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The Relentless Pursuit of the Elite Quarterback Upgrade

The divide between good and great quarterback play is often the hardest distance for NFL franchises to bridge. The Rams and 49ers went to creative and costly lengths to do just that.

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In March, days after the San Francisco 49ers traded up for the no. 3 pick in the NFL draft, Kyle Shanahan answered questions at a press conference about the team’s offseason strategy. One of his answers seemed to reveal a shift in his approach to the quarterback position. Competent, capable quarterback play was no longer sufficient; the team needed elite play, something long considered the holy grail in the NFL.

“There’s a risk any season you go into without a top-five quarterback,” Shanahan said.

It was a notable admission from Shanahan, who built his reputation as a coach and offensive play-caller by getting the most out of quarterbacks like Matt Schaub, Robert Griffin III, and Kirk Cousins. He’s reached the Super Bowl twice in the past five seasons—once as an offensive coordinator in Atlanta with Matt Ryan and again as a head coach in San Francisco with Jimmy Garoppolo, losing both times. The 49ers trade came less than two weeks after their division rival, the Los Angeles Rams, announced their trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford. Rams head coach Sean McVay and Shanahan previously worked together in Washington—they were both brought up in the same style of offense designed by Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father and the former head coach in Washington and Denver. Both McVay and Kyle Shanahan went on to establish themselves as offensive-minded head coaches who succeeded with their own versions of the Shanahan system. Their offenses were among the league’s best, even if neither had a top quarterback. McVay and Shanahan both seemed motivated to try their luck with passers who they believed could transcend their quarterback-friendly schemes.

“Put simply,” Rams general manager Les Snead said at the time, “chance to bet on going from good to great at that position.”

The pursuit of an elite quarterback is all-consuming for NFL franchises, and teams are going to extreme lengths to acquire one. The Rams and the 49ers have each made a Super Bowl appearance in the past three seasons—San Francisco with Garoppolo as its starter and Los Angeles with Jared Goff—but both were still willing to spend heavily on their successors. Garoppolo, who signed a five-year, $137.5 million contract with the 49ers in 2018, remains their starter two weeks into the 2021 season, but Trey Lance, the no. 3 pick in April, is expected to replace him eventually.

The 49ers traded two first-round picks and one third-rounder to Miami to move up to select Lance, who’s taken four snaps so far. Goff, who signed a four-year, $134 million contract extension in 2019, was traded to Detroit along with two first-round draft picks and a third-round pick and will still count for $24.7 million against the Rams’ salary cap in 2021. At the time, the $24.7 million was the highest dead cap charge a team had ever taken on to move on from a player (though the Eagles would soon surpass that record a few weeks later by taking on more than $33 million to trade quarterback Carson Wentz to the Colts). Those prior financial commitments and outlay of draft capital were no match for these teams’ aggressiveness when pursuing elite quarterbacks. The chance to go from good to great is worth the cost when good is no longer good enough.

“Ultimately when you get to the playoffs and when you get to teams that are as good if not better than you, it’s the quarterback play that typically puts you over the top,” said Brian Griese, ESPN’s Monday Night Football analyst and a former NFL quarterback. “I think [McVay and Shanahan are] both looking at their situations and saying, ‘We have to be better at that position. It can’t be a position that we manage. It has to be a position that drives us and that is a difference-maker.’”

Griese was the starting quarterback for the Broncos for four seasons under Mike Shanahan and understands the requirements to play in that style of offense. He thinks McVay’s and Kyle Shanahan’s desires to move on from Goff and, eventually, Garoppolo was based primarily on those players’ tendencies to make too many back-breaking mistakes.

“Jared Goff makes some great throws down the field, but he’ll also throw an interception on a screen pass,” Griese said. “Jimmy Garoppolo will make some plays during the course of the season, but he’ll also overthrow a big third down or he’ll miss a wide-open touchdown in the Super Bowl.”

The central tenets of a Mike Shanahan–style offense—cutting the field in half with a wide zone-rushing scheme and using lots of play-action so run-pass plays are indistinguishable—tend to make life easier on the passers who operate it. “It makes quarterbacks, not the other way around,” 49ers quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello once told Sports Illustrated. In recent years, several teams deploying that style of offense have ranked among the league’s best while emphasizing efficiency over explosion and taking “some pressure off the quarterback,” Griese said. It was in this system that Garoppolo quarterbacked the second-ranked offense in 2019, completing 69 percent of his passes and throwing 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The year before that, Goff led the Rams’ second-ranked offense to a Super Bowl, completing 65 percent of his passes and throwing 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Those successful campaigns also illustrated how much support those quarterbacks were getting from their offensive scheme. In 2019, Garoppolo threw play-action passes at the highest rate in the NFL (31 percent) and generated 66 percent of his expected points added that way. He struggled on five- and seven-step drops that did not use play-action and 85 percent of his EPA on completions was produced after the catch. He thrived throwing short and over the middle to slot receivers, tight ends, and running backs, but he ranked 25th in the league in number of throws to receivers lined up out wide. Almost 40 percent of his passing EPA came on designed rollouts, third most in the league. The quarterbacks above him? Cousins and Goff. Goff had his hand held not just schematically but at the line of scrimmage, where McVay would sometimes call audibles into the quarterback’s headset.

As Griese pointed out, these are not necessarily fatal flaws—may we remind you again that both teams made the Super Bowl with these quarterbacks—but both coaches still chose to go after quarterbacks seen as capable of doing more with less help.

“You’re not limited in anything you can do in the pass game,” McVay marveled after Stafford threw for 321 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown to Van Jefferson, in a Week 1 win against the Bears.

It’s not as though Stafford came to the Rams with a better playoff pedigree or more experience in big moments than Goff, but his Week 1 touchdown throw was emblematic of what the Rams sought from him. Their offense had gotten more and more horizontal and less explosive since that 2018 Super Bowl year—according to Pro Football Focus, through the past two seasons, Stafford has been the best quarterback in the NFL on big-time throws made beyond his first read; Goff ranks 30th.

It may seem like a boom-or-bust proposition to spend a fortune in salary cap dollars and draft capital to upgrade a position where there’s already adequate play, but that’s precisely what the 49ers and Rams are doing. They have the roster talent and coaching staffs to be perennial playoff contenders, but their recent Super Bowl losses exposed them as a step below the league’s truly elite, in part because of a disparity in quarterback play. The Rams lost to Tom Brady, who has won four of the past seven Super Bowls and also beat the Falcons in 2017 when Shanahan was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. Los Angeles was knocked out of last year’s playoffs by the Packers, who produced the no. 1 offense in the NFL by combining the scheme of coach Matt LaFleur (another branch from the Shanahan tree) and Aaron Rodgers, last season’s MVP. The 49ers lost in 2020 to the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, the team and quarterback who have created a new measuring stick of explosive playmaking for the league. Beyond the move to trade up, the 49ers’ selection of Lance over Mac Jones—the other quarterback prospect San Francisco was frequently linked to in the predraft process—seemed to validate the team’s desire to opt for Lance’s athleticism and playmaking potential over Jones’s more conservative style.

Louis Riddick, Griese’s ESPN MNF colleague and a former NFL safety and personnel director in Washington and Philadelphia, believes a kind of “Mahomes envy” has to do both with teams’ desperate pursuit of elite quarterbacks and particularly players who can create out of structure.

“That’s a lot of it, of course, because it’s new and it’s what we’re seeing now,” Riddick said. “Of course, that happens a lot and that’s something we have to fight in scouting a lot of times. It’s about playing the game, right? It’s not just about athletic ability and flash plays.”

Riddick believes it’s a fool’s errand to consider only very athletic quarterbacks as having elite potential. He believes teams will continue to go to increasing lengths to find the player prototypes they covet.

“I think every front office, every general manager, every head coach, every offensive coordinator right now has this tremendous desire to get that guy that can transcend the perfect play call, the perfect scenario,” Riddick said. “He can do the thing that they can’t teach. He can make the play happen that they can’t call.”

That statement may include a dash of hyperbole, as teams like Washington, Denver, and Carolina seem at least content to bide their time with “bridge” quarterbacks like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Teddy Bridgewater, and Sam Darnold on relatively cheap contracts that leave more salary cap room to build solid teams. One personnel executive said he still believed that teams can contend with a starting quarterback who doesn’t create explosive plays or elevate teammates’ play as long as he doesn’t turn the ball over often and is on a cheap salary.

“Bottom line, you need that QB outside of the top 10-15 to make it so you can afford pieces around him,” he said.

This may seem like a more workable strategy for most NFL teams than the Rams’ and 49ers’ approach. But if Shanahan’s suggestion that consistent contention requires having a top-five quarterback, they may have no choice but to adopt similarly aggressive practices. The more that teams like the Rams and 49ers push the annual quarterback carousel into higher gear, the more teams may be forced to get on board. In 2016, when Washington placed the franchise tag on Cousins for the first time, then–general manager Scot McCloughan told Cousins that given how they’d build the roster around him, Cousins could “be average and still be good.”

McVay, at the time, was Washington’s offensive coordinator. Shanahan was his predecessor when Cousins briefly took over the starting job. You can be average and still be good. It’s unclear whether that’s still a workable strategy in the NFL, but neither of those coaches seems to think so.

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