Read & React: Camp Questions - San Francisco 49ers

By Michael Chasco

The 2023 season is quickly approaching, and fans are flocking to training camps facilities to get a glimpse of their favorite teams. The NFC West is one of the premier divisions in the NFL, as all four members have reached the Super Bowl at least once since 2002. The division is full of storylines and unanswered questions entering the new season, and we will take a look at each team as part of a four-part series at Fighting Chance Fantasy. This week we deeply dive into the San Francisco 49ers and Kyle Shanahan.

Estimated read time: 10-15 min

  • Why Does Shanahan Keep Losing QBs

  • Can Shanahan Win a Title Without A Top-5 QB?

  • Does Shanahan Have The Best Job Security in the NFL? 

Why Does Kyle Shanahan Keep Losing QBs? 

In Kyle Shanahan's six years as head coach, San Francisco finished only one year with a single quarterback taking every snap. That was Jimmy Garoppolo's 2019 season, where he set career-highs in passing yards and touchdowns. The 49ers finished 13-3 that year and held a 10-point 4th quarter lead in the Super Bowl until Patrick Mahomes dashed any hopes for a title.

  • Four of the last five Super Bowls were won by the team who started the same Quarterback every game.

Shanahan suffered one of the most painful losses of his coaching career in the NFC Championship game last year to the Philadelphia Eagles. Shanahan had already lost two starters to season-ending injuries in Trey Lance and Garoppolo before wonderkid Brock Purdy appeared to save the season. Purdy led the 49ers to a 5-0 record to finish the regular season and 2-0 with playoff victories over Seattle and Dallas.

San Francisco's title hopes disappeared when Purdy suffered a torn UCL in his throwing elbow early in the Eagles game. QB Josh Johnson would replace Purdy but later suffered a concussion and was knocked out of the game which left San Francisco without a quarterback in the biggest game of the year.

  • Is it a coincidence Shanahan keeps losing his quarterbacks at the most critical times of the season, or is it just poor luck?

Before San Francisco hired Shanahan, he was involved in a controversy over how he dealt with injuries during his time in Washington. Shanahan coached under his father, Mike Shanahan, in 2012 and was in charge of one of the most dynamic offenses in the league. Washington finished top-5 in points and yards that year. Washington had one of the most electric dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL in, Robert Griffin III, better known as RGIII. RGIII had a historic rookie season, leading Washington to its first playoff birth in five years. RGIII won Offensive Rookie of the Year under the Shanahans after throwing for 2,902 yards, 18 touchdowns, and four interceptions despite only starting 13 games. 

Washington became one of the hottest teams in the NFL and won seven-straight games to finish the regular season. However, despite winning during that stretch of games, the fate of the Shanahans would change after a December game against the Baltimore Ravens. RGIII sustained a sprained knee after a hard hit by Ravens' defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Due to the severity of the injury, it should've knocked him out of the game and kept him out for several weeks. Instead, RGIII would only miss one play before returning to the game and in retrospect, change the franchise's fortunes for the rest of the year and beyond. 

Earlier that year, Washington was fined $20K for not being transparent when it decided not to report Griffin had suffered a concussion in Week 5. Sideline doctor James Andrews was quoted by USA Today saying he had not cleared Griffin to return to the game against Baltimore or had an opportunity to examine the quarterback. This contradicted Shanahan's explanation to reporters after the game about the situation. RGIII suffered another knee injury in a Wildcard game against Seattle that required surgery in the offseason. RGIII would only win five more games for Washington, ultimately leading to his father and staff firing. 

In the podcast series "The Playcallers," RGIII reminisced about that time in Washington with The Athletic's Jordan Rodrigue. "I want people to know I played through that injury for my teammates. You can ask any player, even if they don't know which way is up. They are going to tell you they want to play," RGIII said. "There are certain times when we need people to protect us from ourselves."

  • Does Shanahan have the players' interest in mind, or is it win at all costs even if it means player's careers are on the line?

Can Shanahan win a title without a top-5 QB?

The summer in San Francisco has been full of speculation. Who will be the starting quarterback for the 49ers? Could Purdy pull off the impossible and hold off former first-rounders Lance and Sam Darnold? The entire football world assumed Shanahan would wait and see how each player performed in training camp to make such a franchise-changing decision. Everyone in the world except the one guy who was making that decision. Shanahan revealed in an interview with The Athletic's Tim Kawakami that the franchise's direction turned to Purdy last December after the rookie's second start in Seattle.

"That's when I knew we had a dude," Shanahan said to Kawakami. "Because of how good he had played, I think, the two weeks prior. But that game, I think he had broken ribs from a Sunday. That game was Thursday," Shanahan said. "So I'm about to go with Josh Johnson, who's been here for a like a week.. or no two days. Brock's like, 'No, I think I can do it.' "I knew we had a dude who was made up the right way. Who could handle the pressure and stuff? And we'd seen what he does just as a player in practice and the games. But it was more the make-up," Shanahan said. 

Purdy's toughness endeared him to his head coach last season, and he would need to suffer a major setback in his recovery timeline not to start Week 1 in Pittsburgh. Can Shanahan prove his system can produce a championship without one of the top-5 quarterbacks in the NFL? Teams spend wild amounts of money trying to find their "dude" to borrow Shanahan's term. According to Spotrac, quarterbacks like Lamar JacksonRussell Wilson, and Kyler Murray account for at least 20% of the team's cap space, and each franchise would be thrilled to make the playoffs this year. Purdy won't be eligible for free agency until after the completion of the 2025 season. Does Purdy give the 49ers the flexibility to extend stars like Nick Bosa and Brandon Aiyuk

  • Do the 49ers have an edge over the rest of the league by not allocating a large sum of cap dollars to the most important position in professional sports? 

Without knowing Purdy's recovery time, the 49ers had to be proactive when free agency started. Purdy's surgery was delayed mainly due to inflammation and swelling in his elbow. Surgery was completed to repair his UCL in early March, which coincided with the start of the free agency period. San Francisco signed Darnold to a one-year deal as insurance. A move that has made the quarterback situation even murkier as Lance was set to return from his season-ending injury to his ankle as well. The 49ers traded three first-round picks to select Lance third overall in 2021.

  • Are they ready to move on so quickly on a 23-year-old quarterback they fell in love with during the draft process?

What has changed in two years to make such a sudden shift in direction? Lance worked out with Mahomes and quarterback guru Jeff Christensen in the offseason. How much does Lance have to show Shanahan he's improved his footwork, timing, and accuracy to be considered the starter again? Will this preseason work as a showcase for the other teams in the league?              

San Francisco traded three first-round picks to select third overall in 2021. Are they ready to move on so quickly on a 23-year-old quarterback they fell in love with during the draft process? What has changed in two years to make such a sudden shift in direction? In the offseason, Lance worked out with Patrick Mahomes and quarterback guru Jeff Christensen. How much does Lance have to show Shanahan he's improved his footwork, timing, and accuracy to be considered the starter again? Will this preseason work as a showcase for the other teams in the league?          

Does Shanahan have the Best Job Security in NFL? 

Shanahan is entering his 7th season in San Francisco and may have the best job security for a coach who hasn't won the Super Bowl. You could argue Shanahan may have more job security than some head coaches who won a Super Bowl in the past.

  • Six more victories will move Shanahan past Steve Mariucci on the all-time wins list in San Francisco history.

He will only trail coaching legends Bill Walsh (92) and George Seifert (97) for most wins in franchise history. Shanahan is already third all-time in playoffs victories with six, only behind Walsh and Seifert, who won 10 each. Let's face it, San Francisco's owner Jed York doesn't have a track record for picking the right head coach to lead the franchise in the past. After the brief coaching stints of previous hires Mike Nolan and Jim Tomsula, Shanahan will be the head coach as long as York owns the team.

For more coverage of the NFC West, please check out the first installment as we examined Kyler Murray and the new regime of the Arizona Cardinals

Follow Michael Chasco on X @ChascoFCF 

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