Kyle Shanahan can’t untangle playoff shortcomings from ‘unusual’ 49ers QB situation

Kyle Shanahan can’t untangle playoff shortcomings from ‘unusual’ 49ers QB situation

It wouldn’t be a 49ers offseason in the Kyle Shanahan era without a little bit of drama with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Robin Lundberg called the 49ers’ saga with quarterback Trey Lance a “weird situation.” Shanahan on Wednesday addressed that comment in a press conference.

The 49ers head coach ahead of Wednesday’s practice was asked if he pays attention to comments like Garoppolo’s and if he’s relieved the QB question marks are over for now. His response had three distinct parts that are all worth exploring.

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“I mean I try not to pay attention to outside of here,” Shanahan said. “I try to deal with the people in here that I have to deal with. I have felt very good about that.”

Shanahan has never indicated any kind of fracture in his relationship with any player while they’ve been in the building. Even throughout the Garoppolo saga between 2021 and this offseason he, at least publicly, maintained a good relationship with the quarterback.

Next, he talked about Lance’s introductory press availability with Cowboys media.

“I did see Trey,” Shanahan said. “I was happy watching him actually while I was eating lunch with his press conference in Dallas and Trey is as real as it gets and that’s how he talks in here. That’s how he is every day. So, it’s cool to see him handle that the right way and he did seem genuinely kind of happy and I feel he’s in a good position to move on and do better there.”

If the 49ers or Shanahan held any animosity toward Lance it would be entirely their own fault. Lance has handled his entire situation with aplomb and had nothing but good things to say about the 49ers when he met with the media in Dallas. Perhaps that wasn’t the best possible spot the 49ers could’ve sent the young QB, but Lance appears to be happy and Shanahan appears to be happy for him. That’s nice.

Finally, he addressed Garoppolo.

“Jimmy, the comments are the comments,” Shanahan said. “I’m really not concerned about his comments.”

Fair enough! That’s another team’s quarterback making a statement about a 49ers QB room he no longer belongs to. If Shanahan was fretting over something a player on another team said he likely wouldn’t be a head coach for very long.

Shanahan has kept up a good public relationship with Garoppolo, and ripping him now that he’s in another uniform wouldn’t make much sense.

While the head coach might not be concerned about Garoppolo’s comments, the former 49ers QB didn’t say anything that was necessarily wrong. The QB room in Santa Clara has never been particularly stable.

In 2017 there were questions about their long-term options at the position, but then they acquired Garoppolo via trade, he went 5-0 as a starter and earned a long-term contract that offseason.

In 2018 Garoppolo tore his ACL, and in 2019 there was about as much stability as the team has had under center with Garoppolo starting all 16 games and taking the team to the Super Bowl.

Things got weird in 2020 when Garoppolo got hurt twice and the 49ers followed up their trip to the Super Bowl by missing the playoffs.

In 2021 they traded up to No. 3 in the draft to pick Lance, but kept Garoppolo. That entire offseason the conversation was dominated by questions over Lance’s role in the offense.

Then in 2022 Garoppolo wound up restructuring his contract to stay in San Francisco after offseason surgery kept the team from trading him. Lance started the season and got hurt in Week 2. Garoppolo took over and got hurt in Week 13. Then Brock Purdy, the final pick of the draft, stepped in and went undefeated until the NFC championship game when he tore his UCL.

That led to more questions in the 2023 offseason with Purdy’s availability up in the air, Lance’s readiness still in question, and Sam Darnold joining the mix.

It is, without question, unique. Some might call it weird. It’s at least been unstable.

Shanahan was pressed by NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco. Here’s their exchange via a transcript provided by the 49ers:

Maiocco: “Do you feel any relief? Do you sense that this kind of era of lots of changing is over?”

Shanahan: “The era of changing is, when we got here, we waited 10 weeks and made a trade for a quarterback, played five games and then we made him the highest paid quarterback of all time at the time. Then he played two of the next five years and did really good in those two years. His injuries for three of those five years were legit. It was rough on him, rough on us. Then we made a move to go to a younger quarterback and that’s what we did. We thought he’d be ready in two years and he wasn’t. And now we have a different younger quarterback. So that’s the situation.”

Maiocco: “Jimmy did say it’s been a weird situation over here, obviously it’s not the way you drew it up, but can you acknowledge it?”

Shanahan: “I think anytime you trade up to the third pick in the draft and it doesn’t work out, that’s a weird situation, but that is the situation. So that’s what happened. I don’t think it’s that weird. It’s unusual that it doesn’t work out, but I wouldn’t think that’s weird. I think that’s unusual. What do you think?”

Maiocco: “You look back at Jimmy at the fact that he said goodbye the day after that one season’s over and all the things that happened with him physically, he comes back, he’s on the side field and ends up re-signing and starting and it just seems like it’s been unique.”

Shanahan: “Do you remember why that happened?”

Maiocco: “I remember why everything happened, but I’m just saying it’s been a unique situation.”

Shanahan: “I agree it’s been unique.”

First off, weird and unique mean the same thing so this is a head coach sidestepping a question by trying to cling to semantics that don’t really help his case. Alas, that’s not the point.

This is a tough spot for Shanahan because he’s trying to avoid the negative connotation that comes with “weird,” but it’s ultimately unavoidable. He’s entering his seventh season as the 49ers’ head coach and his two cracks at landing a franchise quarterback have fallen flat. First with Garoppolo and then with Lance. Now the team believes they may have a franchise signal caller who was the final pick in the draft.

Pick a synonym for “weird,” and the 49ers QB situation heading into 2023 has been that over nearly a decade under Shanahan.

Now, from Shanahan’s perspective it’s understandable if he’s frustrated. His huge trade up for Lance fell flat and ended with a concession that led the team to deal him for a fourth-round pick before he could begin his third season. That’s an abject failure from the organization and one Shanahan accepted responsibility for after the team’s preseason finale.

“I will always feel like I let Trey down,” Shanahan said Friday. “I mean, I wanted him to come here. I believe in Trey. I believed in him before we took him and I’m responsible for that.”

Now the team has made its cuts and has started ramping up for the regular-season opener in less than two weeks. They’re also going into the year as a Super Bowl favorite with one of the NFL’s best rosters.

Of course the head coach would rather focus on that than talking about the team’s tumult at the game’s most important position under his watch.

Of course the head coach wants credit for going to back-to-back NFC title games and making the playoffs in three of the last four years after taking over one of the NFL’s most decrepit rosters six seasons ago.

That’s part of the reason this is all so strange though. Typically a team that whiffs on a swing for a franchise quarterback sees a significant downturn. They lose at enough of a rate that the coach gets fired. The 49ers have won through the roller coaster though and given Shanahan a unique level of job security. Surely he’d rather focus on the success than the mistakes.

Unfortunately for Shanahan that’s not how things work in the modern NFL when finding a franchise quarterback is viewed as imperative to winning a championship. For all of Shanahan’s successes as a head coach, he doesn’t have a Lombardi trophy to his name. It’s impossible not to dissociate those two things. Had the team hit on a franchise QB with either Garoppolo or Lance, they might have a championship (or two) now.

Shanahan’s inability to find that player – and with playcalling duties and the personnel power he has the onus does fall on him – has been the biggest reason the 49ers don’t have a championship under his guidance, and that will continue to mar his impressive resumé no matter what word he wants to use to describe the QB situation.

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