What quarterback controversy? Niners Shanahan is loving this

Emerging rookie Trey Lance gives head coach options going into crucial matchup

By Mychael Urban

Special to The Examiner

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan has a bit of a quarterback quandary on his hands. And he seems to be enjoying it.

The way everything went down last Sunday in Santa Clara, it could not have been more perfect from Shanahan’s perspective. Rookie Trey Lance, the overall No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft but still something of a mystery to us all, was nudged into his second career start when starter Jimmy Garoppolo was held out with a thumb injury. The rookie played well, guiding the team to a 23-7 win over the Texans. Now, it’s down to one game left and the playoffs on the line against the Rams this weekend.

It’s anyone’s guess who will start at quarterback for that huge game, but Shanahan has options. Such as Trey Lance.

Lance’s first career start, a loss to Kyler Murray and the once-thriving Cardinals back in Week 5, was underwhelming at best. There were flashes, but we’d already seen flashes. What we hadn’t seen was a young man capable of running his own huddle, his own show.

“Oh, you can see it coming,” said Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle, who caught six passes for 101 yards and a touchdown that day. “Lance is legit. He’s young. He’s inexperienced. Fine. But he’s smart, he works his butt off, and if you can’t see the talent, I don’t know where you’re looking. He’s gonna be a beast.”

Still, that 17-10 loss did almost nothing to suggest “The Future” had arrived. The loss to Arizona was the Niners’ third in a row after opening the season with a couple of nice road wins. Suddenly the tide shifted back toward Jimmy G that day, tempering the call to put Lance in as the full-time starter.

And that’s probably the best thing that could have happened — for everyone involved. Very little of Shanahan’s time was spent addressing the QB situation in the following weeks, mostly because Jimmy G came back and did what he’s done since his arrival: impress, confound and win.

Garoppolo understood his situation entirely and decided to embrace it rather than resist.

This past Sunday, as Lance found his footing at Levi’s Stadium, Garoppolo was in the rookie’s ear on the sideline, pumping him up with encouragement after less-than-stellar possessions.

There were some cringey moments, for sure. Lance’s interception in the first half was bad. Really bad. And Shanahan made sure he, and we, knew it. That was the beauty of Sunday’s game from the head coach’s perspective.

Lance played well, but not too well. Certainly not well enough to just hijack Jimmy G’s job, but plenty well enough to command the attention of all potential future foes and game-planners.

And with Lance now looking like a solid future option, Shanahan has already started a subtle campaign of subversion and misdirection, and he might just sneak in some explosives here and there. Very much like the 49ers’ offense, when it’s at its best.

Does anyone outside the Niners’ inner circle really know what Shanahan’s thinking? Is there a certain sense of loyalty to Garoppolo? Or is the coach secretly burning to take Lance out on the open road for some Sunday afternoon exhilaration? Did Shanahan ever really plan on going with a platoon at the game’s most important position, as he suggested early this season?

“I know we talked about getting them both out there (in the same game),” but that was preseason,” Shanahan said last Wednesday, when it became pretty clear that Garoppolo’s thumb was a no-go. “But a platoon-type of thing, no. You can’t game-plan that. You game-plan based on the guy you want taking most of the snaps.”

You catch that? “Most of” the snaps. Not “all of” the snaps. That’s the genius of this ambiguous situation, and Shanahan is loving it.

We might never really know what his perfect-world scenario was heading into training camp this summer, but we saw Shanahan’s patented “I-know-something-you-don’t” look Sunday night, and that’s typically a precursor to some smart, creative and ton-of-fun football. Sunday gave him options galore for Week 18 and beyond.

Here’s what we do know:

Shanahan seems to get a kick out of being a bit of a mystery man, so this is right up his alley. He’s keeping things relatively murky on the heels of Lance’s solid showing. He’s trying to come off as unequivocally in Jimmy’s corner as his starter (“if he’s 100 percent”), while just as emphatically leaving himself a handy escape route by noting that “nobody’s 100 percent this late in the season.” Shanahan is wisely forcing the Rams and his buddy Sean McVay’s defensive coaches and leaders to prepare for virtually everything.

As a result, L.A. needs to plan for:

1. Two different starting QBs, with two very different skill sets.

2. A legitimate QB platoon/rotation based on the hottest hand and maximum matchup exploitation.

3. Some form of wildcat formation. (Might we see Jimmy and Lance lining up side-by-side in the red zone?)

Sunday made it awfully clear that Shanahan intends to have some fun with this quarterback thing. Lance cheerfully conceded that he’s just keeping the spot warm for Jimmy’s return. And Garoppolo’s taken the kid under his wing.

Is anything about this picture troubling? Not from this angle. Things seem to be settling in nicely. Don’t look away.

Mychael Urban is a freelance contributor to The Examiner. He has been covering Bay Area sports for more than 30 years.

The downturn persists

Examiner analysis reveals that San Francisco’s economy has a long road to recovery

It’s the Year of the S.F. Recall — but who pays and who benefits politically?

Recalls may become more frequent and contribute to political destabilization