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Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance, and the 49ers’ Long-Term Quarterback Dilemma

Garoppolo’s return after Lance’s injury has improved the Niners’ Super Bowl odds, but it comes with significant questions about Lance’s long-term development and where San Francisco goes from here

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jimmy Garoppolo did not have a San Francisco 49ers playbook three weeks ago. Technically, Jimmy was still on the team throughout the preseason, but spiritually he was not. In the heat of training camp, Garoppolo barely spoke to his team’s new quarterbacks coach, Brian Griese, according to NBC’s Peter King. Even in late August, Garoppolo was reportedly outside throwing while his teammates were in meetings, and inside (or at home) while his teammates were out practicing. The 49ers were apparently so confident that they would cut or trade Garoppolo before the season that they were more concerned about his committing corporate espionage than being able to execute their offense.

Flash forward a few weeks, and Trey Lance, the second-year quarterback who had been anointed as the quarterback of San Francisco’s future, is out for the season with a broken ankle after just five quarters of football. Jimmy G will lead the 49ers against the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football this week, once again in possession of San Francisco’s starting job—and a playbook.

The 49ers’ odds to win the Super Bowl improved after this news, going from 20-to-1 with Lance to 18-to-1 with Garoppolo. But in the long term—hell, in the beyond-this-season term—the 49ers’ quarterback situation is as muddled as it has ever been. After this year, Garoppolo can leave as an unrestricted free agent. Lance will be one year away from being eligible for a contract extension. The 49ers may be forced to choose between trying to bring back Garoppolo (again), or committing to Lance even though he’s had just four career pro starts after having just 17 starts at the FCS level in college. Anything short of a Super Bowl victory this season will leave the 49ers with a situation even murkier than the one they had this year—and without a playbook for how to handle it.

There is little question that in the short term the 49ers are better with Garoppolo. Since Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch took over the team in 2017, its performance with and without Garoppolo has been the difference between being a Super Bowl contender and one of the league’s worst teams. Since Shanahan became head coach, San Francisco’s record when Garoppolo has started is 35-16 (including the playoffs). Their record without Garoppolo starting is 9-29.

San Francisco’s winning percentage with Garoppolo is 69 percent, which would be the third best in the NFL since 2017. Without him, the 49ers have won less than a quarter of their games, which would be the worst mark in the NFL in that span. With him, Shanahan’s 49ers have had basically the same winning percentage as the Rams (and Garoppolo is 6-1 against Sean McVay’s Rams). Without Jimmy G, the 49ers have been worse than the Jets.

But the 49ers winning a lot of games with Jimmy should not be conflated with Jimmy winning lots of games. He’s more of a passenger riding shotgun in an awesome car. Garoppolo has been good at executing Shanahan’s offense, but he does not excel at doing anything beyond what is in the instruction manual.

In fact, plenty of times it has seemed like Garoppolo has held San Francisco back. The 49ers pulled off a miraculous upset over the Packers in the playoffs last year mainly due to its smothering defense and domination on special teams; Garoppolo threw for just 131 yards. The following week, Garoppolo threw an interception late in the NFC championship game, helping cost the 49ers a trip to the Super Bowl. His career-defining throw came two years ago when he overthrew an open Emmanuel Sanders in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl against the Chiefs in February 2020. Had he completed that pass, it’s fair to assume the 49ers would have won that game. But even in the NFC title game two weeks before that, Garoppolo threw just eight passes in a dominant 37-20 win over the Packers. Garoppolo is essentially the real-life Vincent from Entourage: a necessary character for the show, but more of a central landmark for the more talented and entertaining stars around him.

But Garoppolo’s biggest limitation hasn’t been his ability; it has been his availability. He has suffered an injury in four of the six seasons in which he’s played any NFL football (he was even injured in 2016, when he was filling in for a suspended Tom Brady). He’s missed double-digit games twice in his 49ers tenure. Last year, he dealt with thumb and shoulder injuries late in the season and was far from 100 percent in the playoffs. The 49ers wanted to move on from Jimmy G in large part because of his health, but it was his health that forced them to keep him.

Garoppolo decided to get shoulder surgery in early March—which surprised 49ers officials—and no teams wanted to trade for a QB that was so fresh off surgery on his throwing shoulder.

Garoppolo’s health has long been his biggest issue. A few weeks after the 49ers drafted Lance in 2021, Lynch went on Colin Cowherd’s radio show and relayed how he explained the decision to Garoppolo.

“Jimmy, when you’ve played, you’ve been tremendous,” Lynch said. “The biggest thing has been it’s hard to keep you on the field.”

Enter Lance. The 49ers traded up to get Lance in the 2021 draft, using three first-rounders and a third-rounder to acquire him. The idea was that he could solve both of the 49ers’ Garoppolo problems. Lance had a chance to become a better pure passer than Garoppolo, but he’d also bring in the rushing ability of a 6-foot-4, 225-pound QB who reportedly ran a mid-4.5 40-yard dash—about the same time as 49ers receiver Brandon Aiyuk. With Lance in Shanahan’s system, the upside seemed extraordinary. Lance was a developmental prospect, and the plan for his rookie year was for him to sit behind Jimmy and learn—and eventually replace him in 2022 and beyond. If Garoppolo got hurt in the interim, Lance could step up. Lance thus far has solved none of the 49ers’ quarterback problems. He hasn’t allowed the 49ers to move on from Garoppolo, stayed healthy enough to be a backup, or gotten the time to develop into a starter who is better than the guy he was being asked to replace.

Eventually, the 49ers will need to figure out what they are going to do beyond this season. If Garoppolo plays well—and it’s conceivable that the 49ers could make another deep playoff run thanks to their loaded defense and experienced offense, with players like Trent Williams, George Kittle, and Deebo Samuel—the team might be tempted to bring him back in 2023. But unless Garoppolo gets hurt (certainly a possibility) or plays terribly this year, there’s no reason he should want to return to deal with this whole circus again. So the 49ers would need to commit to Jimmy as the starter and pay him a lot of money to return. But doing so would mean that San Francisco is essentially punting on Lance just four starts into his career. The 49ers probably won’t already write off Lance as a sunk cost, so Garoppolo is likely gone.

But if handing a championship-caliber team to Lance in 2022 felt like a calculated risk, doing it again next season will be scary. This 49ers team is ready to win now. Lance is not. The term “raw” gets used a lot with prospects, but it is worth rehashing just how few football games Lance has played. Just 21 starts separate him from his high school career in Marshall, Minnesota, a small town about 40 miles from the South Dakota border. He played 16 games at FCS North Dakota State in 2019; take out that season, when he threw 28 touchdowns and zero interceptions in 16 games for the Bisons, and here’s how his other four seasons in the past five years have gone:

2018 (North Dakota State): Threw one pass as a redshirt freshman.

2020 (North Dakota State): Played a single game as a sophomore because NDSU canceled its season due to COVID. The game was essentially an exhibition and a way for Lance to play in front of NFL scouts.

2021 (49ers): Started two games in place of Garoppolo, but he played through a broken finger, which forced him to change how he threw.

2022 (49ers): Played five quarters before he broke his ankle in Week 2. Four of those quarters were rendered meaningless because it rained so hard in Chicago that day that the paint washed off the field.

So to recap, over the last four years Lance has one full season as a starter at North Dakota State in the FCS, and in the other three seasons, he barely has four games of real football experience. Lance has thrown 102 passes in his NFL career; Jets QB Joe Flacco has thrown 103 passes in the first two weeks of this season alone. Since leaving high school, Lance has thrown 420 passes in games. Trevor Lawrence, who was taken two picks before Lance, has thrown more than three times as many—1,546—in the same period.

Imagine being the San Francisco 49ers and needing to commit to Lance entering 2023. After that year—which will be his first real season as a starter—he will be eligible for a contract extension, the 49ers will need to decide on his roughly $20 million fifth-year option, and the cheap years on his contract will be almost over.

All of these issues compound. Not only is Lance still trying to learn the NFL game, but next season he’ll be recovering from a significant ankle injury. Shanahan’s plan for bringing Lance along was to rely on his strength as a runner and work in passing concepts slowly as defenses tried to stop the 49ers run game. But will Lance be able to run as much in 2023? And will his rawness as a passer render him a deer in the headlights if he enters the highest level of competition he’s ever faced with less mobility than he’s ever had?

It is far too early to declare Lance a bust. He might turn out to be a transcendent player with a slow start to his career. Injuries are not easy to predict, and it is 20/20 hindsight to say it was a mistake for the 49ers to trade so much to move up for Lance.

Having said that, the 49ers traded two future first-round picks (plus a third-rounder) to swap the 12th pick for the no. 3 pick and take Lance in 2021—essentially using three first-rounders and a third to select him. But the 2021 pick they traded ended up going to Dallas, who used it on Micah Parsons, an early candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year.

We can hold two things in our mind at once. The Lance trade might still yield Super Bowls for San Francisco. But it is also probably painful for 49ers fans to realize their team could have just taken Parsons in 2021, paired him with defensive end Nick Bosa, and perhaps be the Super Bowl favorites in the NFC right now—and could have beaten the Rams in the NFC championship game last year, too.

The 49ers are back to where they were before the Lance trade—all in on Jimmy Garoppolo to win now. But the entire idea behind the Lance trade was for the 49ers to strike the balance between short- and long-term success. In trying to do both, the 49ers may have ended up serving neither.

While Lance’s priority is recovering from surgery and his QB development plan is on hold, Garoppolo’s next turn will begin this Sunday night—and he has plenty at stake. Obviously, a Super Bowl win for Jimmy would be a total vindication of his entire career. But even if he doesn’t win a championship this year, Garoppolo can prove a lot by just staying healthy. If he can, surely a team will take a flier on him, and since he is an unrestricted free agent he could get a surprisingly large contract like Kirk Cousins got from Minnesota. Consider 2022 his audition to be overpaid by Carolina in free agency.

Garoppolo will likely make the 49ers look better against Denver on Sunday than either of San Francisco’s performances the previous two weeks. But considering how cloudy San Francisco’s situation is beyond this season, there’s a newfound urgency for a team shifting from a developmental QB to a rental QB within a week. If San Francisco falls short, or if some of their players aren’t on the same page, everyone involved might regret wasting all that time in August.