Kyle Shanahan has one ‘ace’ left to salvage 49ers season

Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has lost his luster in 2021, yet there’s one play he has in his pocket that could turn around an otherwise lost season.

While 2020 was certainly the most challenging season head coach Kyle Shanahan has had with the San Francisco 49ers, 2021 is proving to be the one that’s the most deflating.

A year ago, as tough as that was, Shanahan and the Niners could at least point the finger at the swarm of injuries that plagued the team. Little should be fun when he was forced to start third-string caliber quarterbacks like Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard.

In 2021, though, Shanahan has few other areas to point at aside from directly towards himself.

Now on the tail of a four-game losing streak and looking at the cold, hard reality of a 2-4 season when San Francisco was supposed to be competing for a Super Bowl, Shanahan is clearly dejected and out of answers.

All you need to do is watch his post-Week 7 press conference to figure that out:

Pressers like these are prompting plenty of questions. Big ones. Case in point, there’s plenty of fan-based arguments suggesting CEO Jed York should fire Shanahan. While that might be premature, the frustrations are certainly understandable.

Heck, even one article suggested the possibility Shanahan doesn’t even “want to be here” anymore.

Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it’s pretty clear Shanahan isn’t having fun. Neither are the 49ers. No two-win teams should be having fun this deep into the regular season.

But there’s one last play Shanahan has at his disposal.

Kyle Shanahan can make that switch from Jimmy Garoppolo to Trey Lance

It’s not a matter of “if.” It’s a matter of “when.”

Shanahan will eventually make the move from his embattled veteran, Jimmy Garoppolo, to the rookie phenom quarterback, Trey Lance, the latter who missed Week 7 because of a knee injury suffered two weeks prior.

Garoppolo’s time with the Niners is running out. Everyone in the organization, including Garoppolo, knows this fact all too well. And while Garoppolo has handled the tough situation about as well as anyone could have hoped, that still doesn’t change the fact he’s a lame-duck quarterback watching his days at the helm of the franchise slip away.

Probably sooner than later.

Shanahan has staunchly stood by Garoppolo ever since the preseason, regularly insisting there’s no quarterback controversy despite San Francisco’s multiple efforts to find a replacement for Jimmy G, culminating with the aggressive trade-up to No. 3 overall in the NFL Draft for Lance.

Week 7’s loss, a game when Garoppolo was outdueled by quarterback Carson Wentz of the Indianapolis Colts, revealed the hard truth: Jimmy G doesn’t elevate the 49ers offense. At best, he manages it. At the usual, he holds it back in a big way.

Shanahan knows this. So does everyone else within the organization. And that’s why the transition to Lance sooner than later makes even more sense in the wake of last Sunday’s loss.

Kyle Shanahan, 49ers can embrace mediocrity with Jimmy Garoppolo now or start the future with Trey Lance

Lance is raw and unpolished, largely the product from him having just one full season as a collegiate starter, 2019, and partially because Shanahan has shied away from giving the rookie a good share of first-team reps this year.

But he also needs to learn. And there’s no better way to do that than by being on the field, learning. The Niners didn’t trade off two future first-round picks and a Round 3 selection for a high-profile backup.

Related Story: Kyle Shanahan vaguely hints he’ll stick with Jimmy G at quarterback

Even if San Francisco’s 2021 season is a lost cause, fans, York and the media will accept Lance’s growing pains as part of the process. As long as Shanahan isn’t subjecting the mobile rookie to excessive hits by dialing up too many designed runs. At the same time, Lance needs to learn to protect his body while not totally sacrificing his elite-level scrambling abilities. That’s just one example.

Fans, York and the media probably won’t tolerate, however, continually frustrating losses and efforts with Garoppolo at the helm much longer. Should Shanahan stick with Jimmy G, for whatever the reasons, perhaps the 49ers win a few more games this season.

But based on what Garoppolo has flashed so far in 2021, that’s a hard sell for a franchise in clear transition.

There’s only one person within the organization who can and should make that call.


And he needs to get it right sooner than later.

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