Another day, another debate about 49ers quarterbacks. With their comments at the NFL Owners meetings, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan further stoked the flames of any potential discussion surrounding the most polarizing position in sports.
With the offseason program scheduled to kick off in less than a month, Lynch clarified that despite recently undergoing surgery, that Brock Purdy is “probably the leader in the clubhouse” for the starting job in 2023.
That’s an understandable assessment at this point by Lynch, given the way last season ended. And with Purdy rattling off seven consecutive wins before a catastrophic stroke of bad luck forced him out of the NFC Championship game with a severe elbow injury.
When Purdy was on the field, the 49ers didn’t just win, they flat out demolished their competition to the tune of a 16.5 point average margin of victory in each game that he started and finished over that span.
While the confidence displayed in Purdy is justified, what exactly does it mean for the guy that the 49ers invested three first round picks and more into not even two full calendar years ago in Trey Lance.
“We’re still very excited about Trey, but I think the way Brock played, he probably earned the right to be the guy.” said Lynch. “But it’s certainly a competition. We’ll always have that.”
In theory, a competition should bring out the best in any player involved, no matter the position. The problem with Lynch’s statement is the fact Purdy won’t be medically cleared for months, and as a result will miss a large portion if not all of the offseason program.
What exactly will Lance be able to do in OTAs, mini-camp, or even training camp that would be enough to separate himself from the belief in Purdy that was instilled during live game reps that included the pressure cooker that is the NFL playoffs.
Having a competition where one player isn’t participating just does not seem practical by any stretch of the imagination. More than anything, it seems like lip service in the interim of outright saying this whole operation is on hold until Purdy comes back, at which point he gets handed the keys.
The problem is that you can’t pause everything while you wait out the duration of a cautiously optimistic timetable that would have Purdy back and cleared to practice right around the start of training camp.
There is still an offseason program to work through, and someone is still going to have to take the first team reps Purdy will be physically unable to in the meantime. What is complicating things even further is Shanahan’s stated intention of having Lance and the recently signed Sam Darnold split the first team reps in Purdy’s absence.
That doesn’t feel like the vote of confidence in you’d like to hear, considering how much capital was invested into moving in to a position to select Lance. It’s even more jarring when you consider he was the starting quarterback heading into last season and will be entering his third year in the offense.
Then again, the signing of Darnold felt far more like a hedge than an insurance move for depth. While he has had his fair shares of struggles since entering the league, Darnold still has appealing traits. Now, he will be playing in what is by far the best surrounding environment he has been in during his time in the NFL.
I don’t think teams would have necessarily been at each other's throats attempting to sign Darnold this offseason, but he comes with enough upside that it’s reasonable to expect he would have had a decent market for his services. That begs the question of why he chose to sign so early in free agency, on an incentive laden deal, with a team that already has two young quarterbacks under contract they claim to believe in.
Without knowing the specifics of what conversations were had between Darnold’s people and the 49ers, it’s fair to assume that he was given some kind of assurance that he would have the opportunity to bet on himself and earn a prominent role with this team. Whether that's as a backup or a starter, we would have no way of knowing.
But you can be almost certain that Darnold wouldn’t have signed a deal like that if it was portrayed to him that he was firmly the number three option behind Purdy and Lance. Shanahan echoing that Lance and Darnold will split those first team reps in the meantime only further supports the idea that this was more than just a move to insulate the quarterback room with depth.
So, what you’re left with is an injured quarterback who is clearly the consensus favorite to be the starter among those tasked with making that decision, a quarterback who the team says they believe in despite their actions saying the contrary, and the wild card that is Darnold on an incentive laden deal with a coach intent on getting him first team reps in the offseason program.
It’s March, and we are a long way from getting any kind of definitive clarity on the situation, so I understand anyone's feelings of not wanting to blow any comments made by Lynch or Shanahan out of proportion.
However, I do think their comments echoed what their actions have displayed over the last couple of months, and I think it's abundantly clear that Purdy’s injury did nothing to change their perception of the quarterback hierarchy at this point in time.
Until further notice, this is Purdy’s job to lose, with an unclear path for what it would take for Lance or Darnold to jump him on the depth chart for that starting spot.
Based on the information we have now, it's hard to envision a strictly performance-based scenario that leads to the 49ers brain trust into having the conviction it would require to slot one of the other guys into the role they so clearly feel Purdy is entrenched in.
Again, nothing is set in stone, and we can only work with what we have to go off now. Plenty of room to have another long offseason of quarterback debates ad nauseam, something that is unfortunately becoming a part of the very fiber that makes up this storied franchise.
Hopefully, one of these guys pans out and sticks for a long time going forward, so we can finally put these kinds of conversations to rest. Is that so much to ask for? Time will tell.