Trey Lance to Jimmy Garoppolo, Aaron Rodgers: 49ers' QB what-ifs remain

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Josh Schrock
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Lance, Jimmy G, Rodgers, Mac and 49ers' QB what-ifs that remain originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Other than those who are staunch believers in predeterminism, most of us can agree that one decision, no matter how small, can alter the course of one's life and those around them forever. Turn left out your door instead of right and perhaps you never run into your future spouse, or aren't hit with that spark of inspiration that sets you off on a successful career path.

For the 49ers, Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan, everything changed in 10 agonizing Miami minutes last February. Six hundred ticks were all that stood between the 49ers bathing in a South Beach confetti shower with Garoppolo, the likely Super Bowl MVP, and Shanahan set to start a dynasty together as a franchise quarterback and play-calling savant.

A defensive meltdown, a horrific overthrow and a fourth-down sack later, and the 49ers' Super Bowl LIV dreams had evaporated and the reality in which Shanahan and Garoppolo form a long-term tandem went along with it. From that disappointment, a seed was planted in Shanahan's mind that he needed more than Garoppolo could give.

He wasn't going to stake his legacy on whether or not a good-but-not-elite quarterback could elevate his game against the NFL's best.

The 49ers flirted with Tom Brady but decided against it. After all, Garoppolo was stellar in 2019, and, the thought was that he would be able to take his game up a notch with another full season in Shanahan's offense.

Two high ankle sprains and 10 missed games for Garoppolo later, and the 49ers limped into the offseason after a disappointing 6-10 campaign knowing a change was needed. Garoppolo, as good as he was when healthy, was both too injury prone and had a clear ceiling, one Shanahan didn't feel like trying to jackhammer through.

So, Shanahan and Lynch, wanting to take full control of their destiny as the 49ers' power brokers, went all-in and pulled off a massive trade to move up to the No. 3 spot in the 2021 NFL Draft to pick the signal-caller they believe can deliver multiple Lombardi Trophies and send them into rarified air.

Shanahan wanted the Brady to his Bill Belichick. The Joe Montana to his Bill Walsh.

On Thursday night, the 49ers' two-decades-long quest to find their franchise quarterback ended when they selected North Dakota State star Trey Lance, who eventually will take over for Garoppolo when he's ready.

"I love his natural ability to play the position," Shanahan said of Lance. "Then when you add in a type of running element, which I've always been intrigued with, but when you've got a guy with the skillsets as far as speed and size, to where you're not going to make him a runner but if you can get in certain formations where the defense knows you will run him if they don't honor him, now everything is different. If you can ever get a guy like that and make 11-on-11 football then I think you got a guy who can change some things for you.

"But it always comes down to yeah, you can dabble in that, but you better be confident they can do everything else. He has played a year of football, it was at a smaller school, so that does take work. You're not going to see it all, so that's why it is a hard process and that's why there is no guarantees for any of us.

"So it's about believing."

While Lance and Shanahan now will get to work molding what they believe can become a legendary partnership, the 20-year-old wunderkind's arrival doesn't put an end to the "what-if" questions that have followed the 49ers after they passed on drafting Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes.

No, Lance's arrival will be celebrated, but questions surrounding the tangled web of quarterback realities that span the multiverse will remain.

Hours before the 49ers selected Lance, reports leaked that Rodgers, the NFL's reigning MVP, was unhappy with the Green Bay Packers and no longer wanted to play for them. The 49ers, of course, checked in on Rodgers' availability Wednesday, but quickly were rebuffed.

"You're talking about the MVP of our league last year," Lynch told reporters Thursday. "I don't know about you guys, but when the MVP of the league might be available -- and I didn't know that, I'm just reading the tea leaves like everybody else and saying, 'Hold on, is something going on here?'

"Yeah, we inquired. And it was a quick end to the conversation. It wasn't happening."

For now, the Packers have dug their heels in and appear unwilling to trade Rodgers, happy to have him retire, give back some money and go host Jeopardy if he's so disgruntled with the situation in Green Bay.

But should Rodgers be traded, whether it be to the Denver Broncos, Raiders or someone else, that possible missed opportunity to add an all-time great still at the peak of his powers will hang over the 49ers, just as their decision to pass on him in the draft 16 years ago has.

There is excitement and electricity around the Lance pick, as there should be. He's young, athletic has a big arm and a world of potential. With Shanahan at his side, there is no ceiling for how great Lance can be.

But Rodgers is a known commodity, and just the thought of him coming to the 49ers, a Super Bowl-ready team, was enough to have dreams of "Not one, not two, not three" dancing in the heads of The Faithful hours before draft night. If Lance is a star but never brings home a title(s), the "what could have beens" will remain.

After giving up two first-round picks to move up to select Lance, the 49ers now lack the assets to acquire Rodgers should he hit the market. The dream of the NorCal star coming home to deliver a title to the 49ers is dead and buried. Forever.

But Lance will begin his career not only with the specter of Rodgers, should he be traded, potentially lurking overhead, but he'll also forever be linked and compared to the quarterbacks the 49ers chose him over: Justin Fields and Mac Jones.

From Sept. 2019 until Nov. 2020, Fields was the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback in the draft class, a worthy prize for whichever team lost out on the "Tank for Trevor" sweepstakes. A poor game against Northwestern apparently was all scouts needed to ding Fields and send him sliding down the board until the Chicago Bears scooped him up at No. 11, ending their long nomadic search for a franchise signal-caller.

Every time Fields breaks out of the pocket and throws a dart to Allen Robinson or beats a cornerback in a foot race to electrify the starving masses of Soldier Field, it will be felt in the Bay Area.

RELATED: 'From Day 1:' Lance was always QB for Shanahan, 49ers

That brings us to Jones, the quarterback 49ers fans desperately didn't want to be the pick at No. 3, and who Bill Belichick was all too happy to scoop up to start the post-Brady era at No. 15. Rule of thumb: If Belichick likes a player, it's generally good for the league to make sure he doesn't get his hands on them.

Drafting Jones went against everything Belichick has done as the New England Patriots head coach. He had never drafted a quarterback higher than the second round (he took Garoppolo in the second round in 2014). But he had Brady for all of that time. Just as his free-agent spending spree was a departure from his usual pattern, Belichick's selection of Jones shows the Patriots were willing to see that having Brady, a sixth-round pick, turn out to be a living legend was serendipity and that using a high draft pick on a quarterback was the best way to move out of Brady's shadow that envelopes 1 Patriot Place.

Jones doesn't have the athletic gifts of Lance and his arm talent is average, but he finds himself in the perfect position to succeed. Josh McDaniels knows how to engineer an offense around a quarterback who is more or less tied to the pocket, and Nick Saban clearly gave Belichick all he needed to convince him Jones was his best way to start the next era.

The 49ers and Patriots are bound by many strands. Tug on one and you'll inevitably come across a few more. Brady, Garoppolo, Shanahan, Belichick and now Lance and Jones.

Ten minutes. Three feet. One yard. The margins between immortality and afterthought are razor-thin.

Garoppolo and Shanahan were set to reintroduce themselves as the NFL's next dynastic pairing, with the slaying of Patrick Mahomes serving as a league-wide notice.

Instead, a dejected walk to the bowels of Hard Rock Stadium set Shanahan, Garoppolo and the 49ers on divergent paths.

Shanahan's led him to Lance, while Garoppolo's post-49ers trajectory is unclear.

Lance and Shanahan now are bound together. A young, exciting player and an offensive mastermind for the ages with visions of grandeur taking shape.

But the buzz around Lance's arrival will subside and the what-ifs that have followed the 49ers' QB quest will remain and be amplified. The only magic that can make those disappear is for Lance to finish what Garoppolo couldn't.

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