The 49ers and head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t want Jimmy Garoppolo to get hurt. Shanahan has been clear since training camp started that Garoppolo would be the starter and rookie Trey Lance was the backup, and reiterated that after Week 4’s loss to the Seahawks when Lance played the entire second half because of Garoppolo’s injury.
Now Garoppolo is unavailable for San Francisco’s Week 5 showdown against the Arizona Cardinals and Shanahan finds himself in perhaps the ideal spot when it comes to navigating the increasingly turbulent waters created by Lance’s selection with the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft.
It doesn’t sound like Garoppolo’s calf strain is going to keep him out long-term. A short-term absence opens the door for Shanahan to start Lance without moving on from the stance he took early in training camp.
“Just having Jimmy going, he’s our starter,” Shanahan said on July 27. “And we’re going to give all those guys every opportunity to improve. And if someone ever looks like they give us a better chance to win, we’ll make that decision.”
He reiterated that stance throughout camp and the preseason. Garoppolo is the starter until someone looks like they give the team a better chance to win.
The 49ers offense with Garoppolo was struggling after a terrific Week 1 performance. They were averaging only 4.8 yards per play from Week 2 through the first half of Week 4 (4.8 yards per play would rank 28th in the league), and there weren’t many signs it would be getting better or more consistent.
Now Shanahan gets to replace Garoppolo while still insisting the veteran is the starter and Lance is the backup.
“Yeah, our starting quarterback is hurt,” Shanahan told reporters Friday. “If he would’ve been a hundred percent today, we would have gone with him.”
Lance is replacing the injured starter on a short-term basis, which allows Shanahan the freedom to smoothly go back to Garoppolo once he’s healthy. Should the rookie struggle in his first start, the 49ers go into the Bye week with Garoppolo on the road to recovery. He gets inserted back into the starting lineup and Shanahan can talk about how Garoppolo is the starter and it was good for Lance to get some reps. No harm, no foul.
On the other hand, a Lance start gives Shanahan a chance to see if the rookie does enough to show he gives the 49ers a better chance to win. Lets go to the world where Lance plays well and gets San Francisco’s offense out of its three-week long rut. Shanahan would have a full four quarters of tape to point to where he could make the change to Lance and harken back to his July 27th statement: “And if someone ever looks like they give us a better chance to win, we’ll make that decision.”
Perhaps there’s zero chance Shanahan makes a switch. The plan may be to start Garoppolo as long as he’s available regardless of how Lance plays. It would be tough to reconcile that if the rookie shows improvement in this start though since Shanahan has also indicated that playing is the best way to develop a player is to play him.
Either way, if Shanahan does have an inkling of moving Lance into a starting role at some point in 2021, this will be a prime opportunity to do it going into the Bye week and it wouldn’t force the head coach to move off of anything he’s said to about his quarterback situation to this point. If Lance plays well, his first-career start could be followed by his permanent move to the top of San Francisco’s depth chart.