• Geoff Castaneda

Pulling the Trigger: What the 49ers Should Look For Before Changing the Starter at QB


Image Credit: Jeff Chieu/Associated Press

 





The 49ers are mere days away from their preseason opener. Among the training camp storylines, Nick Bosa’s ACL recovery, the battle for the third wide receiver spot, and DeMeco Ryan’s first season as a defensive coordinator have garnered much of the headlines. No topic is more popular than the play of the 49ers’ top two quarterbacks. Kyle Shanahan has exercised caution in refraining from use of the word “competition” when referencing the team’s plans for the regular season. By most accounts, Jimmy Garoppolo has held onto his role as the leader and starting quarterback of the 2021 49ers. But what circumstances, if any, should the team consider before making a change atop the depth chart?

Consistency

Image Credit: Associated Press/Tony Avelar

Video highlights from training camp are fodder for social media and beat writers alike. Trey Lance’s physical talent is magnetic and has caused a ruckus amongst the Faithful. And for good cause, the rookie from North Dakota State possesses incredible arm strength, mobility, and speed. There is plenty to hype. To overtake Jimmy Garoppolo, Lance will need to show the consistency required of an NFL quarterback. Lance’s opportunities will be limited once the regular season begins. However, training camp and the preseason provide plenty of meeting and reps for Lance to demonstrate his aptitude. If Lance can consistently execute the offense at a high level against first- and second-team defenses, he may force Shanahan’s hand.

Cohesion

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This is one of the least discussed aspects of the 49ers’ quarterback situation. As in any other job, players develop friendships and loyalty to their peers. While there is a general understanding that competition makes the team better, it does not preclude players from having favorites. Lance is the new kid in class. Everything reported to the public indicates that he is well-liked and has taken a humble approach to his eventual ascension into the starting lineup. That notwithstanding, players with ties to Garoppolo could disagree with Garoppolo being benched or traded. The 49ers pride themselves on being player-centric and transparent. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch should prepare to navigate interpersonal conflicts if Jimmy Garoppolo’s time as QB1 has come to an end.

Backup Plan

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The 49ers have a history of being blessed with quarterback controversies. Fans of a certain age will vividly remember the tumult between keeping Joe Montana or Steve Young. Decades later, the 49ers faced a similar issue deciding between returning Alex Smith under center or riding Colin Kaepernick’s hot streak. The newest iteration is Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Trey Lance. The 49ers have the salary cap cushion to keep Garoppolo on the roster if he is succeeded by Lance. But what happens if injuries require the 49ers to aggressively pursue a trade? Trade talk immediately bubbled to the surface after Carson Wentz’s foot injury. Would Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch be comfortable shipping Garoppolo away to address their own roster issues? Or if Lance demonstratively outperforms Garoppolo in the preseason, would the front office be comfortable with Nate Sudfeld or Josh Rosen being the backup quarterback?

Schedule

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As the saying goes, timing is everything. In professional football, it may be the only thing. Trey Lance needs time to learn the playbook and familiarize himself with NFL defenses. Jimmy Garoppolo needs time to prove he can lead the 49ers to another Super Bowl. And the 49ers need time to evaluate their quarterbacks’ play. The 49ers’ in-season break comes a third of the way into their schedule. If there’s a change to be made, the Week 6 bye could prove optimal. The coaching staff would likely need the extra week to prepare the rookie and create a game plan to optimize his strengths and shade any weaknesses. Following Week 6, the 49ers welcome the Indianapolis Colts for a Sunday night home game. The following week they hit the road to face the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Week 7 matchup could be the first in a series of Trey Lance vs. Justin Fields face-offs.


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In recent years, the 49ers have rehabilitated the perception of the their front office. John Lynch, Adam Peters, and Paraag Marathe have earned a fair amount of trust in an industry where scrutiny is non-stop. Professional football teams do not make decisions on a whim. Whether apparent or not, decisions are made after research, analysis, and thoughtful consideration. The 49ers’ quarterback situation is no different. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have, and will continue to have, lengthy discussions about the direction of this team. The issues mentioned above, and many, many more should be part of those conversations.


 

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