Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

49ers mailbag: Is Shanahan on the hot seat? Did the coach not want to draft Trey Lance? How’s the interior OL look? And other questions answered

Marc Adams
Sep 21, 2022 at 10:03 AM--

The San Francisco 49ers won...and lost on Sunday. The win came by beating the Seattle Seahawks, something the 49ers have not done much of over the last 10 years. The loss came when Trey Lance broke his ankle. He's believed to be lost for the season.

It's been a rough first two weeks for 49ers fans. First there was the frustrating loss in Chicago, and now the injury to Lance. And to make matters worse, running back Ty Davis-Price sustained a high-ankle sprain that could sideline him for a few weeks. As you well know, Elijah Mitchell will already miss about two months with an MCL sprain.

Injuries are beginning to mount. But fortunately for you, I'm fully healthy and ready to share this week's 49ers mailbag with you. Let's get to it.

How many QBs careers does Kyle have to destroy before he is stopped? - Daniel Shchyokin

Wow, someone woke up on the wrong side of the mailbag this morning. Daniel is, of course, referencing Lance's injury, and seemingly blaming Kyle Shanahan for it.

While I wasn't crazy about the coach's use of Lance, continuing to call designed run plays, I don't blame Shanahan for the QB's injury. Now I will admit that Lance injured his knee last season against Arizona, on another run play. And certainly, the risk of injury increases with each run, especially when those runs are designed to go inside, where defenders are larger.

If by stopping Shanahan, you're saying he should be fired, I don't believe that should happen. But make no mistake, his future is tied to Lance's development. How the young QB progresses will determine how long the coach is in Santa Clara. Unless Jimmy Garoppolo helps the 49ers win a Super Bowl this season. Then all bets are off.

Will Shanahan be on the hot seat after this season if he can't get them to the Super Bowl? - Nicolas Nunez

This question from Nicolas is similar to the previous one, though not as angry-sounding, so I'll answer it right here.

I'm not sure Shanahan will be on the hot seat after this season, but it will be getting warmer. Earlier this week, I wrote a story asking, "Have Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch mismanaged the 49ers QB situation." In the article, I lay out what's happened with the position, from the 2017 NFL draft until now.

I'm not saying they have mismanaged the QB situation. But I'm not giving them a pass either. I think we need to wait and see how Lance develops before we determine how well or how terrible they've done. That said, I listed some mistakes they have certainly made:

  1. The way they have treated Garoppolo, showing him they didn't want him, and then stringing him along while they searched for his replacement. I hate that. I realize it's business, but it's almost like, after telling Garoppolo he wanted to break up, Shanahan decided to start telling him he still loved him until the day came when Shanahan ultimately told Garoppolo he wanted him to go away. But even after that, Shanahan made up with Garoppolo and they got back together. If this wasn't a business relationship, we'd label it "toxic."
  2. How Garoppolo's treatment has indirectly impacted Lance. There were always going to be critics, but the 49ers have fanned those flames.
  3. The number of designed run plays called for Lance, and the fact that several have been between the tackles.
  4. The lack of accountability from Shanahan. I've defended him from day one, but on Sunday, he not only came across as arrogant when questioned about his running of Lance, but when speaking of the QB's injury, didn't even sound like he felt bad about it. I felt horrible for Lance. I was sick to my stomach and felt like crying for the kid. Maybe Shanahan was trying to be strong for everyone, but he came across like a jerk who didn't even care about his player.

So no, I don't believe Shanahan will be on the hot seat if he doesn't get to the Super Bowl this season. But I think it will be starting to warm up.

Was Kyle Shanahan's plan to run lance 10+ a game like a fullback because he didn't want to draft Lance? Or was he drafted purely for the running game and passing was an afterthought? Also, was Shanahan the only person that didn't think this usage would get him hurt? - Coltina JL

Ok, these are some loaded questions. Let me tackle these one at a time.

Question #1: Was Shanahan running Lance so much because he didn't want to draft Lance?
Are you asking if Shanahan intentionally called plays to get his quarterback hurt? If so, there is no way that would happen. If you're asking if Shanahan was calling plays that would fail so that Lance looked bad, again there's no way he would do that.

I don't know Kyle Shanahan personally, but what I know about him is that he's a fierce competitor who desperately wants to win. He also seems to care about his players as individuals (regardless of how he sounded on Sunday). So I don't believe he would ever call plays just to get a player hurt or to fail.

And I don't see Lynch drafting a quarterback that his head coach didn't want. Especially after investing three first-round picks to do so.

Question #2: Was Lance drafted only as a runner, making the passing game an afterthought?
Have you watched games from 2016, when Shanahan was in Atlanta? Or how about the big games he's lost, in which he was accused of passing when he should have been running the ball to protect a lead and burn the clock?

Shanahan wants balance. He wants to score a lot of points with a creative passing game. And he wants to build a lead that he can protect by running the ball. That's how his dad did things in San Francisco and Denver. I'm not sure why he hasn't done it that way yet, but I think that's his plan. So no, the passing game is not an afterthought to him.

Question #3: Was Shanahan the only person who didn't think running his QB into the teeth of the defense would get him hurt?
It appears so because he didn't learn from last season. Will he learn by next September? Stay tuned.

Thoughts now on the interior OL? Banks had his best game vs. Seattle. - Justin T. Wong

Hi, Justin. Yes, Aaron Banks played really well against Seattle, and wasn't too bad against the Bears. And rookie Spencer Burford has been even better. In fact, I'd say the weakest of the interior offensive linemen has been center Jake Brendel. And he hasn't been that bad either. He had a bad snap on Sunday, right at the goal line, but that happens.

I've been happy with the three interior guys so far. A bigger test will be this Sunday against Denver. And the following week, against the Rams, will be their biggest test so far. So we'll learn a lot about the trio over the next two weeks, but you have to be pleased with what you've seen so far.

On another note, if the interior of the offensive line does struggle at times, Garoppolo is probably a better fit than Lance because he gets rid of the ball so quickly. But I wouldn't say that publicly or put it online at this point. There are some mean 49ers fans out there.

Do the 49ers need to add a capable starter in the off-season, given Lance will still be a question mark? - BrickbyBrick2022

Trying to predict what the 49ers will do with the quarterback position is a dangerous and fascinating adventure. I did not expect Garoppolo to be back with the team. I was afraid of having him back, out of fear it would divide the locker room.

Of course, I'm now happy he's back. But it's hard to know what they will do next spring, because we need to see how this season plays out. There are many questions that need to be answered before March even arrives, such as:

  • Can Garoppolo lead this great roster to a Super Bowl title?
  • Can Garoppolo finish the season without missing any games?
  • Can Lance return before the end of the season?
  • If so, will he take back his starting job? (That could be a mess)
  • Will Garoppolo want to return in 2023?
  • Will Brock Purdy start any games this season?
  • If he does, and looks better than Lance, what then?
  • Does Shanahan still have dreams of Kirk Cousins? (Cousins is scheduled to be a free agent in 2023)

And those are just off the top of my head.

But I will say that regardless of what happens this season, Shanahan will have a capable starter sitting behind Lance in 2023. The question is, will it be Garoppolo, Purdy or someone else?

What kind of growth and development can Trey have during his recovery and beyond? - drawkcaB ssA

I see what you did there, with your name. Creative!

There was a story about how Garoppolo learned from Mike Shanahan during his recovery period, after his knee injury in 2018. As you'll recall, the season before, Garoppolo had only played in five games with the 49ers, winning all five. In the article I referenced, Garoppolo told reporters about what he and the elder Shanahan worked on during their time together.

"Literally, everything," he said. "We watched our offense, our defense, other teams, teams that played two years ago that he thought a clip could help me. It's applicable in different ways. He's so smart that it was incredible to have that experience and I thank him a lot for that.

"He's one of the best to ever to do it, obviously," Garoppolo added. "A Hall of Fame guy. He's just incredibly smart. Seeing the game from his point of view is different. He was looking at it differently than a quarterback. It's hard to describe. It's going to help me a lot going forward."

Garoppolo went on to have his best season in 2019.

I'd love to see the same thing happen with Lance. Steve Young swears by Mike Shanahan, when Shanahan was his offensive coordinator in 1994. That was also Young's greatest season. I think Lance could learn a lot from Mike Shanahan, too.

As far as his physical development, he should have plenty of time to work on that, based on how Dak Prescott came through the same injury. Actually, Prescott's injury was worse and required a second surgery. And his injury also came later in the season. But he was ready to go by the next spring.

Lance should have ample opportunity to grow and work on his craft. That said, his development won't fully happy without gameplay. He needs to be on the field.

Could we see Pro Bowl for Talanoa Hufanga this year? - NotoriousGav

If Talanoa Hufanga keeps playing like he currently is, we could definitely see him make the Pro Bowl. He has made an impact in both games this season. Hufanga picked off a pass in the first game and tipped a pass in week 2, which led to an interception. He's also been all over the field, making plays with great urgency.

He did make a big mistake in the Bears game, blowing a coverage that allowed a long touchdown pass. But the hope is that he learned from it so it doesn't happen again.

Why is Kyle a better play caller than a coach? - Uncle Wayne

One reason is that he is a natural play-caller and play-designer. He's also been doing that for many years. He should be better at that than at being a head coach.

But is he really that much better as a play caller? Here's why I ask: There have been multiple games, namely Super Bowl LIV and the most recent NFC Championship game, where I personally believe his playcalling has been worse down the stretch. He starts out hot, with a lot of creativity and misdirection. But in the 4th quarter, the aggressive, creative plays disappear. And in those games, his best players (George Kittle, Raheem Mostert and Deebo Samuel) have barely touched the ball in those final quarters.

So I don't know if he's that much better at one than he is at the other. He should be, but I'm not sure he is.

With Jimmy G back at the helm... Our Vegas odds to WIN IT ALL just went up! How do you feel about our chances now, especially with Jimmy G back at QB1? - Johnny Xuefing Yang

This could get some anti-Garoppolo venom thrown my way, but he's simply a better option than Lance right now. Had Lance not been injured, that may have changed by the end of the season. But for the time being, Garoppolo gives the 49ers a better chance to win.

Say what you want about Vegas odds, but they're like polygraph tests— they're not admissible in court, but they are deadly accurate. If Vegas is saying the 49ers have a better shot with Garoppolo, it's likely true. But those odds are based on the here and now. Before Lance's injury, they were based on an unknown QB leading the team.

Garoppolo said something interesting after Sunday's game. Asked about what it was like getting back out on the field, he answered, "We were talking earlier, it kind of felt like 2017, where you just go out throwing, make plays, that's what I like to do. It's different than what we usually do around here, but sometimes you need to do that."

We can all agree that Garoppolo was at his best in 2017 when he didn't fully know the playbook and was just out there flinging the ball. He was a different QB then. That was before Shanahan began stuffing him a box and ripping the creativity and gunslinger away from him.

I'd love for Garoppolo to just do his thing and play as he played in 2017. It's not like Shanahan is going to bench him with Mr. Irrelevent waiting in the wings.

2-parter: Through 2 games, how do you feel the O-Line has faired so far? We know what Trent brings, but the inside seemed to be one big question mark. Also, any injury status update on Jimmy Ward? That could be a scary tandem in the back with the way Hufanga has been playing so far. - Luke Sellers

The offensive line was fine in the Bears game. They could have been better, but it's hard to judge in those conditions. Against Seattle, the line was very good. Maybe it's because it was just a weaker opponent, and they will struggle against the better teams. That question will be answered in the next couple of weeks.

Jimmie Ward is scheduled to miss the first four games. After that, he can return. Hopefully, he will return for week 5 against Carolina. The 49ers missed him in the first game, but not as much in the second game. Weeks three and four will be much bigger tests for Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson.

Luke described the tandem of Hufanga and Ward as "scary." If Ward returns in October, let's hope the secondary haunts a lot of QBs this season, even after Halloween.

That was bad. Sorry.

Why doesn't "the offensive genius" understand the difference between a QB and a FB? - Daniel Shchyokin

I can almost see the sarcasm from this question oozing down my screen.

On a lighter note, did you know that Kyle Juszczyk is the emergency quarterback? That means that if the 49ers only dress two quarterbacks for a game, Juszczyk is the third-string QB. So after Lance went down on Sunday, since Purdy wasn't in uniform, the fullback would have been the quarterback if Garoppolo had to leave the game, which could have happened, considering Shanahan used the QB like a FB on a couple of plays. It was late in the game, but still.

The 49ers seem to have a higher than normal rate of injury with running backs. Is there an additional inherent risk with how the 49ers like to run their backs that lead to more high ankle sprains? - Niner Jim

It is a strange, and unfortunate, phenomenon. Even after changing strength and conditioning coaches, as well as their approach, they've continued to have this issue.

Is it how the running backs are used? Is it just the nature of the position? Is it the players themselves?

Some say it's because the 49ers practice too softly, and don't play their players enough in the preseason. Others have said the opposite, suggesting the 49ers practice their players too hard, citing a few former players who have said things like this, or accusing the 49ers of not giving injuries enough time to heal.

Whatever the cause, they have to figure this out. San Francisco is among the NFL's most injured teams every season.

Thanks so much for your questions. The next two games are huge for the 49ers. Win them both, and they will be on track to do some great things this season. Lose them both, and it will be an uphill climb moving forward.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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