• John Bulmer

Why Shanahan’s Indifference Towards Naming a Starting QB is Good for the Competition

Image Credit: Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports

49ers Twitter is an interesting place at times (I’m choosing my words carefully here). Currently there is a kind of feeding frenzy happening and it’s been moving steadily through the gears (apologies for the mixed metaphors) ever since the team traded up for Trey Lance a few short months ago.

It hit top gear the other day when Kyle Shanahan had yet another press conference. In his own inimitable style, Kyle had the last word when pressed on when he would declare a starting quarterback saying, “When? It’s hard for me to give a date when, it’s based on when we know and we feel like naming it. So whenever that happens, but I promise it’ll be by that Sunday.”

Several members of the assembled press were tickled by the statement but many fans were much less amused. Some couldn’t understand his reticence, suggesting the uncertainty would have a negative effect on the team. Others tried to search for meaning, for clues in the statement about which way he would go.

Does Kyle really need to explain himself?

One thought occurred to me though: Kyle Shanahan is the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He answers to his immediate superiors at the franchise and has no obligations to share his thoughts and ideas with the media or fans. Indeed, in a game as reliant on strategy as football, a game which is literally a game of inches, why on earth would any head coach wish to leak important team information to their opponents two weeks before a game?

Surely we can borrow a propaganda phrase from the Second World War here, “Loose lips sink ships.” Better to keep the Detroit Lions guessing, having to plan for two very different styles of quarterback than to tip them the wink early allowing them to focus on how to stop a specific threat.

Tactical Advantage

With Garoppolo, they will focus more on stopping the running game, stacking the box and taking away the short to intermediate passes, which is where Garoppolo makes his money. Conversely, if they know they are preparing for Lance, there is a greater emphasis on keeping him in the pocket, preventing him from killing them with his legs and stopping the vertical passing game. Like I said, two very different styles and being unable to focus on just one spreads the Lions a little bit thinner in practice. It compromises the number of reps they can dedicate to either game plan and thereby, theoretically, reduces their effectiveness.

What about the Other Players?

The argument that the players would be upset at Shanahan not naming a starter doesn’t really hold water either. At this point in the season, the players (professional football players, remember) are more concerned with their own readiness for the start of the season. They understand the pecking order, know whose job it is to make these decisions, and as long as they are selected themselves for the 53-man roster, will be happy enough to get on with their own jobs and let the HC get on with his. They understand the cutthroat nature of the business and the need to focus on doing their job well in their own self-interest.

It would be naïve to assume that some players aren’t pulling for one or the other and as we know Jimmy Garoppolo is a very popular man in the camp and has a lot of goodwill from his teammates. Equally though, these guys haven’t got to the top of their profession without being desperate to compete, without being winners. If Trey Lance can go some way to proving that the team has a better shot at winning with him then I’m sure all the players will be able to get on board with that pretty quickly.

Image Credit: Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group

Quarterback Competition?

Then there are the two main protagonists themselves: Jimmy and Trey. At the start of camp, Shanahan was quite clear that there was no quarterback competition and that, all things being equal, Garoppolo would start the season under center. This assertion was designed to take pressure off the young rookie who has played one game in the last year. It was never going to last though. Throughout camp, the two men have been compared;the comparisons haven’t always favored the veteran as much as the team might have expected.

Every long pass from Lance has the fans salivating, dreaming of the big arm, the big plays, and the things that Garoppolo (for all his winning record) just cannot provide.

There is a rivalry, certainly in the eyes of the fans and the media, and at the moment it is very close. Football is all about competition, it pushes players to be their best, knowing that they have to bring their “A” game every day because there is always someone striving to take their place. Psychologically, naming a starter now could kill that competition, could cause either man to ease up, just a little, but this is a game of inches as I said earlier. You win in the fine margins so why not tilt the scales in your favor?

Light a fire under each player and keep it burning; treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen if you like.

There is also the other aspect, if you name a starter now and he goes down injured, does that have a psychological effect on his replacement? Knowing that he wasn’t first choice? Some guys thrive on that, need that chip on the shoulder, but it is a dangerous game to play.


All things considered, I can see no reason why Shanahan would, or indeed should, name a starter for the various reasons outlined. In the meantime, 49ers Twitter will need to keep trying to read the tea leaves, keep counting snaps, keep comparing passing stats and come to its own conclusions about who will lead the offense out at Ford Field on September 12.

I’m certain that Kyle Shanahan already knows what he plans to do and I am equally certain that he is enjoying keeping his cards close to his chest; hopefully it will have the desired effect.

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