps downfield.

          1. Also I don’t believe for a second that Jimmy is the best quarterback on this team right now.

            I agree that Jimmy should start through the end of the year as part of Lance’s planned development, but Jimmy has seriously regressed and might be having his own confidence issues because he’s unable to make some very basic plays that in the past he would at least have a chance to make.

            1. I think Jimmy already knows his future is not here and is playing accordingly. He is playing game to game with no future here but to somehow make himself more likeable to a future suitor. What would happen if he takes us to and wins the Super Bowl. Are they going to tell Lance – Never mind? Take the money and run (or walk). Either way he’s outta here and he knows it. Gotta be a factor.

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