• John Bulmer

What Happens When You Assume? Is It Fair to Connect Kyle Shanahan With Pocket Passers?

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann


Assume (verb): to take for granted or without proof

A few years ago, whilst in a marketing lecture in University, the lecturer used the phrase, "Never ASSUME, because when you ASSUME, you make an ASS of U and ME." I looked this up and the phrase is credited by some to the former Hollywood writer, director and producer Jerry Belson, back in the 1970s.

I have thought a lot about this phrase recently because it appears to me that there is a whole lot of assuming going on right now about what the 49ers (and Kyle Shanahan in particular) are going to do with pick number three.

Assuming things to be true is understandable but by definition seriously limits critical thought so maybe this is one assumption worthy of challenging?

Kyle Has a Thing For Pocket Passers, Right?

The first thing we need to tackle is Kyle’s history with the quarterback position and the idea that he has a “type.” People quickly reel off the names of pocket passers who have worked with Kyle so let’s look into them a little more closely.

Matt Schaub (2009)

Shanahan’s first offensive coordinator gig was with the Houston Texans and his quarterback was Matt Schaub. In 2009, Schaub led them to their first winning record in team history (9-7) and put up some impressive numbers. He passed for a very impressive 4,770 yards (leading the NFL) and 29 touchdowns. He also led the league in completions, attempts and yards per game and was selected to the Pro Bowl.

Matt Ryan (2016)

After a dodgy start throwing 17 interceptions in 2015, Ryan got to grips with what Shanahan needed and ended the 2016 season as NFL MVP, throwing for a career-high 4,944 yards, racking up a career-high 38 touchdowns and a career-low seven interceptions. Ryan's 9.3 yards per attempt and 5.0 air yards per attempt were number one among NFL quarterbacks in 2016.

However, for all the career highs and personal success, Ryan couldn’t get over the line as the Falcons famously blew a 28-3 lead to lose to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. A key play in that game came with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter (with Atlanta leading 28-12) when Dont’a Hightower forced a strip sack of Ryan at the Falcons’ 25-yard line to swing the game back in the Patriots’ favour.

Jimmy Garoppolo (2019)

In 2019, Jimmy Garoppolo also went to a Super Bowl with Shanahan, losing after leading in the 4th quarter (sound familiar?) to the Chiefs. In that game, trailing 24-20 with under two minutes to go, Garoppolo took a shot on third down but overthrew Emmanuel Sanders, who was open and in position to restore the lead for the Niners.

Jimmy finished the 2019 season with 3,978 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, leading to him finishing as runner-up for NFL Comeback Player of the Year, one vote behind Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill. For all his success though, many fans felt that Shanahan took the ball out of his hands in the post-season as the 49ers relied heavily on the run game which was dominant against Minnesota and Green Bay in particular.

Cool, so he does have a type, thanks for clarifying! Welcome, Mac Jones!

Not so fast! Remember what we said about assumptions earlier…

The Case Against a Pocket Passer

In the 2012 draft, Washington (where Kyle Shanahan was the OC) sent three first-round picks and a second-rounder to the Rams to move up just four spots (our deal with Miami is looking better now isn’t it?). They used the pick on the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III from Baylor, an explosive athlete who ran a 4.41 40 and recorded a 39-inch vertical leap at the combine. Interestingly, pocket passer Kirk Cousins (we’ll come back to him later) was also drafted by Washington in round four of the same draft.

RG3 had a phenomenal first season, setting records for highest passer rating by a rookie quarterback (102.4) and highest touchdown to interception ratio (4:1). He also accumulated 815 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns on the ground. Unfortunately, his season ended prematurely with an ACL injury but not before leading his team to the playoffs and winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Conversely, Cousins, who relieved RG3 due to his injury, only managed to complete 52.3 percent of his passes whilst throwing 7 interceptions in 2013 under Shanahan.

So Does Shanahan Have a Type?

On the face of it, his most successful teams have got to the Super Bowl utilising traditional pocket passers in Ryan and Garoppolo, hence the assumption that this is what Shanahan craves. However, you could also argue that his two most crushing, career-defining defeats have come with those pocket passers at the helm and coming up short when it mattered most. For a fierce competitor such as Shanahan, this may well be what resonates the most.

Arguably, given that he was a rookie, the most impressivesingle season from a quarterback he has coached was RG3, an incredibly athletic passer who could work off-script and use his legs to improvise when required. That 2012 season with RG3 gave a tantalising glimpse of what Shanahan can do with a genuine dual-threat operating the position.

Do People Change?

The other issue with this assumption is that it assumes that people don’t evolve in their thinking. I know I’m not the same person I was ten, even five years ago because personal experiences change us. Is it possible that Kyle has altered his thinking based on his experiences? I would argue that he must have and his comments before the Buffalo defeat in Week 13 certainly pointed towards an epiphany in this regard, where Kyle waxed lyrical about the qualities of Josh Allen.

"He's as good as advertised," Shanahan said on KNBR's Murph& Mac show. "The skillset that he has, with his mentality, you don't see many guys that big, who can run that fast, who also have the mentality to run people over. So, if you sit there and think he's going to go down easy, you're going to get extremely embarrassed because he can run you over.” “You better bring it on him, and if he decides to slide, that's the hardest thing about it because to have the mentality to not get trucked by basically a truck coming at you, you've got to bring it and match it. And if they go down at the last second, you've got to do everything you can to not touch the guy. It's a very fine line with that. But if you go in there with any hesitation against a guy with that size and that speed, you're in trouble."

This was confirmed in the game; Allen torched the Niners in what was a devastating blow for Shanahan who spoke ruefully afterwards about how they just couldn’t stop him.

So Back to Pick Three, What Are We Doing?

In a division where you have to face Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray twice every season, Kyle Shanahan has seen, up close and personal, the power of having an elusive, athletic quarterback who can produce out of structure, improvise and make plays when things break down.

Perhaps the biggest clue was recently provided by Kyle Shanahan himself. In the midst of eulogising Kirk Cousins, when asked if he was his ideal quarterback, Kyle stated, “If you’re going to draw it up, you’re going to draw the biggest, fastest, strongest, and best quarterback in the pocket.”

I can’t help but think that was what was on his mind when trading up to number three and that more Herculean, versatile types such as Justin Fields or Trey Lance are the future of the franchise and the future for Kyle Shanahan.

If you think otherwise, please let me know. Until then, time will tell if our assumptions have made an ass out of you OR me!


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