As the 49ers' final preseason finale approaches, the team’s longstanding quarterback competition seems to be coming to an end. All signs are pointing towards head coach Kyle Shanahan sticking with incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo over first-round pick Trey Lance.
While plenty has been said about each player, one thing Garoppolo’s proponents have consistently pointed to is that no team with a rookie starting quarterback has ever won the Super Bowl. So as the 49ers eye a deep postseason run, can a first-year quarterback help them reach that goal?
With that said, rookie quarterbacks, particularly over the past decade, have led a handful of postseason runs. Here’s a look at five in particular that compare to the 49ers' current situation in different ways.
2004 Pittsburgh Steelers (15-1, Conference Championship): Ben Roethlisberger
There are several significant similarities between the 2004 Steelers and 2021 49ers. The Steelers had gone 13-3, and 10-5-1 in 2001 and 2002 before a cavalcade of injuries and bad luck in 2003 led them to fall out of the postseason picture, finishing 6-10. With the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft, Pittsburgh selected Roethlisberger.
While most remember Roethlisberger winning his first 14 games as a starter, the Steelers actually planned for him to sit for one season behind incumbent starter Tommy Maddox. However, when Maddox suffered an injury in Week 2, Roethlisberger took over and never let go of the job.
This might ultimately be the easiest parallel to see Lance emerge as the permanent starter. Garoppolo’s injury history is well documented at this point. An early-season injury, even minor, could be enough to open the door for Lance to take his place as the franchise quarterback.
Roethlisberger was far from elite as a rookie but completed 66.4% of his passes in a conservative offense while he turned the ball over just 13 times (11 interceptions and two fumbles). Instead, the Steelers trusted their defense and top-five rushing attack to carry the bulk of the load, and they did just that until the New England Patriots stopped them in the AFC title game.
2012 Seattle Seahawks (11-5, Divisional round): Russell Wilson
49ers fans probably remember Russell Wilson’s rookie season quite well. After the Seahawks signed longtime Packers backup signal-caller Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million contract, everyone expected Flynn to be the starter in Seattle.
However, a relatively unheralded mid-round pick impressed the Seahawks coaching staff so much that Flynn never started a game for the 49ers' rival. Instead, Russell Wilson hit the ground running and came very close to an even deeper postseason run.
After a victory in the Wild Card round, Wilson led what looked like a game-winning drive in the Divisional round against the Falcons, handing the ball off to Marshawn Lynch for a touchdown with 31 seconds left to go up 28-27. Sadly for Seattle, Matt Ryan led a quick drive to set up Matt Bryant for a last-second 49-yard field goal to end Wilson’s rookie campaign.
Wilson looked like an above-average NFL quarterback through just a few weeks of his career. He racked up 26 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions, completed 64.1% of his passes for 3,118 yards, and ran for another four touchdowns and 489 yards.
If Lance starts from Week 1, although that looks unlikely at the moment, approaching those numbers is attainable given the type of production Garoppolo has put up under Shanahan and would be a great sign of things to come.
2009 New York Jets (9-7, Conference Championship): Mark Sanchez
Even as a rookie, it doesn’t always take a future franchise quarterback to lead a deep postseason run. After the Jets selected Mark Sanchez with the fifth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, they made the USC alum their starting quarterback from day one.
While Sanchez’s NFL legacy is defined by one of the most embarrassing plays in league history, the Jets still made it all the way to the conference championship game despite Sanchez’s undeniably bad season.
The Jets relied heavily on their elite defense and strong run game to alleviate some of the pressure on Sanchez, but he still floundered under center. Sanchez completed just 53.8% of his passes and threw just 12 touchdowns against 20 interceptions (he also fumbled the ball 10 times).
Fans looking for an argument to start Lance from day one should cite Sanchez as a strong example in their favor. Despite truly atrocious quarterback play, the Jets finished above .500 and pulled a pair of postseason upsets.
If Lance is as bad as Sanchez was as a rookie, he will probably never emerge as a franchise quarterback. However, given the potential of the 49ers' defense and the quality of their skill-position players, Lance doesn’t need to be great to lead a competitive team.
2012 Washington Football Team (10-6, Wild Card round): Robert Griffin III
Yes, Shanahan has made the playoffs with a rookie QB at the helm of his offense before. During his father’s stint as the head coach in Washington, Shanahan was the team’s offensive coordinator and was charged with building an offense around the second overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft: Robert Griffin III.
While the success was undeniably short-lived, Griffin thrived in his rookie season. The Baylor alum was responsible for 27 touchdowns and over 4,000 yards of total offense while throwing just five interceptions.
More than four years removed from Washington’s previous above .500 season, Griffin led the team to an NFC East title and went on to win the Rookie of the Year award. A severe knee injury hampered RGIII in the postseason and likely altered the course of his career, but there’s no denying that Shanahan built an offense tailor-made for a rookie to succeed. Of course, it doesn’t mean Shanahan has any plans to start Lance this season, but it’s important to remember that he’s worked closely with a mobile rookie quarterback and won games before.
2018 Baltimore Ravens (10-6, Wild Card round): Lamar Jackson
While Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in Washington during RGIII’s rookie year, the early signs point to the 2018 Ravens handling of Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson as the model he hopes to follow. Flacco, of course, was the Ravens starter during their Super Bowl title, and head coach John Harbaugh was unwilling to hand the reins off to Jackson.
Instead, Flacco started the season while Jackson received occasional looks in various short-yardage and red-zone situations where Baltimore utilized his legs. Through nine games, the Ravens were 4-5 and falling out of postseason contention. So Harbaugh made the switch to Jackson. Baltimore immediately went 6-1 to close the regular season once Jackson was put in at quarterback before losing to the Chargers in the Wild Card round.
The parallels here are about as strong as they could get. Garoppolo may not have the Super Bowl title, but he was part of a deep postseason run on a team led by an incredible defense.
Like Flacco, Garoppolo has never been considered an elite quarterback but has generally been a viable option. Lance, like Jackson, is expected to start the season as the backup while receiving limited opportunities in some sets that try to utilize his mobility. Lance’s ability will determine whether he can follow Jackson’s trajectory once he takes the field, but the circumstances around the early parts of their careers are quite similar.