The San Francisco 49ers' gritty loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday was frustrating, and for all the wrong reasons. Instead of a fanbase clamoring for revenge next time around, ready to roar back after the bye week once the 49ers get to grind their axe on a team once again, heads are turning every which way shouting blame. It's Shanahan's fault for terrible playcalling, unless it's Lance who's not ready or even perhaps a washout, which would all be fixed if John Lynch knew how to draft, or...
What defines the sense of despair that permeates the dialogue going into the bye week is that the 49ers are going backwards. They were elite in 2019 (until at the very last quarter, they weren't), and 2020 was a wash that led to franchise-altering moves. But in the 5 weeks in the wake of the dawning season, the Niners have done nothing to insinuate that they're even close to that miracle '19 season. They let a clearly deficient Lions team creep back into a game and nearly sucker punch them, they scored 17 points against the Eagles, and then they lost 3 eminently winnable games against good teams. It's the kind of stretch that inspires optimism from an up-and-coming team still piecing its parts together. But for a team whose expectations are to get back to the big dance and then win the damn thing, after decades of frustration and then coming so close? It tells you one thing.
The 49ers are not elite anymore.
Okay, sorry for the depressing recap. Trust me, I don't like it any more than you do. But it brings us neatly to the pressure point of the current 49ers team, that of the delicate QB dance the 49ers have to navigate now. On one hand, you have an uninspiring Garoppolo you can use to try to fan the fading embers of a team that very clearly isn't what it used to be. On the other hand, Lance showed his hand for a full game now, and while exciting, led the team to 1-for-5 on 4th down attempts and not much better on 3rd down. While Lance showed grittiness and threatened with his legs constantly, the offense still couldn't keep up with Arizona's. It's not a stretch to imagine that a full season of work could bring him nearly on par with Kyler Murray and Josh Allen in terms of ability. But no rookie's development has a fixed timeline. So the question becomes, is it possible for the 49ers to develop Lance AND win enough games to reach the playoffs AND look good enough by season's end to have a legitimate shot at a title?
It's this question, one that seems hard enough for an established team in a normal season, let alone one running two quarterbacks in perhaps one of the toughest divisions ever, that has 49ers fans in a tizzy. A wasted season of development, or a season just punting away more wins? Either way, the 49ers seem to lose, toppled by their sense of expectation. Is 2021 a doomed season for the 49ers?
Maybe not. In all honesty, missing the playoffs is the most likely outcome. The NFL is hard to win in, and the 49ers haven't done themselves any favors. But after spending a few hours mulling over the results of the past few weeks, I remembered something that seems to have long been recycled out of the memory of the 49ers fanbase. The final preseason game against the Raiders featured a novel approach to game planning, with Lance and Garoppolo swapping in and out multiple times per drive. It flummoxed the opposing defense, and spotted an easy 31 points. To date, that was the most complete and dominant offensive showing put together by the 49ers this year. What if it wasn't as absurd an idea as the NFL echo chambers makes it out to be?
Granted, those 31 points came against a set of Vegas backups, and it's not like the Raiders are known for their superb defensive schemes. But if Garoppolo rolling the dice between throwing ducks, picks, and 3rd-and-16 miracles isn't likely to win a championship, and if Lance is going to make rookie mistakes that suppress the offense's overall output for a few weeks still if he's given the starting role, what other choice do they have? The 49ers can't succeed like this, trying to pick their poison. They need to down both vials to give themselves superpowers.
The only way to win now is to become truly unpredictable. With Lance's rookie debut, we have an idea of what each of the two QBs can do. Garoppolo still can run the quick game better than most quarterbacks in the league, and that's a dangerous weapon for teams that have to defend against outside zone and play-action. Lance has shown the ability to gash defenses that have to play back to defend his deep throws, and taking him down in the pocket has already proved far more troublesome for defenders than it is when facing Garoppolo.
So what if, instead of assigning roles to each one, constraining them to a portion of the field, situation, or playbook, Shanahan let it all rip? Imagine an offense in which Garoppolo took the snap under center, and Elijah Mitchell took it to the outside on three plays for gains of five or six yards apiece. It's 2nd and 4, and Lance trots in. Now the defense can't just worry about the outside zone or a quick slant. Now they have to worry about Lance faking the handoff and running the other way. Can they really defend all that and still break up a play action shot 40 yards downfield? And once Lance has stretched the field, do you really want to bet against Kittle taking a short pass in the flat from Garoppolo and rumbling upfield for chunk yards?
The only way this team can take the next step and return to one of the NFL's elite teams is by doing what's never been done before, and using the players at their disposal with each other to really open up the playbook, not just confine them to their own independent systems. It's absolutely a difficult and risky proposal. It's an extremely optimistic view of how the 49ers might find themselves winning against opponents deep into January. But if it can't be done here, then where? If it can't be done now, then when? Shanahan has job security and near-total authority in Santa Clara because he can do this. If he can't, then I don't know who can.
After five weeks, it seems clear this team won't win a championship by doing things the way they've always been done. If the team wants a cromulent starting quarterback and a rookie backup for the rest of the way, then keeping Garoppolo was a $15 million dollar mistake. Sign Dalton for his $10 million or so and punt on this season unless your defense can turn the clock back to 2019. But of course they didn't do that, because they want to win. And I do believe they're trying. Which means that these next two weeks will be unimaginably important in the short term.
In the grand scheme of things, hopefully Lance is pulling Mahomes moves next year and everyone's on the San Francisco bandwagon again. But in order to win, right now, with the pieces at the organization's disposal? It'll take innovation and risk. But the pieces are lined up. Lance will most likely take whatever starter snaps are available this next week. Jimmy will obviously get his once he's healed up before facing Indianapolis. But if Shanahan can re-examine his strategy and maximize the offense's potential over the next month, DeMeco Ryans can take his lumps and gel the defense together over the back half of the season. He's already shown tremendous promise, and the Saleh tenure showed how much better Ryans might get with experience.
It'll be a tough road. The football gods have decreed it will be so for every team in the NFC West. Setbacks will happen, failures will occur, and the 49ers will face adversity. But there is still a way forward, for this team to reclaim the mantle they lost after being toppled by Kansas City. And even if they try and fail, it doesn't have to be a blow that lasts any longer than the first kickoff of the 2022 season. But if they go all out and succeed, it will have very real repercussions that echo long past this year's quest to return the Lombardi Trophy to a franchise so desperate to hoist one again.