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MMQB: The 49ers’ QB Competition According to Shanahan, Garoppolo and Lance

Plus, training camp stops with the Lions, Cardinals and Browns, Josh Allen’s contract, under-the-radar training camp stars and more!

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Kyle Shanahan didn’t think he’d be here this fast, nor did anyone else in the 49ers building.

Two months ago, the coach sent his team off for summer break thinking Jimmy Garoppolo had really responded to a tumultuous offseason, and rookie Trey Lance, whose acquisition was the primary source of that tumult, had a long way to go. When they got back, six weeks had passed. Things had changed.

“I can tell [Lance] put himself in position to play this year with what he did in the 40 days away,” Shanahan said in a quiet moment after Wednesday practice. “You get a guy for OTAs, they come in after rookie camp—and OTAs wasn’t like past OTAs, we didn’t do 10 practices, we didn’t do the minicamp, the reps we had were all cut in half because of everything going on—and he was just trying to take everything in. He looked like a rookie quarterback. You could see the talent. Then they get away for 40 days and you wonder how he’d use that.

Did it overwhelm him? Did he go over the right stuff? We didn’t see him at all, but I know he was working his butt off. And you come in and you want to see how efficient he was, and how he was working. And the crispness in him picking up stuff compared to OTAs, it was like, Alright, this guy can take it all in, he can learn. And now each day, we keep adding more stuff, and we’re doing it to the whole team, but he’s handling it a lot better than OTAs.”

Two days later, Shanahan stirred the NFL news cycle by conceding, in a press conference with the local media, that Lance was going to play in some capacity in 2021.

I don’t know how this will all play out. But I can say this—he wasn’t just throwing that out there. And the impression Lance is making here amounts to a whole lot more than press-conference soundbites and social-media sizzle reels. Shanahan said it because Lance has earned his way into the on-field equation for the 2021 Niners.

The next question, of course, is in what capacity Lance will be playing. The question after that would be what the result of all this means for Garoppolo. Meanwhile, the underlying truth is: Lance competing to get on the field would make this—yup—a quarterback competition. And it is, sort of.

“I think it’s gonna be tough for [Lance] to win the job, just in terms of it being two different styles of quarterbacks, and maybe a little different style of offense for both of them,” Shanahan says. “I’d be very surprised if he did with the way Jimmy’s playing. It’d put a lot on a kid to do that. He’s doing everything he can. I’m very impressed with him so far, but I’d be very surprised if that happened.”

In there, lurks the biggest takeaway from my time with Shanahan the other day. It’d be a mistake to look at what’s happening in San Francisco as you would a conventional race for a quarterbacking job almost anywhere else, and that’s because he’s not looking at the decision he’ll have to make as binary. As he sees it, he’s got more than two options on the table. And that makes this as fascinating a situation as there is in the NFL this summer.

My two-week camp swing is complete, and my notebook is full, so there’s plenty to get to on the second Monday of August. In the MMQB this week …

• A look at how the Lions have prioritized getting their environment right.

• Checking in with a more vocal Kyler Murray in Arizona.

• A different type of Browns camp.

And a whole lot more. But we’re kicking things off with a Niners team loaded for bear, that has one very big question to answer.


The Niners open the regular season in 34 days in Detroit, and that was one thing that interested me about Shanahan’s comment on running separate versions of his offense for Garoppolo and Lance—something that’s natural, with skill sets that mesh with the coach’s well-worn scheme differently. At some point soon, I reasoned, Shanahan would probably have to make a decision on which version of his offense he’d want to run by picking a quarterback. And he’d not just do it for the good of the quarterbacks, but also the other 10 guys in the huddle. Then I realized Shanahan doesn’t really look at it that way at all.

“I think I can ride it out week-in and week-out, personally,” he says. “I think our guys trust us to make the right decision. It’s cool being in a building where no one has an agenda, whether it’s me, the GM, the owner. Everyone’s on the same page, there’s no pressure—Hey, you have to do this or You have to do that. And our players know that too, that’s what’s great about our place here. When players know you’re on the same page with the personnel department, with the owner, then they don’t really care. They just want to win.

“And I think when this is all said and done, there’s gonna be two guys they believe will help us win and I think they’ll trust us to make that decision, whether it’s permanently, for one game, for a series or just a situation. We gotta balance that out right, though. It’s tough to do, but it is as easy as ‘How do you win the game?’”

Which is to say, yes, Shanahan would feel comfortable playing matchup ball with his QBs.

“Yeah, I do,” he continued. “And the hardest thing is articulating it to you guys. Which I get. But I really try to keep as simple as what gives us the best chance right now to win. And I think our players trust that I’m like that. I think our quarterbacks trust that I’m like that. You can disagree, but it’s hard to take it personally when it’s like that. I hope we’ve got the right guys, the right team, and if they both keep getting better; it should be a good problem for me.”

Garoppolo has close to four years, and 30 starts, 22 of them wins, in the system on his side, plus the dynamics of a roster built to win right now—one that might be less tolerant of enduring the inevitable bumps a rookie quarterback is going to put a team through. He isn’t there yet, but Lance has what could be a real ability to play the position from the pocket, even if the overall package is still a little raw.

Add the two together and, yup, Shanahan’s “good problem” is there, which is probably part of why he’s considering all his options, and not just two of them. For their part, the quarterbacks sound open to the idea, if a little curious just how it’d work.

“I’ve never been in a situation like that,” Garoppolo told me. “I think at any level of football, you get two quarterbacks playing, it’s tough. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. There is the whole Taysom Hill thing in New Orleans, they were doing a version of that. There is a place for it. It’s tough, but Kyle, he’s a revolutionary guy, he’s done some crazy s--- in the past, so you never know.”

Lance echoed his position-mate almost word-for-word, saying, “I’ve never been in a situation like that. But whatever Coach Shanahan thinks is best to help this team win, I’m for it.”

And since that could be a number of things, it’s worth taking stock on where the two really do stand with a little over a month until the Niners open the season in Detroit.

I asked Shanahan what convinced him that Lance was worth moving a jewelry case of draft capital and creating a potentially awkward quarterback situation for. The first thing that Shanahan did was reiterate that he and GM John Lynch weren’t sure then that the NDSU star would be the one. “I felt that way watching the tape on him early, like in January, just the playmaking ability … But I didn’t know the guy at all.”

Which, as you’ve heard by now, is why the Niners made the move a month before the draft.

“I just knew what I saw on tape,” Shanahan says. “And then getting to meet the guy, getting to talk to him, the Zooms, spending some time at their building, he was different. The type of person he is, the character he has, I knew it was the type of guy I wanted to coach—the person, not just the talent. And then I also know how good he’d be in this situation, with Jimmy being here, him coming in. And I knew how Jimmy treats him would be huge too.

“That’s why it’s a tough situation because everyone’s got a lot of pride. It’s a tough business. But when you’re honest with people and they know you, they might not agree with you, but they’ll respect the reasons I have and what I tell them. “

What’s cool is that it really doesn’t take a Shanahan to see the talent. At one point Wednesday, Lance took a shotgun snap and, with the rush bearing down, scrambled left, breaking the pocket. Then, as he approached the boundary, Lance flipped his hips, back-pedaled towards the sideline, and flicked his wrist, letting a ball lose like it came out of a JUGGS machine. From my view, right behind him, there was a tunnel of defenders and no receiver. The ball cut through that opening on a line, and found Brandon Aiyuk, streaking into a small window, between the 1s on his jersey, 25 yards downfield. The best way for me to describe it is Mahomesian. Or Favreian. Take your pick.

But that’s not why Lance has made this situation a little tougher on his coaches than they might’ve figured it’d be two months ago. It’s because of the aforementioned 40 days, which Lance spent chiefly in three places: Atlanta, North Dakota and Orange County.

The first two weeks of the break he was in Atlanta with Quincy Avery, one of his throwing coaches, working out with a group of receivers that included Mohamed Sanu, who played for Shanahan with the Falcons. Avery and Lance drilled down on the 21-year-old’s footwork, trying to match it with what the Niners coaches wanted, and Sanu gave him the receiver’s view of how the offense worked, and what he used to look for from Matt Ryan.

“Trey’s the most detailed guy I’ve ever worked with,” Avery says. “It’s a challenge to coach him because he’s such a perfectionist. He wants to be right every time.”

From there, Lance spent the week of the Fourth back in Fargo, working out with fellow ex-Bison quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Easton Stick. And then it was on to California for two weeks with John Beck, another mechanics coach. Beck and Lance worked pre-draft on Lance’s efficiency as a thrower (body positioning, eliminating wasted movement), but actually applying those lessons in 11-on-11 in the spring was a challenge.

So Beck—who played quarterback for Shanahan in Washington—helped Lance continue to build the requisite muscle memory, so things that were overly mechanical in the spring would become more reactionary in how he executed the offense the staff was teaching him.

“He’s such a smart kid,” Beck says. “You give him a coaching point and it just makes sense to him. He gets it and he wants it. It all comes back to how Trey’s working.”

The schedule varied some, but generally, Lance would throw in the morning, do speed work right after, then study at whatever hotel he was holed up in during the afternoon. And the proof in how diligent he was about that has come in how the work of those 40 days in the South, the Plains, and Southern California is being put on the field in the Bay Area now.

“I don’t remember the last time I had 40 days off from anything,” Lance says. “But it’s really just how you take it. And I wasn’t taking it as days off, it was days to get better. … I was just learning as much as I could. I didn’t feel like I could compete during OTAs, because I didn’t know enough. It’s real tough to compete if you don’t know what you’re doing fully. So my biggest thing is just getting as comfortable with the playbook and the footwork, the mental and physical sides of things, as I can, so I’d have that opportunity to compete.”

He’s got at least that now. But Garoppolo isn’t going to let the job slip easily.

There were points when Garoppolo let himself vent this offseason—his brothers were on the other side of that as sounding boards for some colorful conversations—and others where he created scenarios in his head that weren’t very realistic. And as you might imagine, a few he conjured up involved his exit from San Francisco.

“Oh, no doubt,” Garoppolo says. “Especially when they first told me, you started imagining situations that aren’t even possible. It crossed my mind at one point. But I didn’t want to do that. I like it here. I like the people. I like the teammates that I’m around. It’s kind of where—I don’t want to say it’s where my career started, but as a starter this is where it was. These players, these teammates, I wouldn’t trade them for the world. I love these guys.”

Still, the noise persisted for months, and one particularly juicy storyline was unavoidable for the 29-year-old quarterback. That maybe, before the Patriots drafted Mac Jones, New England would make a move to bring Garoppolo back.

“You hear all the stuff,” he says. “I didn’t know how much to put into it, because if you start thinking one way, and then something happens and you go the opposite way, that’s going to make it even tougher out here. So I’ve really just tried to take it day-by-day. And even right now, anything could happen. I was traded two days before the trade deadline a couple years ago. I know in this league, anything’s possible.”

His guard’s still up for changes, but his focus is on the scenario where nothing does change, and he gets another year as the Niners starter. As such, this offseason, Garoppolo got himself healthy, and in a position to take another step in Shanahan’s offense, with plenty of room left for him to grow after injuries took chunks of his 2018 and ’20 seasons.

When he was initially traded to San Francisco in 2017, Garoppolo was at the point where he had to learn simply to play with his back to his receivers in play-action—something that really had never been asked of him much either at Eastern Illinois or New England. Four years later, carrying a 98.1 passer rating over his 30 starts as a Niner, he’s down to mastering the details of what his coach wants out of a quarterback.

It was something Garoppolo would’ve done absent the narrative-shifting trade in March, and he figured the best thing he could do in its aftermath. The results have been obvious to him, and his coaches, even if it’s not as obvious as Lance’s flashes on the practice field.

“It’s just the offense slowing down for me, being able to read the defense, have a feel pre-snap for what I’m doing and then reacting post-snap,” he says. “I think that, with every veteran quarterback, it comes more and more naturally as the years go. So that, and knowing yourself, I think when you know yourself as a player, know your strengths, know your weaknesses, in the offseason, you can focus on those weaknesses and try to make them your strengths. I think that’s really where I’ve come a long way.”

Of course, there’s a natural motivation here. Garoppolo told me he’s had moments with Lance over the last few months that reminded him that he was once in Lance’s seat as Tom Brady’s understudy and potential replacement—“There’s some movies he’s never seen that I’ve seen, and I’m like, Dude, Tom used to be like this with me.” Those also illustrate that the Niners quarterbacks haven’t let any awkwardness get personal (Garoppolo sent Lance a congratulatory text on draft night, too).

But there’s also the urgency that being in such a situation can create for a veteran, and Garoppolo matter-of-factly concedes that while he doesn’t feel that day-to-day, “subconsciously, whether you realize it or not, I think it lights a fire under you.” Which, for the Niners, has manifested in Garoppolo’s work in camp, and canceled out any concern over the climate in the quarterback room.

“I thought it had a chance to be fine just talking to him and stuff, but I really didn’t know until he came to OTAs,” Shanahan says. “And then just seeing the first day, even before he got on the field, just how he carried himself, the way he talked, he seemed like his best self. You’d have to ask him what it did to him. Of course, he didn’t want that, just like Tom didn’t want it when they drafted Jimmy. And that guy doesn’t need much motivation at all, but it lights fires under guys, and Jimmy’s been on the other side of that. It’s made him better.”

And as Garoppolo sees it, that’s the result of more than just some chip on his shoulder.

“I always want to be the starter, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” Garoppolo says. “I always want to be the starter, I’ll always fight to be the starter. But at the end of the day, I’m playing football. I’m loving it right now. It’s a competition, that’s what you’re here for. I’m ready for whatever.”

The Niners feel like now, finally, they’re ready for whatever too.

The first piece of that is being comfortable that they’re going to have a good option at quarterback even if one thing or another goes haywire, something they couldn’t say in Shanahan’s second and fourth years in charge. That’s why, barring a team swooping in with a big offer for Garoppolo, both quarterbacks are likely to be on the team.

The Niners don’t want to expose what they see as a championship roster to the sort of risk being thin at the position again would present. Which really brings to life the whole idea— how best to serve a group of players poised to make a real run after an injury-addled 2020.

“That’s why I like the position I’m personally in, making this decision, because I do think it just comes down to winning,” Shanahan says. “That’s what our team is focused on, we believe we have a chance to win every game that we play in. And when that’s the case, there’s no, Well, how are you developing this guy? What does it mean for the future? When you’ve got a chance to win, you’re not thinking about the future, you’re thinking about now. And yeah, Trey’s gonna be a big part of the future, that’s why we made the move.

“We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think he’d have a chance to help us right away and in the future. But it’s not gonna be forced. The whole plan isn’t just about how to take care of the quarterback. We talk about how you do all that stuff. But when we get to camp and you see our team, our plan is how to beat Detroit in Week 1.”

That said, the big-picture element to this isn’t irrelevant. That big-picture played out in February 2017, in Shanahan’s last game as Falcons offensive coordinator. It also played out 18 months ago, on a fateful third-and-15. The officials could’ve called holding on that play. The Niners could’ve slammed the door shut after. But it sure helped the Chiefs having Patrick Mahomes.

“I was in a Super Bowl, up 28–3, we’d just scored with four minutes left in the third quarter, and from then on out I watched a quarterback put 400 yards up in a quarter-and-four-minutes,” Shanahan says. “And I thought people were covered pretty good, and he just picked us apart. I sat there and watched a quarterback just dissect somebody. So I’ve always felt that way. Quarterbacks are everything. You always want to try and get the Tom Brady. And Mahomes has played like that for a couple years.

“And there are some guys coming up that have the capability of doing that. I’ve known that for a real long time. Watching my dad, I mean, he was a real good coach when he had good quarterbacks. So it plays into everything. When you don’t have one of those Top 5 guys, you can still win. You gotta have a good defense. You gotta know how to run the ball. But yeah, when you have a guy who can play at that type of level, Hall of Fame caliber, it makes things a lot easier.”

And along those lines, raising the ceiling, and finding that guy, was the whole idea of picking Lance in the first place.

“Yeah, totally,” Shanahan says. “And that’s it. You’re not gonna see it all on college tape. He played at a small school, and it was only one year, he got to play in one game his second year. But with Trey it comes with what you see on tape, yeah, but it’s also the horsepower you believe he has inside in him. Can you bring it out as a staff? Can he bring it out, being the right person? Can you put him in the right atmosphere? A quarterback who has a running element changes a lot of the game …

“But I’d get over that stuff quickly if you don’t think he’s got the skill set to do everything else. And we believe he does. And he’s showed us that so far. He’s by no means there yet, but he’s continuing to get better. And I believe he will his whole career.”

But, as Shanahan said, this isn’t about Lance’s career. His quarterback decision is going to be about the Niners’ year. And that simple premise sure makes all of this a little complicated.


ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Dan Campbell and I were discussing how he and new Lions GM Brad Holmes are doing everything they can to create the right kind of environment for a franchise that’s made the playoffs just three times since 2000, and that’s where he threw out an analogy that I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting.

“We've got two Teacup Yorkies,” Campbell says. “They're five pounds apiece. They’re named Thelma and Louise. Thelma’s awesome. Thelma’s like, whenever you call her, and here she comes, sweetest thing ever. And so is Louise. But Louise is not going to come until she wants to come—Come on, let's go. Come on, Louise! Louise! And she just sits there and looks at you. But the minute you turn your back on her and walk away, here she comes. she's right in your hip pocket. She's just kind of that way.

“And I think the players, sometimes, you think you're making things better and you actually make it worse. The harder you push one way, they're going to push even harder the opposite way. Whereas if you just kind of let it go, they'll be right by you. They'll be right in your hip pocket. Because they know, this guy, he’s good with me being who I am. And you know what? In return, I'm going to give him what he wants.”

I guess the headline here is that Dan Campbell—the baddest man in the room—has two five-pound dogs with the most hilarious names. And just to be crystal clear, I’m totally O.K. with that being the headline too, because it is priceless.

But the larger point he’s making here was well-taken too. Regardless of who you want to blame for what happened last year, the one thing that was clear heading into the team’s coaching and GM searches, which really started just after Thanksgiving, was that the Lions building was in a bad place at the end of the season. As such, fixing that, and making things healthier day-to-day, was going to be a priority for whomever wound up landing those jobs.

Campbell and Holmes have made it that, and it’s pretty noticeable already. It was apparent in the war room video that came out of draft weekend. And in the facility, you can feel it with the way the people inside are bouncing off the walls.

“It's up to us to make sure that the temperature of the building is right and good, making everybody feel comfortable and wanting to be in the building,” Holmes said, in a small conference area off his office. “I'll say going back the last regime I was with in Los Angeles, having a collaborative culture, it was an injection of energy. And you felt it—in 2017, immediate success. Everybody's working together, everybody's collaborating, personnel, coaching staff, athletic performance, nutrition, IT, everybody's working together and collaborating. And it was like, boom, roster turns over, flips, we had success.