It is open season in the NFC West. We could be a week away from the Rams and Cardinals entering a separate echelon, especially with the Seahawks now Russell Wilson-less for the foreseeable future. But that seems awfully unlike the NFC West.
If Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers are serious about contending this season, Sunday is monumentally important. It will be Trey Lance’s first career start, and while Shanahan said Jimmy Garoppolo is still the starter — and that may prove true — Lance has the opportunity to win the job.
Shanahan has moved through this week in a way which gives him flexibility to return to Garoppolo or give Lance the reins based on the outcome, and depending on how long it takes Garoppolo — who has shown his value tanks when he’s not 100 percent — to overcome his calf injury.
An appropriately massive amount of that weight is on Shanahan’s shoulders. He is the one who chose Lance, who let Garoppolo stick around, and decided that the gambit of drafting a rookie quarterback to a competitive roster was a necessary one to embark upon now.
Shanahan must put Lance in an advantageous position on Sunday, and given his track record at maximizing his quarterbacks’ potential, that is not a far-fetched proposition.
There is a recipe for this to go very well for the 49ers. There is also, perhaps, a more logical path for it go awry.
How it could go wrong
Without George Kittle, the winning scenario sounds a bit sanguine and idealistic.
When blocking tight end MyCole Pruitt was cut this offseason, San Francisco was left with very little depth at tight end. It wasn’t widely viewed as a glaring hole because Kittle is the best all-around tight end in the NFL and until now, they’ve had no issues.
But wagering solely on Kittle overlooks the reality that his workload, usage, and physical commitment on every play means he’s likely to miss a few games every year. He is not playing the same position as Travis Kelce or Darren Waller, who have stunningly high usage rates, but mostly as pass catchers.
Without Kittle, every part of the offensive equation gets trickier. That is especially true in the run game, an area in which he is not just elite, but game-altering.
In his stead, the 49ers turn to Ross Dwelley, who is a stellar pass-catcher, but is limited in blocking situations. Charlie Woerner is yet unproven, but a better blocker than Dwelley, and he may be relied upon heavily without Kittle.
Jordan Matthews and Tanner Hudson are the two tight ends on the practice squad, and one would seem likely to get a gameday bump alongside quarteerback Nate Sudfeld. Matthews hasn’t done much — if any — convincing of his blocking prowess since converting to tight end, so Hudson is the likelier bet. There’s also fullback Josh Hokit, if the 49ers want to lean on Juszczyk, though that may be overcomplicating matters.
To be clear, this might go horribly, astoundingly wrong on Sunday, and not just because of the tight end concerns.
Chandler Jones could have Lance heading for the hills on every snap. Lance might rip a Camilo Doval-esque heater off the hands of his receivers on an underneath throw and send Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons on an easy path to an early pick-six.
Lance could fumble a zone-read exchange, which was a major problem early in camp. He could simply miss a few of his reads, which happened multiple times on Sunday, and instead of taking off with his legs, decide to try and force the ball into a nonexistent window, leading to interceptions.
And if the 49ers lose the turnover battle, especially early, they’re probably dead in the water. Kyle Shanahan said it himself on KNBR on Thursday.
“We haven’t gotten a turnover since Greenlaw’s pick-six in Week 1,” Shanahan said. “And that’s not a very good winning formula… We gotta make sure we get some this week. You look at Arizona and their defense has nine turnovers this year and that’s, to me, one of the reasons they’re undefeated.”
Above all other considerations, Lance is very clearly a long-term project. That was to be expected when he was drafted, but it’s also one of the reasons his selection was a surprise.
Said Shanahan after the loss to Seattle:
“It takes some time to play in this league, what you guys have seen throughout [the league]. It’s about knowing where to get rid of the ball, when to try to make those plays, when to check it down and have other guys do it for you, when to hang in the pocket, when to escape the pocket and [Lance] got a lot of real NFL game experience with that today and hopefully he’ll get better from it.”
Said offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel on Thursday:
“I feel like he’s in the boat with a lot of rookies, in terms of you’re looking at him and you’re like, ‘this isn’t the end result.’ I think every day he shows us that he’s wise beyond his years, much more mature than I was at his age. I can tell you that much.”
Said Steve Young on KNBR on Wednesday:
“I’d have to stare at him every day for three months and just have a gut feeling about his ability to get better fast. Because today, you know he’s not good enough. It’s raw. But it’s awesomely raw.”
“The ball’s flying around. It’s like five feet over someone on a slant. It’s chaotic. But because it’s familiar to me — I don’t know if it’s going to work out like me — (but) when I watched him I was like, ‘Hey, that is something I can build off of.'”
It’s going to take time.
His motion is inconsistent, he has not played anywhere near enough games to be above average at reading coverages, and more often than not, he throws a rocketed, wobbly ball.
But he’s also not seen much time on the field, and you can’t fix these things without live reps.
One concern about how Lance could be used stems from something McDaniel mentioned on Thursday. He said the most taxing part of the offseason was putting together an offense which could work for both quarterbacks.
“The toughest part was in the offseason, trying to make sure that our system highlighted both players, but also allowed the rest of our players to know what to do,” McDaniel said. “You can’t put in too much offense or two different offenses, otherwise you wouldn’t be good at anything and your players would be spread thin. So that was the toughest part systematically.”
The logic is reasonable. If you try and create two parallel offenses, neither quarterback will be able to comprehend both, let alone the one designed for them, and it will be too much for other players to wrap their heads around.
As reasonable as that sounds, there is a valid concern that the 49ers try to run an offense that matches more of Garoppolo’s skillset than Lance’s, and risk putting the rookie in a disadvantageous position.
Why it won’t go wrong
The counter to that thesis is that Lance, before Sunday, was only used in spot situations mostly in the red zone. Shanahan employed him as a runner or used his threat as a runner to throw off the defense. He has been extremely effective in those opportunities.
Shanahan said after the loss to Seattle that the game plan was not developed for Lance and cited that as part of the reason the rookie consistently exited the pocket.
That should suggest that the playbook is fairly expansive, with multiple designs that are Lance-specific. And while there have been those assessments that Lance is a long-term project, every one of those statements came with a qualifier that acknowledged his evident talent, both mentally and physically.
San Francisco has arrived at a crucial juncture. Lance should be in a position to take over if Shanahan handles this properly. He was unquestionably the more competitive quarterback against Seattle, even given his many flaws, and that is part of what the coaching staff is wrestling with.
It is evident to everyone involved that Lance’s talent creates escape valves on broken plays which the 49ers do not have with Garoppolo. That is inarguable.
The question is whether Shanahan, who has a reputation for being infatuated with his own scheme — an excellent scheme which has been copied and evolved by many other coaches, a few of whom are head coaches in this league — can take a step back and embrace the improvisational nature of Lance at this stage in his development.
After being fairly critical of the rookie after the loss — “that’s why he was the number two quarterback going into that game” — Shanahan shifted his tone in the coming days. That came after he reviewed the film and it became clearer that Lance, who has impressed teammates at every juncture in which he’s stepped on the field, would make his debut this coming week.
“I thought he did a lot better than he did in the preseason,” Shanahan said. “He came in, I know he got off to a rough start with his first two passes, but he calmed down and played poised after that. Wasn’t perfect, but you watch him, watch how he moved, how he attacked stuff, he wasn’t locking up. He was playing football and still gave us a chance to win.”
Lance can lead a victory over the undefeated Arizona Cardinals if the 49ers can accomplish a few things:
- Win the turnover differential: Shanahan said it himself. The 49ers don’t have a turnover since Dre Greenlaw’s Week 1 pick-six. Arizona won the turnover differential against the Titans 3-to-1, against the Jaguars 3-to-1, and against the Rams 2-to-0. The only game in which they lost the turnover differential (0-to-2) was a 34-33 win over the Vikings in Week 2, when a last-second missed field goal should have sunk them. San Francisco has to win in this facet of the game, and corner Dre Kirkpatrick said Friday that better disguises of coverages and blitzes are a key component towards realizing that end.
- Establish the run early: This is the most cliche of football cliches, when head coaches say they need to “establish the run.” The archaic part of that cliche is the belief the run game is necessary to set up play-action, which is fundamentally untrue (let Chargers head coach Brandon Staley explain it). What is crucial about establishing the run is that the 49ers’ entire identity is founded around a strong run game and dominant defensive line. Those things go hand-in-hand, and would take the pressure off Lance, allowing him to avoid getting into continuous dropback passing situations. Lance will have to throw the ball traditionally at points, but the offensive line tired out towards the end of the Seattle game in those traditional dropback settings, and an effective run game is energizing to offensive linemen. Arizona’s run defense is subpar, and the Vikings provided a blueprint to beat it, using motions to create advantages even when the Cardinals utilized eight-man boxes. Yes, you can run against those, and the Cardinals are lucky their safeties are great tacklers or the damage would have been worse. With Lance, there’s a one-man advantage in the 49ers’ favor which they’ve never really had before. He’s the most mobile quarterback Arizona has seen this year, and the only mobile quarterback they’ve seen besides Trevor Lawrence. If the 49ers can’t run the ball competently, it would be shocking if this game was competitive. Having Trey Sermon, who’s well-versed in the zone-read (and who looked at his most comfortable running it last week) should help in that respect, and Elijah Mitchell is the speed back that elevates this scheme.
- Control the time of possession: Arizona has won the time of possession every single week. The 49ers need to actively seek to work the clock to their advantage, both to keep Lance on the ball as much as possible (he’s always looked better in camp and in games the more he touches the ball) and perhaps more importantly, to get Kyler Murray out of a rhythm, and to prevent the defense from getting fatigued.
- Be aggressive on fourth down when the opportunity is there: This one is outside of Kyle Shanahan’s comfort zone, as he’s been one of the NFL’s most conservative decision-makers on fourth downs. Shanahan has displayed a penchant for punting on fourth down in short yardage situations when the ball is near midfield. Depending on his approach with Lance, he may show those decisions to be a result of his lack of trust in Garoppolo. In any case, he needs to be proactive in keeping the ball out of Murray’s hands and take risks with a quarterback who has the ability to extend plays and escape for positive yardage with his legs.
- Put Lance in positions which are comfortable to him: Lance has looked most comfortable as a passer on bootlegs, and at his most jittery standing in the pocket. That’s not very encouraging, but it’s the reality, and and expected reality for an inexperienced, dynamic young quarterback who knows he’s faster than just about every other player on the field. Craft the game to his skillset and create windows for him to throw in which he’s familiar. If Kyle Shanahan is the incredible play-caller he (rightfully) has built a reputation as, he should be able to pull this off. All he can do is put Lance in as many advantageous positions as possible, and hope that equation bears fruit.
That’s the recipe. Put the ball in Lance’s hands in situations he knows he can execute. Try to keep the ball away from Kyler Murray and get creative defensively to seek turnovers. When there is a chance to swing the game on a fourth-down opportunity, go for it, even if the ball is in your own half. Many of these things are easier said than done and require luck. But, to throw in another coaching cliche: the best teams create their own luck.
Why the 49ers need to rip the band-aid off
Perhaps the most damning indictment of Garoppolo — regardless of its intent — came from McDaniel this week.
“As a coach, you’re kind of a product of your environment,” McDaniel said. “And you get used to plays needing to be on schedule for them to be good plays. So you adjust as a coach. When you have a skillset such as Trey’s, you have to remind yourself, ‘Hey, it’s okay if it goes off schedule because we’re in a bottom line business [to] get yards or score points.’ So it is an adjustment for us, but it’s a very quick and easy adjustment.”
That appraisal of the situation tells you everything about the flaws of this offense under Garopplo in contrast to the modern, idyllic NFL quarterback. McDaniel’s review was earnest, and speaks bluntly to how the 49ers have been operating in the Garoppolo era.
That ideal is Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson. As Shanahan loves to say, there are many ways to be effective, but the modern NFL requires elite quarterbacks to be multi-faceted, to adapt when the play call doesn’t cut it, or when defenses simply outplay the call.
It’s not enough to simply execute plays.
And Garoppolo admitted that’s all he does.
When asked on September 29 if the criticism of his performances — specifically, regarding his perceived struggles to challenge defenses vertically and/or to the deep boundary — were fair, Garoppolo laughed.
“No,” Garoppolo said, chuckling. “I just go with the play that’s given. Think we’ve stretched [defenses] pretty welI in some different aspects, but just whatever play’s called I’ll go out there and execute it.”
And to his credit, Garoppolo does execute most of the time. He generally follows the rules of the offense, hitting his hot read when the protection and pressure calls for that. Most of the time, he’s fine… until he’s not, like here:
If you’re a data person, and want semi-objective proof of the qualitatively obvious fact that Garoppolo is turnover prone without significant upside, here’s a prime example for you.
Per Pro Football Focus, Garoppolo has one of the worst ratios of “Big Time Throws” to turnover-worthy play percentage (5.3 percent of throws are turnover worthy) in the NFL. He ranks third-worst in that category, with only Zach Wilson and Trevor Lawrence below him.
This is an offense — as we’ve evidenced here — which has become increasingly conservative with Garoppolo at the helm.
It could be argued there’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg equation at play. Does Garoppolo not throw the ball deep and deep outside the hashes consistently because Shanahan doesn’t trust him to, or does Shanahan not trust him to make those throws because he’s seen Garoppolo miss them regularly? Logic points towards the latter being true.
Defenses have adjusted, and the 49ers’ offense without Raheem Mostert has stagnated, even against a Seahawks defense which is allowing 450.8 yards per game, which is on pace to set an NFL record.
Lance has already proven he can get San Francisco out of their doldrums. It’s chaotic, but his legs are a consistent weapon, and while his mechanics aren’t reliable, he has bona fide arm talent. Shanahan and McDaniel have admitted he was better on tape, too, than they’d initially thought.
It will be a process, and possibly a painful one. But it’s necessary to undertake that process at the nearest possible juncture, which, according to the laws of space and time, is right now. As general manager John Lynch said on KNBR on Friday morning, development is difficult from the bench.
“That’s the tough thing in this league; you’re trying to develop Trey, but starters typically get 95 percent of the reps if not more,” Lynch said. “So it’s hard to get a backup reps and so if anything good of this has come is Trey’s got a bunch of reps and he’s really responded in good fashion.”
There’s an easy solution to getting Lance more reps; name him the starter, regardless of what happens on Sunday. If the 49ers’ brass has done its job, that won’t be a controversial decision.