49ers coach Kyle Shanahan won’t acknowledge it publicly, but he has to be ready to make a move away from starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and go with rookie Trey Lance.
Which means Sunday’s game in Chicago, where Garoppolo made his first start with San Francisco in 2017, could be the pivot point.
The 49ers can’t afford to wait out another bad Garoppolo game and fall to 2-5 in the competitive NFC. Nor can they waste Lance’s rookie season by not giving him the reps he needs to develop for the long haul. Because Lance holding the clipboard all year means, more than likely, going into 2022 with a quarterback that hadn’t received any meaningful playing time in two full seasons.
At 2-5, while dealing with another Garoppolo injury, the argument that Garoppolo gives the team the best chance to win would be awfully hard to make.
Lance hasn’t started games in consecutive weeks since he helped North Dakota State to an FCS National Championship in 2019. Playing Lance this year would at least give Shanahan some certainty going in 2022, and if he shows improvement and (gulp) wins a few games, maybe even some optimism.
In the fallout from last Sunday’s unacceptable loss at home to the Colts, coming off a bye, Shanahan said Garoppolo was never one game away from losing the job.
“Jimmy didn’t play as good as he could. He knows that, I know that,” Shanahan said this week. “Also, I think it was some pretty hard, circumstances for him, for both quarterbacks considering some of the weather. But I definitely thought he could’ve played better, but that was not a game to where, ‘hey, if Jimmy has one bad game, he’s losing his job.’”
49ers offense and Lance’s injury
That’s true, particularly with the caveat that Lance wasn’t healthy enough to play last week. He was coming back from a left knee sprain that cost him all of practice leading into the Colts game. That caused uncertainty about his status this week. Shanahan couldn’t name Lance the starter for Chicago without knowing he could make it through a week of practice.
Well, after a week of practice, Lance was not listed on Friday’s injury report. He made through all three sessions and will be in uniform as Garoppolo’s backup, perhaps with a chance to play in special packages as he did during the first handful of games to begin the season (or replace Garoppolo if he struggles).
“I thought he got better each day,” Shanahan said of Lance Friday. “It was his first day out there Wednesday. We gave him some limited reps but he felt good on Thursday and we pushed him even harder on Thursday. Coming into day, just talking to him, he didn’t have any setbacks and so, I feel good to go with him.”
So, Kyle, is Garoppolo one bad game away from losing his job this week?
“I would never answer a question like that. And you guys can ask it a thousand different ways, I don’t think like that,” he said. “We’re trying to get our team out of this losing streak. We’ve had four losses in a row. We’ve hunkered down this week, we’re trying to get our guys back and we’re going to go to Chicago and play as good as we can. When you play good, you play bad, you review the tape after the game, you go into Monday and Tuesday and you try to make decisions by Wednesday.”
Indeed, Shanahan left the door ajar to make another decision next Wednesday, after reviewing Sunday’s game and conferring with his coaching staff. Shanahan knows he can’t speak in absolutes about anything, because there are no absolutes in the NFL. But he has to be open to the idea of moving on from Garoppolo and finally handing the keys to Lance.
Because what more evidence would he need?
The 49ers’ bad start to the season proves how difficult a situation this was to begin with — and why teams rarely end up going into a season with an unstable quarterback situation like the one Shanahan created.
Shanahan had a chance to control the messaging and pick a direct path. Instead he allowed the ebbs and flows of an NFL season to change the situation each week leaving his team in limbo. Naturally, with losing, it’s created anger within the fan base and made the quarterback situation a constant media focus.
Shanahan from the outset could have said, “Garoppolo is our starter and Lance is going to redshirt this season” or simply made Lance the starter from Week 1 and took the lumps that came with it. In either case, ambiguity would have been avoided. Going with Lance would have meant giving him all the reps during training camp rather than spending August behind the team’s turnstile backup offensive line that allowed sack after sack during practice.
Firmly going with Garoppolo would have been a vote of confidence Garoppolo could have used, given Shanahan has done everything but show signs of faith in Garoppolo since he threw an interception in the second quarter of the divisional round playoff game against the Vikings after the 2019 season.
Instead, Shanahan showcased a quarterback-by-rotation plan in the preseason finally that looked like it might actually work. In hindsight, all it did was make the week of preparation difficult on the Lions’ coaching staff ahead of Week 1. There’s been no quarterback rotation, just a few Lance runs here and there while Garoppolo was healthy.
Faking a rotation might have done more harm to the larger picture given where things stand now, with Shanahan staunchly sticking with Garoppolo thereafter, trying to convince the world Garoppolo is the answer for this season while betting the farm on Lance to eventually replace him.
“Trey’s our backup quarterback. This isn’t the preseason,” Shanahan said in late September. “We’re not just going back and forth all the time.”
Shanahan has gotten this much right: he can’t go back and forth. If Garoppolo plays well on Sunday, then he’ll get another week. If Garoppolo stinks, it’s time for Lance to become the starter for the rest of the season.
That should be crystal clear. If it isn’t, then what’s the point?