The San Francisco 49ers endorsed Trey Lance before the preseason. They left no doubt he was the starter. They're still saying Lance is the starter, but it's a lot more complicated now.
The 49ers worked out a restructured deal with Jimmy Garoppolo, which raises all kinds of questions as the team heads into the season. It's also a big shift from about a month ago. Just compare the quotes:
Kyle Shanahan on July 26: "This is Trey’s team and that’s nothing against Jimmy. We made this decision a year ago and we are going with that, and we’re not going to mess around with that any more.”
Shanahan to the Bay Area media on Tuesday: "There aren't 32 starting quarterbacks in this league, and we believe we have two of them now."
Shanahan made it clear Lance is still the starter during his talk with the media, and that's important. This isn't a competition. But the 49ers are inviting a controversy into their world, no matter how much they say otherwise.
49ers liked getting Jimmy Garoppolo back
There are reasons bringing Garoppolo back makes sense.
First of all, the 49ers didn't have a better option. They carried him all offseason, hoping to trade him. But a shoulder injury cooled the market on Garoppolo, and then the game of quarterback musical chairs ended and there was no trading partner left for Garoppolo.
There's also value in having a good backup quarterback. Players can get injured and miss time. Lance led a win over the Houston Texans last season when Garoppolo was out, and without that win the 49ers wouldn't have made the playoffs. If the 49ers could get Garoppolo back at a salary that lines up with a quality backup rather than a high-end starter, it was prudent. Once Garoppolo agreed to his restructured deal, it made sense financially. Shanahan said he was surprised no other team traded for Garoppolo, and San Francisco was happy to have him back as a backup.
"We thought it was a win-win for both sides," Shanahan said, via 49ers Webzone.
Garoppolo is a good quarterback. The 49ers are 31-14 in his starts, though a lot of that is due to the talent the 49ers have had around him. Lance has a higher upside, but he's also unproven.
The problem isn't having a good backup at a reasonable price. It's that every time Lance has a bad game, maybe even a bad throw or two, there will be calls for Garoppolo. That might include from the coach who just said he has two starting quarterbacks.
Shanahan says Lance is the starter
Perhaps Lance will have a great season and never look over his shoulder. However, he's also 22 years old and still trying to establish himself in the NFL. Expecting a young player — or even a longtime veteran — to be impervious to that pressure is unfair. It's hard to ignore human nature. We've seen young quarterbacks have their development derailed in similar situations.
It was smart of Shanahan to continue to endorse Lance as the starter.
"Trey's our starting quarterback," Shanahan said, via 49ers Webzone. "... This doesn't change anything. I just feel it makes us a much better team and doesn't hurt our cap like it would have."
But we'll see how the story goes over the next few weeks. Lance is a young quarterback and he'll have some rough moments. It's bound to happen. Will the 49ers be patient with a player they traded a lot for to draft third overall, or will Shanahan have an itch to turn to his other "starting quarterback"?
It's a messy situation. Lance and Garoppolo have both handled it all very well the past year and there's no reason that won't continue. But it's more complicated now. When the quarterback controversy questions are lobbed at Shanahan this season, he can't get too upset. The 49ers created it.