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Inside the 49ers

Making sense of the 49ers plan at quarterback

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) against the Seattle Seahawks during an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

No sports topic has garnered more attention in the Bay Area in 2021 than the 49ers quarterback position.

So much has been talked and written about that it’s difficult to remember what the 49ers plan for the position was, or if they even had one at all.

Using the words and actions of the team, let’s piece together what’s happened over the last 10 months, starting on Jan. 4, 2021.

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During their end-of-season press conference, general manager John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan were asked if there was any concern about the quarterback position going into the offseason. “Kyle and I both have spoken and spoken fairly directly as to the fact that we expect Jimmy to be our quarterback,” responded Lynch.

What’s important to remember is Jimmy Garoppolo was the only quarterback under contract for the 49ers going into the 2021 season. The contracts of backups Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard were expiring, and both would become free agents. As you’ll see, it was necessary for Lynch and Shanahan to show support for Garoppolo.

Plan A – Upgrade

The 49ers support of Garoppolo almost didn’t make it past January. During the Senior Bowl, reports began to surface that Detroit was looking to trade Matthew Stafford. It wasn’t long until the 49ers were linked to the Pro Bowl signal caller.

Kyle Shanahan confirmed the 49ers interest in trading for Stafford during an interview on the Flying Coach podcast with Peter Schrager and Sean McVay.

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“That was frustrating,” Shanahan said. “Everyone was telling me it was a possibility, and Stafford is the man. I studied him hard coming out of college, and we played against him, so we know how good he is.”

Stafford wasn’t the only upgrade the 49ers looked at. DeShaun Watson requested a trade from the Houston Texans after the team kept Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy off their initial list of coaches who would interview for the team’s head-coaching vacancy.

San Francisco was one of two teams the quarterback reportedly preferred to play for. While there was interest from the 49ers, the option of trading for Watson would go away when he became embroiled in 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct.

Plan B – Cheap veteran and draft a quarterback

With the top two quarterbacks off the market, the 49ers set their sights on acquiring a cheap veteran option to replace Jimmy Garoppolo and drafting their quarterback of the future.

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As free agency started up, San Francisco would reportedly meet with Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton along with expressing interest in Mitchell Trubisky. The 49ers would end up missing out on all three, Flacco signed with Philadelphia, Dalton with Chicago and Trubisky with Buffalo.

The only free agent willing to come to San Francisco was former Eagle, Nate Sudfeld. He would join Garoppolo and Josh Rosen in the 49ers quarterback room.

The 49ers didn’t limit their pursuit of quarterbacks to only free agents during this time. The team reached out to the New York Jets about Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers on Teddy Bridgewater and Jacksonville Jaquars on Gardner Minshew. Ultimately, the team would decide the trade capital it would take to bring in any of these options wasn’t worth making the move.

Plan C – Keep Jimmy Garoppolo and trade up to draft a quarterback

Unable to find a replacement, the 49ers decide to stick with Garoppolo. But they aren’t done with trying to upgrade the position.

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On March 26, San Francisco sent shockwaves through the NFL, trading their 2021 first-round pick along with their first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and a third-round pick in 2022 to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for the third pick in the 2021 draft.

San Francisco had been looking to upgrade their quarterback room all offseason, and this move left little doubt what direction they would be going on draft night.

With the third pick the 49ers would draft Trey Lance, making him their quarterback of the future. This is where things take an interesting twist.

According to an excerpt from Seth Wickersham’s book, “It’s Better To Be Feared,” as the New England Patriots pick arrived they would make an informal call to the 49ers see what the price for Jimmy Garoppolo would be. It is important to note that the author never mentions an offer being made to the 49ers or even that New England had mentioned what they would be willing to give up.

The 49ers were set on taking nothing less than a first for Garoppolo as they were counting on him for 2021.

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Even had an offer been discussed, it would have made sense for San Francisco to turn down anything less than a first round pick at that time. This should be clear when you look at where the 49ers were with the position at the time and the history of the position under the current regime.

With all other options exhausted by this point, having Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance and either Nate Sudfeld or Josh Rosen in the quarterback room was a much better option than Lance, Sudfeld and Rosen.

To better illustrate the 49ers position, consider Kyle Shanahan’s response during a press conference on March 29 when he was asked how the 49ers would act if they received a trade offer for Garoppolo that just blew the team away.

“Yeah, that’s accurate with every player on our team. I mean, probably including myself. If someone blows us away with a trade for me, I bet you John would trade me. I mean, definitely. We’re in a situation where when you bring in a rookie quarterback, to me, it’s always better, especially on the team that you have, if you’ve got a veteran starter there already who you like and you’re comfortable winning with. That’s usually the direction you want to go and not throw someone else out into the fire until they’re fully ready. That’s the situation we’re at. When you look at free agency, if it goes the other way around and you do things differently, maybe. But right now, Jimmy, it’s going to be hard to find a quarterback that gives us a better chance to win than Jimmy right now, especially even a rookie in the draft. So, that’s what you look into. Now, if someone wanted something for that and it can make your team better in a lot of other ways, you listen to that, but also depends on how good you feel about that rookie. We’re not there yet right now and odds are, we probably won’t be. That’s why we’re happy that we don’t have to be that way. We’ve got a guy in here who we know we can win with, a guy that our players love, that we love and we’re excited to have him this year and we’re excited to have a hell of a quarterback right behind him learning for when the time is his.”

Where things stand now

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Kyle Shanahan was steadfast throughout the offseason and training camp that Garoppolo would be the 49ers starting quarterback, and other than injury, that has been the case. How long before Lance replaces Garoppolo is the question.

After Garoppolo injured his calf in a week four loss to Seattle, Lance made his first NFL start against the Arizona Cardinals the following week, and it appears that he may have started against Indianapolis on Sunday if he had not suffered a knee injury.

“I think it was really unfortunate that, at the time he got to play, I thought he was ready to take off a little bit after that getting that experience,” Shanahan told reporters on Wednesday. “I thought that that was going to be great for him to come back the next week, especially with Jimmy banged up a little bit, but he had an unfortunate injury and it’s lasting a little longer than expected.”

With the 49ers currently 2-4 and their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, Garoppolo is expected to make the start on Sunday against the Chicago Bears. If San Francisco can find a way to stop their four-game losing streak, I would expect to see them continue with Garoppolo. However, a loss would pretty much drop San Francisco out of playoff contention which could finally make it time for Lance to take over as the quarterback.

Jimmy Garoppolo made the first start of his 49ers career in Chicago. He may make his last there as well.

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Can the 49ers get back to .500? 5 questions to watch for against Arizona

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San Francisco 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo (10) waits to take the field before an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

The reeling 49ers desperately needed a win last week, and they got just what the doctor ordered with a 33-22 victory over the Bears in Chicago.

Now, San Francisco returns home still looking for their first win at Levi’s Stadium in over a year when they host the 7-1 Cardinals. After the win over the Bears, the mood around this team has shifted quickly from “tear it all down” to “playoffs?!” with the 49ers potentially moving into the newly added third wild card spot.

With a 49ers victory on Sunday, coupled with a Panthers loss to the Patriots and a Vikings loss to the Ravens, San Francisco will take over the final position in the NFC playoffs at the mid-point of the season.

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Here are my five questions to watch out for on Sunday.

1. Can Jimmy Garoppolo back up his performance against Chicago?

In the 49ers first matchup with the Cardinals this season, it was rookie Trey Lance making his first start of his career.

In the rematch, it will be Jimmy Garoppolo running the offense.

Coming off one of his best starts since 2019 in Chicago last week, Jimmy Garoppolo will face a team that he has been very successful against so far in his career.

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Garoppolo has won three of his four starts against the Arizona Cardinals and thrown the for the most yards and touchdowns against them of opponent he has faced. In four games, Garoppolo has completed 105 of 148 pass attempts for 1,264 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.

2. Can the 49ers take advantage of the Arizona run defense?

The Arizona defense comes into the game on Sunday ranked second worst in the NFL against the run, allowing 4.9 yards per rushing attempt.

When these two teams last faced off, the 49ers were able to gain 152 yards rushing on 28 attempts. However, 16 of those carries came from 49ers quarterback Trey Lance and the offense struggled to get into sync.

With Garoppolo behind center this week, look for the 49ers to go back to their conventional run game. Last week, they were able to run through a better Chicago Bears defense for 145 yards and three touchdowns on only 26 attempts.

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Arizona will be without veteran defensive lineman J.J. Watt on Sunday. In the first matchup, Watt dominated against Mike McGlinchey, shutting several plays down with solid penetration.

For the 49ers, running back Elijah Mitchell is listed as questionable with a rib injury suffered last week. Mitchell currently leads the 49ers in rushing with 433 yards. If he is unable to go, the team may turn to veteran Jeff Wilson Jr. Wilson returned to practice this week for the first time this season and Kyle Shanahan hinted on Friday that his status could depend on where or not Mitchell would be able to go.

3. How will the return of George Kittle impact the 49ers offense?

After missing the last three games with an injury, George Kittle will return to the field on Sunday.

This is a familiar situation for Kittle who last season returned from missing six games to face Arizona. In that week 16 contest a year ago, Kittle made his presence felt with 92 receiving yards on four catches. With Deebo Samuel nursing a calf injury, which is worse this week than last according to Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers could use a similar impact from Kittle on Sunday.

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While Kittles’ last touchdown reception came more than a year ago, he is the best run blocking tight end in the NFL, and his presence on the field should provide a boost for the 49ers running game.

4. Who will be the quarterback for Arizona?

Kyler Murray has yet to practice this week for Arizona due to an ankle injury suffered against the Green Bay Packers. The Cardinals have listed Murray as questionable for Sunday.

If Murray is unable to go, Arizona will turn to veteran Colt McCoy.

While not having to face Murray would provide a big advantage for the 49ers defense, they need to be careful.
Replacing the starting quarterback is nothing new for McCoy. Last season as a member of the New York Giants, McCoy led the Giants to a 17-12 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle.

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5. Can the 49ers offense hold onto the football?

The Cardinal’s defense has been among the best in the NFL this season at creating turnovers and the 49ers offense is among the worst at avoiding them.

Arizona has forced a turnover in all but two of their eight games so far this season. Those two games have been their tightest contests, a one-point victory over Minnesota in week two and their loss last week to Green Bay.

On the flip side, the 49ers have not turned the ball over in only two games, victories at Philadelphia and Chicago.

Prediction:

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49ers 23 Cardinals 16



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How the 49ers were able to take down Chicago

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San Francisco 49ers cornerback Josh Norman (26) intercepts a Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields’ pass intended for wide receiver Darnell Mooney (11) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in Chicago. The 49ers won 33-22. (AP Photo/David Banks)

The San Francisco 49ers (3-4) put an end to their four-game losing streak with a 33-22 victory at Soldier Field over the Chicago Bears. With the victory, the 49ers kept their playoff hopes alive.

Unlike a week ago, the 49ers were able to clean up most of their self-inflicted wounds. Let’s look back at some of the key plays from Sunday’s game.

First Quarter, 3rd and 10, San Francisco 33

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After a drop by Deebo Samuel and incompletion on a deep throw to Brando Aiyuk, the 49ers face their first third down of the game.

Garoppolo is able to beat the Chicago blitz, even with a somewhat free rusher in his face, delivering a strike to Mohamed Sanu over the middle.

This play really shows off Garoppolo’s early release, starting his throwing motion well before Sanu gets to the top of his break. While the Joey Slye would eventually miss the field goal on this drive, the big play was a sign of things to come.

First Quarter, 1st and 10, San Francisco 25

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San Francisco was able to dominate on the ground, especially when running to the left side, and it showed up early.
On the opening play of the 49ers second possession, Elijah Mitchell took a toss from Jimmy Garoppolo and broke free for an explosive run of 26-yards. Charlie Woerner and Kyle Juszczyk get the play started with a kickout block on the outside linebacker. Meanwhile, Trent Williams and Alex Mack get up to the linebackers at the second level and seal them off, and Deebo Samuel gets downfield to block the safety.

The 49ers would come back to this later in the game when they needed a big play, and Mitchell would rip off gains of 27 and 39 yards to seal the victory.

Second Quarter, 2nd and 11, San Francisco 24

Chicago is in man coverage with a single free safety in the middle of the field, and their secondary does a good job early in the play.

The 49ers offensive line does a good job protecting the quarterback, but with nobody open downfield, Garoppolo escapes the pocket out to his left. Brandon Aiyuk sees this and mirrors Garoppolo, who finds the receiver open for a gain of 23 yards.

This is the type of pocket presence and ability to make throws on the run that San Francisco needs to see on a more consistent basis from Garoppolo to be successful on offense.

Third Quarter, 3rd and 20, San Francisco 15

San Francisco opened the second half facing a tough third and long situation following a block in the back penalty on Kyle Juszczyk and an incompletion from Garoppolo to Charlie Woerner.

The play is a simple screen to Deebo Samuel on the left side, and while he gets credit for the 84 yards, the execution by his teammates is flawless. The first blocks which set the play up are a kickout by Juszczyk and a seal by Trent Williams, both tough blocks out in space.

Brandon Aiyuk then makes a nice block on the cornerback, and Samuel is off to the races where we find Alex Mack making another key block. That is a 35-year-old center getting 20 yards downfield to make a block.

Mohamed Sanu screens off the last Bears defender and Samuel gets all the way to the Chicago one yard line before being caught from behind.

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This type of teamwork shows up all over the 49ers offensive film from Sunday.

Fourth Quarter, 3rd and 11, Chicago 40

Wrapping this up with a defensive play.

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With San Francisco holding on to an eight-point lead, Chicago moves the ball out near midfield. That is when free agent acquisition Samson Ebukam comes up with his biggest play to date as a member of the 49ers.

On this play, the 49ers have three defensive ends on the field, Nick Bosa, Arden Key and Ebukam with Key and Ebukam both lined up on the right side. Ebukam takes a hard inside rush with Key twisting around to secure the outside and is able to bring Chicago quarterback Justin Fields down for a sack.

This was only the second Chicago possession of the game that did not result in points. Their final possession would end with an interception by Josh Norman.





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5 questions the 49ers must answer against Indianapolis

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Coming off their bye week, the San Francisco 49ers will look to end their three-game losing streak when they host the India

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Quinton Patton during action against the New Orleans Saints during an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, in Santa Clara, CA. The Saints pummeled the Niners 41-23. (Daniel Gluskoter/AP Images for Panini)

napolis Colts on Sunday night. This marks the return of former 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to Santa Clara for the first time since he was traded following the 2019 season.

Here are the five questions I am looking for answers to during this game.

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1. Can the 49ers’ offensive line spoil the homecoming of DeForest Buckner?

When San Francisco decided to trade Buckner to Indianapolis they lost a lot more than just his on-field production. Jimmie Ward was asked earlier this week about his feelings on the trade, “You know what Buckner brought to this team. He was the heart and soul when he was here,” said Ward. “We ended up getting Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk, but we lost a leader on this defense, on this team, in this building.”

Buckner is ready to face his former teammates, “It’s a little personal if you want to say that,” Buckner said when asked about his emotions heading into Sunday night.

On the field, Buckner has been a force on the Colts’ defense. In 2020 he was named first-team All-Pro, and Buckner this season he again ranks among the league’s best. He’s fifth among defensive tackles with 28 stops and has two sacks.

Buckner will provide quite a challenge for a 49ers offensive line that has struggled along with the interior, especially center Alex Mack and right guard Daniel Brunskill. Both Mack and Brunskill struggle to generate movement in the run game and get beat often in pass protection. If those two don’t step up on Sunday night, Buckner could make it a long night for the 49er’s offense.

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2. Will Jimmy Garoppolo make a strong return?

After missing the second half of the 49er’s loss to Seattle and the Arizona game with an injured calf, Jimmy Garoppolo will return to the starting lineup on Sunday night.

The forecast calls for rain throughout the game on Sunday night, marking the first game in the rain at Levi’s Stadium since the 49ers hosted the Seattle Seahawks in week 12 of the 2017 season. What’s notable about that game is it marked the debut of Garoppolo with the 49ers. In an otherwise dreary game, Garoppolo would thrill the home crowd with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy on his second throw in a 49ers uniform.

San Francisco’s most recent game in conditions similar to what is expected on Sunday night came in 2019 when they faced Washington in a downpour. The 49ers would come out on top 9-0 and Garoppolo would go 12-21, 151 yards and an interception. Garoppolo will need to improve on that performance to come out on top against Indianapolis.

3. Can the 49ers’ offense generate explosive plays?

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When fullback Kyle Juszczyk was asked Thursday about the issues facing the 49ers run game, his response actually could help explain why the entire offense has struggled to generate points in 2021.

“I feel like that’s what defines this league and makes great offenses is when you see these explosive plays. It’s tough in this league to go up and down the field, 10-12 play drives, and consistently do that and go score touchdowns,” said Juszczyk.

The San Francisco offense currently ranks 28th in the NFL in explosive plays. Explosive plays are defined as runs that gain 10 or more yards or passes that gain 15 or more yards. Only 8% of the 49ers’ 315 plays meet that criterion. A far cry from 2019 when the offense ranked second in this category at 13%. This drop represents three explosive plays per game less in 2021.

While the running game has seen a drop of approximately one per game from the 2019 level, it’s the passing game that has been most impacted. In 2019, 12% of 49ers’ pass plays went for 15 yards or more. That number has dropped to only 7% this season.

To bridge the gap the 49ers don’t necessarily need to push the ball down the field more in the passing game. Rather, they need to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers by any means possible. Finding ways to get more touches for an explosive player like Brandon Aiyuk should be the primary focus of the 49er’s offense over the next 12 weeks.

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4. Can the 49ers defense contain Jonathan Taylor?

Speaking of explosive plays, Colts running back Jonathan Taylor is one of the best in the NFL. Through the first six weeks of the season 19.5% of Taylor’s rushing attempts have gained 10 or more yards, the second-year player is averaging just under three per game.

San Francisco’s run defense has been a little hot and cold this season, however, they’ve done a better job in recent weeks of limiting the big plays on the ground. With the weather conditions calling for rain, the 49ers’ defense could face a steady dose of Taylor throughout the game and will need to limit the big runs.

5. Will the 49ers defense get to Carson Wentz?

For the second season in a row, the 49ers will face Wentz at Levi’s Stadium. Last year Wentz led the Philadelphia Eagles a 28-18 victory over San Francisco. In that Sunday night contest, Wentz opened the scoring with an 11-yard touchdown run and later hit Travis Fulgham with a 42-yard touchdown pass to give the Eagles a lead which they would not relinquish.

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Wentz was traded to Indianapolis this offseason, and after a slow start to the season has begun to turn things around. Over the last four weeks,

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Quinton Patton during action against the New Orleans Saints during an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, in Santa Clara, CA. The Saints pummeled the Niners 41-23. (Daniel Gluskoter/AP Images for Panini)
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Quinton Patton during action against the New Orleans Saints during an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, in Santa Clara, CA. The Saints pummeled the Niners 41-23. (Daniel Gluskoter/AP Images for Panini)

Wentz has gone 79-124, 1,047 yards, and six touchdowns with no interceptions while leading the Colts to a 2-2 record.

The top target for Wentz has been Michael Pittman Jr. The second-year receiver from USC already has nearly the same numbers as he did during his rookie season and should draw plenty of attention from the 49ers secondary.

Prediction:

49ers 17 Colts 16



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