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The 49ers welcome the Raiders to Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, and that will be head coach Kyle Shanahan’s last opportunity to analyze who will be his Week 1 starter at quarterback. He has two choices — veteran Jimmy Garoppolo, who is entering his fifth year with Shanahan, or third overall pick Trey Lance.
The decision to go with the experienced veteran or the hyper-gifted rookie is a common one among coaches, and every coach has a different rationale. We know that eventually, Lance will be the guy — the 49ers traded the farm to move up and take Lance with the third overall pick. You don’t do that unless you know that he’s your guy over time. The question now is, do you start Garoppolo in the short term because he’s more familiar with the offense?
“I think he’s just had more command at this time than he has any of the other years,” Shanahan said of Garoppolo on Wednesday. “Jimmy always gets there eventually, but I think he’s come in, and I think that’s natural with it being his fourth or fifth year. He came in the middle of our first year, but I think it’s a lot easier for him just knowing what’s coming off my lips before it does. Knowing exactly how to spit it out, where to go. When you don’t have to think and all that stuff’s effortless, the semantics of play calls and the offense, I think it’s a lot easier to play.”
That’s fine in theory, but the practice is a bit tougher to analyze. There are things Garoppolo can’t do well, and given that this is his fifth year in Shanahan’s system, you can start to assume that he won’t.
Lance is rawer at this point, which of course makes sense. There are a ton of similarities between what Lance ran at North Dakota State and what Shanahan likes to do — Touchdown Wire’s Mark Schofield has covered this extensively — and that will reduce the ramp-up time. But the 49ers still have Garoppolo on their roster despite the fact that Garoppolo carries a $26.4 million cap charge in 2021, and the dead money after cutting him would be just $2.8 million. Perhaps Shanahan sees a scenario in which Garoppolo does enough to get the 49ers over the hump this season, and then, the chips will fall where they fall.
Again, that’s sensible in theory. But when you turn on the tape and watch what’s happening with these two quarterbacks, it becomes quite easy to make the case that the 49ers should start Trey Lance in Week 1 of the regular season against the Lions, and that should be that.
Why is this so? It has as much to do with Garoppolo’s limitations as it does with Lance’s potential.
Garoppolo is a limited, see-it-and-throw-it quarterback.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The primary issues with Garoppolo are two -- first, he doesn't see receivers coming open well at all, and second, this has turned him into a functionally limited "see-it-and-throw-it" guy. The NFL is full of these types of quarterbacks; the ones who must see the break in the route happen before they're able to trust it, and most quarterbacks who reside there tend to stay there. As this is Garoppolo's eighth NFL season, and his fifth with Shanahan, it's probably time to say that this is all there is. Against the Chargers last Sunday, Garoppolo completed three of six passes for 15 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. There are instances in which stats don't tell the whole story. In Garoppolo's case, the stats kinda do. As has been the case throughout his time with the 49ers, Garoppolo has been given a lot of schemed openings, and if he doesn't absolutely see them, he's going to doubt his ability to get things done. Two throws against the Chargers were especially frustrating. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1431214240837341185 https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1431214575807049737
Lance is a plus thrower with reading and anticipation issues.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)
Lance's development has been impressive, though he's capable of making his own mistakes, and most of them have to do with trusting his timing and reads on crossing routes. This was an obvious issue in his first NFL game against the Chiefs, when he completed five of 14 passes for 128 yards, and an 80-yard touchdown pass. Lance was bedeviled by four dropped passes, and you saw a lot of timing issues on crossers where Lance was operating at fastball speed no matter what, and his receivers didn't have the timing down. This has caused some frenetic moments in which Lance gets ahead of himself and tries to make too much happen instead of just trusting what he sees. Shanahan tied the two issues together when asked about Lance's velocity settings. "I just think a lot of it has to do with having your feet under you and seeing things at the right time and not having to speed it up so much because when you do speed something up and you have the type of ability he has, it's very hard to take something off of it," he said when asked if Lance is throwing too hard at times. "Some of the big arm quarterbacks that I have had, have some very similar issues. That's why you’ve got to have guys with good hands, but you also want to make it easier on them. And that’s stuff that I think he'll get better at the more that he plays.” https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1431223961275224066 It's possible that Lance eliminated the slot crosser here because the linebacker dropped; it's also possible that he was trying to put everything together, got there late, and had to eat the ball. Lance's interception in this game was another example of the timing of the crosser not quite working out. https://twitter.com/YahooSportsNFL/status/1429602846438092800
The one play that should make Shanahan's decision easy.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
The good thing about Lance's day is that he didn't let that interception ruin him -- he came back and threw two touchdown passes. The second one, to Travis Benjamin, was a play that a handful of NFL quarterbacks are going to make, and Jimmy Garoppolo is not one of them. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1431225412026241025 Here, it's the combination of Lance's ability to move linebacker Nick Niemann off the hash with his eyes, and then his outstanding velocity in a very tight window to hit Benjamin in stride. That Lance was able to do both, and throw off his timing issues with short and intermediate crossing stuff, is an excellent indicator that this is a quarterback who will learn from, and reduce, his mistakes in real time. This is what you want. "I saw some things he missed in the Chiefs game, he definitely was focused on them and corrected them in this game," Shanahan said Monday. "I also saw him make some corrections throughout the game too, which was nice to see. Not having to wait until you get to the film and stuff. Some things that he was aware of that he did and some stuff I thought he cleaned up the more comfortable he got in there."
What will Shanahan do?
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)
It's unlikely that Shanahan will announce his Week 1 starter before he needs to; there's no urgency here, though Garoppolo seems happy about the process. https://twitter.com/MySportsUpdate/status/1430633209340043267 If that indicates what it seems to indicate... well, that's one way to go. Shanahan has talked about using Lance in certain packages, citing the Drew Brees/Taysom Hill thing the Saints did for years. "We do it a little bit in practice. I think I'm doing a little bit of more of it here these next two weeks, just for me to get used to it and stuff, so the guys get used to it. Watching New Orleans doing it with Drew Brees and Taysom has been pretty cool over the last three years. I'm sure that took them some time to kind of get the flow of that. But it's nothing that you can say, ‘Hey we did this in practice so this is how it's going to be.’ You adjust to that in games and you prepare for everything, but you don't know until you go through it. So that's why I don't sit here and pretend like I have all the answers because I don't. You prepare for every situation, you work the guys to the best of their ability, and then you see what your game plan is and you figure out what gives you the best chance to win that game. And you try to keep your thoughts just to that." Well, most people who watched Hill replace Brees on the field in certain situations would probably use other words than "cool," but we digress. Lance getting the starter's role over time is inevitable; we'll have to wait and see if anything he does against the Raiders -- and anything Garoppolo is unable to do -- tips the scales in Lance's favor. Because, and with all due respect to the NFL's best offensive play-caller, it certainly should.