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The 49ers’ QB Decision Isn’t As Clear-Cut As You Think

Jimmy Garoppolo is holding back San Francisco’s win-now roster, but heir apparent Trey Lance still looks incredibly green. What should the 49ers do?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

This offseason was supposed to be a simple one for the 49ers. The team seemingly laid the foundation for it last offseason, when it sent three first-round picks to Miami for the right to draft Trey Lance, officially cementing Jimmy Garoppolo’s status as a lame-duck quarterback before a presumable trade after the 2021 season.

Then that season happened, and Garoppolo led the 49ers to within a game of the Super Bowl, while Lance looked even more raw in his two regular-season starts than his predraft scouting reports suggested. All of a sudden, things aren’t so simple. The 49ers have to decide between letting go of a productive quarterback with a winning track record or benching—and possibly stunting the development of—their quarterback of the future.

Given Garoppolo’s obvious limitations—which were on full display during the 49ers’ playoff run—one would think the first option would be the obvious choice. Despite the overall success of the team in 2021, the 30-year-old passer did nothing to prove his detractors wrong over the past five months. The injury problems that have plagued his career persisted, as he missed two starts and played through performance-diminishing injuries late in the season. And he proved once again that he’s in a league of his own when it comes to putting the ball in harm’s way while not taking any chances downfield. I’m not sure the NFL has ever seen a high-risk, low-reward quarterback quite like Jimmy G:

Text in the graphic reads: “Big-time throws create big plays while turnover-worthy plays result in turnovers about half the time. The top left is the best place to be where BTTs are high and TWPs are limited. The more volatile players reside in the top right with high BTTs and high TWPs, while the bottom left is the more conservative quadrant of low BTTs and low TWPs.”
Screenshot via Pro Football Focus

The 2021 version of Garoppolo was a lot like the 2020 version that convinced Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers’ brain trust that they needed more out of the quarterback position. The overall results changed thanks in large part to the defense bouncing back from a down season, superstar tight end George Kittle staying healthy for most of the season, and Deebo Samuel emerging as the NFL’s preeminent do-it-all offensive weapon.

But this isn’t a question of whether Garoppolo is good enough to lead the 49ers to a title—the answer is clearly “no,” based on the mountain of evidence his tenure in San Francisco has provided. The question is whether Lance, at this point in his development, is an upgrade over the incumbent starter. That one is a bit harder to answer.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard 49ers legend Joe Montana say current players have told him that Lance isn’t ready, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter echoed the sentiment while also suggesting that a Garoppolo trade isn’t necessarily a lock.

Now, I don’t think Montana or Schefter are grinding tape to confirm those evaluations, but anyone who has done that work would have a hard time pushing back against the notion that Lance isn’t quite ready to start in the NFL. Even the easiest of throws were a challenge for the 21-year-old rookie.

As much shit as Garoppolo deservedly gets for holding back Shanahan’s brilliantly designed offense, he has always been quite good at hitting the layups his coach routinely provides. That ability to put the ball in a spot that doesn’t slow the receiver’s momentum helps explain why the 49ers have been so good at generating yards after the catch. In part, at least:

Unfortunately, making easy throws isn’t the only concern with Lance. His inability to read the most basic of passing concepts might be a bigger red flag. Take this double slant concept from Lance’s Week 17 start against Houston, for example.

Both slants are open, and Lance doesn’t throw either one! Making matters worse, he goes into scramble mode in his own end zone rather than making an easy throw. But it’s what Lance does after the throw that complicates the Lance/Jimmy G decision for the 49ers. After he botches the read, Lance is able to escape the rush and find an open receiver downfield for the first down. If Garoppolo misreads a play—which happens more often than you’d expect for a QB with eight seasons of NFL experience—it is essentially dead. I’m not sure Jimmy realizes he’s allowed to escape the pocket. If you exclude designed rollouts, Garoppolo ranked 36th in passing attempts made outside of the pocket with 10, per Sports Info Solutions. Tom Brady, who is 44, and Ben Roethlisberger, who moved like he was even older, attempted more of those passes last season.

The boost Lance’s mobility would provide Shanahan’s offense isn’t confined to scramble drills, either. Having a run threat at quarterback would be a force multiplier for the 49ers’ run game, pressuring defenses to account for an 11th player. In Lance’s two starts, we saw a variety of run designs that took advantage of the rookie’s legs.

Garoppolo is the opposite of a force multiplier—force divider?—for the Niners’ run game. And not just due to his lack of mobility. His refusal to challenge defenses downfield or outside the numbers in the passing game allows opponents to flood the middle of the field without fear of consequence. In the NFC championship game, the Rams took that to an extreme, playing their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and essentially daring Garoppolo to throw it over their heads.

These bespoke defensive game plans would be more difficult to pull off if Garoppolo weren’t so dedicated to targeting exactly one area of the field:

Garoppolo’s inability to scramble and his aversion to perimeter throws puts a serious strain on the 49ers offense. When he’s under center, the defense can deploy its 11 players as if the field were only 40 yards wide. Lance’s passing heat map is on the other end of the spectrum. If you flipped the blue and red areas on Garoppolo’s map, you’d get something similar to the one the rookie produced in his limited playing time.

Lance’s arm talent allows him to make throws into downfield windows, which forces the defense to defend the entire field instead of focusing on one area.

That’s what makes the Garoppolo vs. Lance debate so difficult to resolve—there is almost no overlap in their respective games. They’re both technically quarterbacks, but it’s almost like they are playing different sports.

Garoppolo is the known quantity, which theoretically makes him the safer choice. But that ignores the off-field implications of running it back with him for one more year. Keeping Lance on the bench would be a soft admission that the Niners’ brain trust made a mistake by trading all of those picks for a guy who wasn’t ready to play for the first two years of his career. And by not trading Garoppolo, the 49ers would be turning down the opportunity to save $25.5 million in 2022 cap space and giving up whatever draft capital they’d receive for dealing him. Those resources would obviously allow the front office to bolster the supporting cast it can put around the quarterback.

We also shouldn’t ignore the fact that Lance has started only three football games since his 20th birthday. It’s difficult to get better at playing football without, you know, playing football. If the 49ers’ decision was based solely on maximizing the team’s chances of winning in 2022, I’m not sure there is a right answer. But if it’s based on setting the team up for success over the next decade, the solution is a bit more straightforward: Risk taking a step back next season in the hopes of taking some massive steps forward in the future. That seemed to be San Francisco’s strategy last year when it used a first-round pick on a player who was unlikely to see the field during his rookie season. Deviating from that path now—even if it’s just a one-year detour—might close it off forever.