Kyle Shanahan announced in August, though the decision was probably made earlier: Jimmy Garoppolo would be the 49ers’ quarterback this season.
Shanahan’s reasoning was simple: Garoppolo, a veteran who led the Niners’ offense to a berth in the Super Bowl two seasons earlier, gave the team “the best chance of winning” this season.
Trey Lance, the number 3 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, will have to wait. His development will take place behind the scenes as a scout-team quarterback and Sunday overseer of Garoppolo.
In the name of maximizing the potential of this Niners team, Shanahan was prolonging the inevitable—Lance was his starting quarterback.
It was a big call. A polarizing call. The quarterback is everything in this league, so it was a decision that overshadowed almost everything the Niners have done so far this season.
And as the 49ers entered the biggest game since that Super Bowl two years ago, we don’t know whether it was a right or a wrong decision.
The Niners Week 18 contest against the Rams in Los Angeles is a must-win. Technically speaking, the Niners can make the playoffs with a loss, but if they win, they are in.
And that makes Sunday’s game a referendum.
Not only on the season, but also on Shanahan’s quarterback call.
Let’s be clear: all signs point to Garoppolo’s play on Sunday.
And the methodology behind playing Garoppolo – which has led to 14 of the Niners’ 16 games so far – is sound. Yes, even with an injured thumb.
But this quarterback decision will be second guessed, as it has been all season because it’s not really a decision that is being made this week.
No, it is a decision that was made earlier in the week.
And, god bless these 49ers, they’ve found a way to line up their entire regular season in the final week of the NFL’s first extended season.
Now Garoppolo has played in such moments. It hasn’t always been well, but I think back to week 17 in Seattle in 2019, where he was stellar in one of the great games in 49ers history. He never gets enough credit for that performance.
For all his flaws, Garoppolo is a gamer—another (often necessary) gear he gets when the stakes are highest. And he knows Ram. Due to injury, he has played only five times in his 49ers career so far, but he is a perfect 5-0 against them.
I’m sure we can all understand why Shanahan would rely on the veteran to take this opportunity. Familiarity is good for the big moment. Garoppolo, by no means a stretch, is a perfect quarterback, but Shanahan has worked with him since 2017—he knows what he can and can’t do, and more importantly, he knows what Garoppolo can do with this. Play the game with the conviction that you will never break down by taking profit. There is simply more trust with the quarterback and the play-caller, with the veteran between the quarterback and head coach, so if Garoppolo is deemed healthy enough to execute on Sunday, he will play.
Again, this is a decision Shanahan made public at the end of training camp, although the decision was probably made last March when the Niners traded three first-round picks and a third of the Dolphins for the No. 3 overall pick. Which they used to choose Lance.
Because Shanahan believed then – as he does now – that Garoppolo gives the 49ers his best chance at winning; They have the best chance of making the playoffs.
And if the 49ers win on Sunday, he will be proved right. His plan for the season – tackling this quarterback position and all the double-talk and flair that goes with it – will be proven by the Niners’ second trip to the playoffs five years in charge of Shanahan.
If the goal is to win, you have to make the playoffs. This is the lowest bar ever and the Niners are one win away from clearing it.
But what if the Niners don’t win on Sunday? If they don’t make it to the playoffs?
Well, then Shanahan’s grand plan fails.
The methodology for playing Garoppolo against the Rams may be sound. Lance, of course, could have lost the game as well.
But it is a results-based business. The methodology doesn’t really matter. As Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells once said, “Don’t tell me about the pain, show me baby.”
We saw Lance start two games this season – the first in Week 5 in Arizona, the second last week against the Texans. He seemed like a rookie in both. The game was moving too fast, his decision making was questionable, but he improved with more play time and was stronger in the seventh and eighth quarters he played as a starter last Sunday.
That second half against the Texans was exciting. The future looks bright in San Francisco.
So then, what do we really know? He is barely played.
Thus, Lance’s exciting half against a poor team was clearly not enough to grab Garoppolo for the No. However, it was exciting enough to make a question about who should start on Sunday with Garoppolo injured.
But let’s look at the bigger picture: Lance’s performance in two starts – his jump from Game 1 to Game 2 – further bolsters the argument that he needs to play to improve. The sideline isn’t making him a better quarterback.
It’s an argument that, ironically, Shanahan has made countless times this year. He has, for the most part, failed to act on it this season. He should talk to the head coach about this.
How much could Lance have improved if he had played 40, 50, 68 quarters as a team starter? If this was indeed the case in 2021, where would these Niners be?
We’ll be asking that question for years to come—until the time we can say with some level of certainty whether Lance is a franchise-caliber quarterback or an early-pick bust.
And if the Niners lose on Sunday, if they miss the playoffs, that question will be an offseason story, as the Niners head into the 2022 campaign with the Lance as their starter and high hopes, but much of that. Little idea how ready he is. for that job.
This awkward, lame-duck season of Lance on the bench and Garoppolo on the field would have apparently been for naught. Revisionist historians will tell a different story, but the “win-now” quarterback would not have won…
The Niners determined they could not have it both ways. They could not win and develop their young quarterback this season.
So when this season is all said and done, the 49ers have better done one of those things.