Coming into 2021, the 49ers had lofty expectations for the season. The front office was able to re-sign most of the team’s key free agents, and it felt like momentum was building for another deep playoff run in the Bay Area.
Vegas Sportsbooks pegged the 49ers as one of the betting favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in Los Angeles, but the shine has quickly worn off after six weeks. San Francisco sits at 2-3, coming off three-straight losses against potential playoff contenders.
Jimmy Garoppolo has already missed a game, George Kittle’s on injured reserve, Raheem Mostert and Jason Verrett are done for the season, and this 49ers’ roster has more holes than many saw before the season began.
It’s right about now when the genuine playoff contenders start to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. But, unfortunately, the sad reality for Kyle Shanahan’s team is that they aren’t a part of that conversation yet.
Can that change as the season goes on? Sure, but right now, they’re on the outside looking in.
Shanahan has a losing career record and has missed the playoffs in three of his four seasons with San Francisco. Any competitive individual would look around at their coaching contemporaries with better records and pursue winning at all costs — even if it slows the development of rookie quarterback Trey Lance.
At this point, the 49ers’ head coach firmly believes that Jimmy Garoppolo — when healthy — is the team’s starting quarterback and gives them the best chance to win at this moment.
Is the 49ers’ headman right in that line of thinking? Probably.
While Trey Lance showed more promise as his first start in Arizona went on, I believe that Shanahan doesn’t fully trust him to lead the offense in games that the 49ers have to win.
Even though Lance provides the rushing upside over incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo, I think Shanahan believes that Garoppolo provides a higher baseline in the passing attack — which is ultimately what it takes to win in the NFL.
But this is where the problem lies. The 49ers are trying to juggle multiple goals this season, and I believe that it’ll ultimately cost them long-term. San Francisco’s in win-now mode as they’re in Year 5 of the Shanahan-Lynch regime with the pressure to win growing with each passing day, but also pseudo-rebuilding their roster around 21-year-old Trey Lance.
In the bigger picture, Kyle Shanahan’s legacy as the 49ers’ head coach is going to be directly tied to the development and success of Trey Lance. While Shanahan doesn’t want the stain of another losing season on his coaching resume, I also think he’s hindering his team’s future success by not starting Trey Lance.
I’m firmly in the camp of “play your rookie quarterback through the lumps” because I don’t think there’s a substitute for real game repetitions. In Lance’s case, he has not played much football, given that his 2020 season was canceled and his last full season was nearly two years ago.
Trey Lance doesn’t need to be holding a clipboard and watching Jimmy Garoppolo from the sidelines. He’s going to improve by playing in these pivotal games and using that valuable experience as the season goes on.
Will there be mistakes along the way? Of course. But Shanahan has to realize that his team is not talented enough to make a deep playoff run this season, and so his goal should be to give Trey Lance valuable playing time.
Does this mean that they can’t make the playoffs in 2021 with Trey Lance? Of course not.
49ers still have 12 games remaining and have the 5th-easiest schedule moving forward, per Football Outsiders. They still have four divisional games remaining, including two matchups vs. Rams.
DeMeco Ryans’ bunch has been playing lights out defense outside of a half against Aaron Rodgers and a quarter against Jared Goff, so the offense just needs to hold its end of the bargain for this team to win some games.
If Trey Lance continues to improve the more he plays (like some of the other rookie quarterbacks from this class), then the 49ers should be able to stack wins and be in the mix for a playoff spot.
This would be the best-case outcome for Shanahan and Co. — a playoff berth and a developmental year for their rookie quarterback. The worst outcome would be to play Jimmy Garoppolo as the starter and narrowly miss the playoffs.
Playing Lance as the starter would also take some of the public pressure off of the 49ers. It would be viewed as a developmental season and something to build on for 2022. Playing Garoppolo invites more criticism if Shanahan can’t lead this team to the playoffs.
Sometimes, goals change on the fly. The season hasn’t entirely gone as expected so far, and an injury to Jimmy Garoppolo has opened the door for a Trey Lance start. Shanahan should swing that door wide open and play Lance from here on out.