Since Kyle Shanahan arrived in 2017, the 49ers have cycled through six different starting quarterbacks. Mainly the result of injuries, but nonetheless still yielding a result that created a lack of continuity at the most important position in the sport.
Given the variance they have had at the position, you’d think it would be safe to assume that the production would vary greatly from the season to season. However, taking a closer look at the data shows that despite the revolving door of different faces who have been under center, the production has more or less stabilized year after year.
In five of the six seasons that Shanahan has been with the 49ers, they have had at least one quarterback finish in the top five in yards per attempt among qualifying quarterbacks. The only year that was not achieved was an injury ravaged 2020 campaign that was a disaster on nearly all fronts off the offensive side of the football.
Perhaps the most remarkable feat during this run has been what the team was able to get out of the position in 2018, when they lost Jimmy Garoppolo to a season ending knee injury two weeks into a season that came on the heels of him inking what was then the largest deal in NFL history.
One could argue the greatest thing that Nick Mullens achieved in that doomed 2018 season, was his ability to keep the 49ers watchable in what could have otherwise been an unforgettable campaign. He finished the season ranked third in the NFL with an 8.3 yards per attempt average, and was a major catalyst in George Kittle recording one of the most prolific seasons ever at the tight end position.
As turbulent as the Garoppolo roller coaster was over six seasons, he was able to consistently pilot an offense that maintained that efficiency in the passing game. During his time with the 49ers he posted seasons where he finished 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 4th in yards per attempt, with two injury riddled seasons being the outliers where he failed to achieve a top five ranking.
While the consistency with the efficiency was evident year after year, there was also a troubling set of data between 2017 and 2021 that was consistent regardless of who was under center. Putting the ball in harms way and creating turnover worthy plays for opposing teams.
Over the first five years of the Shanahan regime, the primary quarterback for the 49ers averaged a turnover worthy play rate of 3.92 percent. That included a 2021 season where Garoppolo’s 5.1 percent made him the only quarterback in the top five of yards per attempt to have a turnover worthy play rate of over 3.5 percent.
Despite their ability to consistently move the ball on offense, the turnover wart was something that held this offense back from reaching its true potential.
That changed in 2022. Before that season, the 49ers had never had more than one quarterback finish the season with a turnover worthy play rate lower than 3.0 percent under Shanahan.
In 2022, all three starters finished under that mark at an average of 2.6 percent. Brock Purdy and Trey Lance both finished at 2.6 percent and Garoppolo was at 2.5 percent, his lowest mark since the six-game stretch upon his arrival in 2017.
So, what exactly led to this unified stability in reducing the number of plays that created the risk of a turnover? Well, that's a good question and frankly, one I’m not sure anyone quite has the exact answer to at this time.
Despite the massive reduction in turnover worthy play percentage, the efficiency regarding yards per attempt did not falter one bit. In fact, it was arguably the best it has ever been with Purdy and Garoppolo both finishing in the top five in yards per attempt, ranking second and fourth respectively.
Not only did Garoppolo reduce his turnover worthy plays, he also posted the highest big time throw rate of his career as a qualified quarterback at 4.1 percent. There is a strong case to be made that he was playing the best football of his career before having his season cut short with an injury in early December.
While Shanahan has provided an exceptionally high baseline for nearly every quarterback who has played in his system with the 49ers, something or someone raised the bar even further in 2022.
You had a nine-year veteran in Garoppolo who looked like an entirely different quarterback, and a first year player in Purdy who oversaw an offense that didn’t skip a beat upon him taking the reins.
There is too much correlating data to assume that this shared success was some kind of one year outlier or an isolated coincidence. The one common denominator between these quarterbacks who didn’t exist prior to the 2022 season is the person responsible for coaching them at the positional level.
Could this be something as simple as Brian Griese was a home run hire and is superb at the job he is asked to do? It might be too early to definitively say that now, but it is a factor that cannot be ignored when looking at the spike in efficiency that has occurred under his watch over the last year.
With Garoppolo gone and the 49ers quarterback position still lacking any semblance of clarity, it’s more than reasonable to question if they can continue to build on that success heading into 2023.
However, looking at the bigger picture, it’s clear that any quarterback capable of playing semi competently at the NFL level will have a chance to succeed in Shanahan’s offense. The data supports it, and the sample size is too big to write off at this point.
Couple that with the job that Griese has done so far, and I would say it is a safe bet that regardless of who ends up under center for the 49ers in 2023, there will be a baseline level of success that should put the team in a position to win a lot of football games.