Two things have been near-guarantees during the last four seasons of the Kyle Shanahan era – deep playoff wins and quarterback uncertainty.
If constant quarterback drama and conjecture is the price the 49ers have to pay to constantly be in the Super Bowl conversation, then San Francisco will gladly accept that trade-off.
The impressive on-field success since 2019 has not made the Niners’ continually unsettled quarterback situation any less maddening for fans. Shanahan, however, appears eminently comfortable with a lack of clarity at the game’s most important position.
Though Shanahan expressed confidence Brock Purdy will be ready to start throwing by training camp as he recovers from surgery on a torn elbow ligament, it is far from certain who will be the starting quarterback in Week 1 when the 49ers visit the Steelers.
But Shanahan, speaking at the Dwight Clark Legacy Series event, expressed clear confidence in each of his three options, with both Trey Lance and Sam Darnold set to take first-team reps at OTAs and minicamp in Purdy’s absence.
“I do believe we have three quarterbacks talent-wise who are all capable of being franchise-like quarterbacks,” said Shanahan, per David Lombardi of The Athletic.
“But that’s just capable ... Brock’s done that in his eight. And we have two other guys on our roster who we strongly believe can do that also.”
Such belief could be considered irrational given the cast the 49ers have at quarterback.
Purdy enjoyed a stunning ascension during his seven starts, and an appearance in relief of Jimmy Garoppolo, across the regular season and postseason as a rookie. Still, he is extremely inexperienced, though not to the same extent as Lance, who has started only four games – finishing three of those games.
Darnold, per rbsdm.com, was fourth among all quarterbacks (min. 100 plays) in the composite Expected Points Added (EPA) + Completion Percentage Over Expectation (CPOE) metric between Weeks 12 and 18 for the Panthers last year.
He went 4-2 in that stretch, but the reality is that he has never come close to justifying his status as the 2018 third overall pick during his NFL career.
Shanahan’s remarkable faith in his quarterbacks to succeed will in part be down to the belief he has in his offense, which has consistently proven to be an excellent quarterback incubator.
But it may also be based on the 2022 performance of a weapon that took that attack to another level down the stretch last campaign.
Ten regular-season starts and three postseason games into his 49ers career, the mid-season trade for Christian McCaffrey stands as an unqualified success.
Per nflindex.com, McCaffrey ranked tied fourth for players with at least 100 rushes between Week 8 and 18 in EPA per play.
But arguably the more significant aspect of the McCaffrey acquisition to this point has been his impact on the passing game. McCaffrey finished the season first in Football Outsiders DYAR, which measures total value, among backs targeted at least 25 times.
Will never get tired of watching this play. pic.twitter.com/5mkETIpdQE— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) May 12, 2023
McCaffrey blossomed into a stunningly efficient check down option for Jimmy Garoppolo and then Purdy. On throws of 10 yards or fewer to McCaffrey, the 49ers averaged 0.255 EPA per play. For context, Patrick Mahomes led all quarterbacks in EPA per play (0.302), with Tua Tagovailoa second with an average of 0.242.
In other words, the only quarterback who delivered greater efficiency by that metric than check down passes to McCaffrey by the 49ers was the premier signal-caller in the NFL.
The Shanahan offense has long since served as a safety net for his quarterbacks. With McCaffrey consistently turning check downs into productive plays and – along with Deebo Samuel – putting stress on defenses with his diverse skill set, the impact of that safety net is much greater.
There is little doubt Shanahan is being genuine when he says he feels he can win with all three of his quarterbacks. That belief is in part a reflection of his thoughts on their respective skill sets. Yet, it may have just as much to do with McCaffrey’s presence as perhaps the ultimate easy button who makes the NFL’s most quarterback-friendly offense that much more hospitable.