It’s funny how quickly narratives change in the NFL.
Had the Los Angeles Rams scored one more touchdown on Sunday, Kyle Shanahan would have finished his fourth season in five years without a playoff berth, and this time without any viable excuse.
The fury of the fanbase would have been swift and fierce. The reality would have been that Shanahan simultaneously failed to make the playoffs and also to develop his rookie quarterback who he paid a historically high premium to acquire.
This has by far been his weirdest endeavor to date.
He made it clear to the world that he was fed up with Jimmy Garoppolo by trading up for Trey Lance, only to rekindle his Garoppolovian affair with a borderline dogmatism. No matter how persistent the questions, he reaffirmed his trust in a man no one really believed he trusted.
To onlookers, trading three first-round picks and a third-round pick for Lance was a sign of Garoppolo’s pending doom.
Shanahan’s view was that the price of moving up to that third slot was necessary. It allowed the 49ers to be open about their intentions, do their due diligence on quarterbacks openly, and leapfrog other teams who were perhaps better positioned to steal Lance away from them, and would have.
And despite that price, Shanahan said that, yes, this was about the future, but it was also about acquiring depth at quarterback and that he still had faith in Garoppolo.
Having witnessed the cavernous depths that Garoppolo’s career path has at times burrowed its way into, it was a hard sell.
Did Shanahan really expect us all to buy that he believed in this guy who he seemed so desperate to replace, all in the name of having quarterback depth? The answer, apparently, was yes.
And the decision, with reports that the 49ers intend to trade Garoppolo after the season, also hinged on getting value for Garoppolo afterwards. Had he underperformed, especially when it mattered, that would have been a bad bet, and still might be.
But especially if the hot commodities like Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson stay put this offseason, it’s not difficult to imagine someone like the Steelers, Browns or soon-to-be-named Football Team paying the price of a second-round pick to bring a decent quarterback onto a win-now roster. It’s a weak quarterback draft class, too.
So here we are. The 49ers are decidedly still Garoppolo’s team, and they’re in the dance thanks to Shanahan betting on the guy no one really believed he could be betting on.
Oft-maligned for what has sometimes seemed like an obsession with his own genius, and a belief that his scheme is so effective it can be executed effectively with a quarterback who thrives on timing over talent, Shanahan has made his point.
And he did so in a real, “f**k you” way, dealing his former colleague Sean McVay not only a sixth-straight loss, but the first loss McVay has ever had when leading at the half. He’s now 43-1 when the Rams lead at the half.
At 2-4 and 3-5, there were calls for Lance to start. When Garoppolo — who has historically struggled after injures in a career tormented by them — tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his thumb, there was the belief that starting Garoppolo was not just foolhardy, but potentially self-destructing.
Instead, we saw Garoppolo, the Rubber-band Man, fail multiple times, only to find glory. It is so deeply on brand for him to be written off by people — including yours truly — only to find his best form.
But to Shanahan, it’s always been fairly simple. Who gives his team the best chance to win? Every week, the answer has been Garoppolo, and having watched Lance’s uneven performances, you can understand why he feels that way. Garoppolo, while prone to headache-inducing interceptions, is clearly the more reliable quarterback, despite his limited upside.
Would Lance have become the more reliable quarterback if given the keys to the kingdom? Possibly. We will never know for sure, but Shanahan was and is in the business of winning now, and knew what he was getting with Garoppolo.
The veteran players he sold on returning this season, many of whom are in the prime of their career, were sold on the idea of being competitive. They knew and believed in Garoppolo, and damn if he’s not a likable, respected lad.
Given the weapons around him, the 49ers don’t always need spectacular quarterback play. And Garoppolo, again, is usually just good enough. He knows the timing, the cadence, the rhythm of Shanahan’s offense, and given the borderline neurotic requirements Shanahan has of his quarterbacks, that isn’t easy to find.
So let us take a moment to credit Garoppolo. He has been criticized harshly on a fairly consistent basis. Whether the criticism has been fair or not is up for debate, but what is evident is that he wins, and it is not solely because of Shanahan.
The 49ers have won plenty of games in spite of Garoppolo. While he’s generally an average quarterback — in the sense that he fluctuates from good to bad with a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde regularity — his clutch capacity is bona fide, and for the most part, he’s just good enough to win with.
On days like Sunday, he demonstrates a hard-to-comprehend capacity to go from scapegoat to hero in a moment’s notice.
He waited until the last possible second to get it done. When the 49ers’ season was quite literally on the line, when he had to make the throw of his life to send them to the playoffs, he did. He found Deebo Samuel down the right sideline, and took a hole shot which he has shown a propensity to fail at.
When it mattered most, he found it. Typically, the ball just barely got there. But that style of pass also set up Samuel to turn upfield and turn a 24-yard pass in to a 43-yard play.
Will this all be good enough to win a Super Bowl? Probably not. But the 49ers were probably not going to win this game. Per ESPN, they were 99.9 percent likely to lose it late in the fourth quarter.
But it doesn’t matter if the 49ers are likely to win the Super Bowl now. They’re in the dance and just as they showed on Sunday, this is a team with a great defense anchored by an elite defensive line. It is an offense which is as talented at skill positions as any in the NFL, and grinded out a win after trailing 17-0 without Trent Williams or K’Waun Williams.
They are unlikely to win the Super Bowl, but so much of this season has been unlikely that there doesn’t seem to be all that much weight to “unlikeliness.” Shanahan has coached his team to a playoff berth, and is now likelier to get something for his quarterback this offseason. While he didn’t get in-game experience for his rookie quarterback, this season has provided a slow-burning way for Shanahan and Lance to familiarize themselves with one another.
The goal, at the end of the day, is to be competitive. The 49ers are, and while there are certainly questions to be asked about how they reached this point, they have a chance. Shanahan made a bet — unlike his counterpart, McVay, who curled up into a conservative ball in the fourth quarter — and right now, it appears like he’s won.