49ers may need to take long-term view when deciding on starting QB vs. Rams
The 49ers are in something of a nightmare scenario going into their must-win season finale against the Rams. They have a question mark under center, and they’re unlikely to get any certainty by Sunday. With starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo nursing a ligament tear in the thumb on his throwing hand, and rookie quarterback Trey Lance working on limited experience, San Francisco has a conundrum on who to start in Los Angeles. One way to solve the problem may be to look further down the road.
One guarantee in this scenario is that Garoppolo will start if the 49ers believe he’s healthy enough to do so effectively. He’s been their starting quarterback when healthy for 17 weeks – that isn’t changing in Week 18. However, the chances Lance starts grow exponentially if Garoppolo is limited in some way.
Given the nature of Garoppolo’s injury and the potential issues that could arise from it, it’s feasible that after Thursday’s practice where Garoppolo was limited again that the 49ers view the pros and cons of starting him or Lance as essentially a toss up.
That’s where the future comes into play. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and the coaching staff aren’t necessarily worried about next year. They’re worried about doing what’s best for their chances to beat the Rams and punch their ticket to the playoffs. However, getting Lance some experience could certainly be something that tips the club in his direction.
It would be his third-career start, against a good defense, on the road, in what is virtually a must-win game for the 49ers. If they’re rolling the dice with either a compromised Garoppolo or inexperienced Lance, why not get the rookie some valuable experience that could be helpful next year when the team figures to be competing for the playoffs again? There was clear growth between his first start in Week 5 and his second start in Week 17. There was also growth within the Week 17 game against the Texans. The rookie showed enough to warrant the benefit of the doubt that getting more live reps against the Rams will ultimately accelerate his growth.
They made it clear in March that Lance is the future when they traded three first-round picks and a third-round pick to move up in the draft to get him. 2021 on the surface has been about making the playoffs and pushing for a championship. Bubbling loudly underneath though was the ongoing development of Lance. This is an opportunity to marry those two things in a way not a lot of teams typically get to do. It’s threading the needle between short-term wins and Lance’s long-term development, and it comes with Garoppolo getting hurt, which was part of the reason the team wanted to upgrade the quality of his backup this offseason.
Presumably Lance will be the team’s undoubted, No. 1 QB in five months when the team arrives for OTAs. Letting him take a crack at sending the team to the playoffs would simply set that plan in motion a few weeks before they wanted it to, and it would come at the expense of playing a quarterback with a significant injury. The reward outweighs the risk and kickstarts the next phase of a season-long development plan.
If Garoppolo on Sunday is hampered even a little bit by his thumb, Lance should be the starter and it shouldn’t be a particularly difficult call with the long view considered.