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From Hall of Fame royalty to NFL soap opera: The 49ers’ never-ending QB drama

Marc Adams
Mar 28, 2023 at 1:38 PM

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"The 49ers were Camelot...and you know who Sir Lancelot was."
- Carmen Policy, at Joe Montana's retirement ceremony

It's a classic soap opera, one you can always count on to give you plenty of drama, complete with heroes, villains, and a plethora of twists and turns. No, I'm not talking about General Hospital. This show isn't taking place in a fictional city called Port Charles (don't ask how I know that name), but rather in the real-life Bay Area city known as Santa Clara.

Of course, I'm speaking about the quarterback theater of the San Francisco 49ers. It's a quarterback room that once boasted back-to-back Hall of Famers, followed by a 3-time Pro Bowler. Since those epic days that spanned more than 20 years, the 49ers have spent the last 20 years fumbling through disappointments, injuries, and even some downright horrendous QB play.

In case you missed that last sentence, I'll reframe it: the 49ers have followed 20 years of NFL QB royalty, with 20 years of NFL QB soap opera. And much of it has been unwatchable. If Joe Montana and Steve Young were deceased, they would have turned over in their graves.

But they're not dead. They are fully alive and, like the rest of us, have had to endure the consistently inconsistent play from a cast of characters who have struggled to live up to the championship standard set by Montana and Young. Even Jeff Garcia, who made 3-straight Pro Bowl appearances, failed to live up to that standard. But that's to be expected. No team can sustain that kind of play at the quarterback position. It's bound to drop off at some point.

But in the 20 years since Garcia left the team, the 49ers have not had a single Pro Bowl quarterback. You read that correctly. The franchise that once epitomized QB excellence has gone two decades without a Pro Bowler. Garcia was the last 49ers QB to be named to the Pro Bowl. That was in 2002. It's no wonder that in 2021, Young said the 49ers QB situation was "fraught with terror." It's been the stuff of nightmares for 20 years.

The 49ers, under coach Bill Walsh, were a special team in the 1980s. They won four Super Bowls with Montana as the signal caller. The San Francisco offense was always at or near the top of the league. They were elite. Even after the 49ers traded away Montana in 1993, the offense was still one of the NFL's best under Young.

ESPN football analyst, Chris Berman, said, "The Niners were classy to watch play football and classy the way they ran it. It was the best. It was Camelot."

That word, Camelot, was a word Bill Walsh used to describe the 49ers during the 1980s. It represented something that is legendary. A dynasty. Eddie DeBartolo, at Walsh's public memorial, in the north end zone of Candlestick Park (where Camelot was born) said, "For one brief shining moment, there was a Camelot. That time was our Camelot. Bill Walsh was our King Arthur, and this stadium was our castle."

But it started with the two Hall of Fame quarterbacks. The excellence, the work ethic, and the poise they showed, even in the tensest of moments, is what being the 49ers quarterback was about during those championship years. It was about the wins, the trophies. It was about legends stepping up in legendary moments. That was Camelot.

Then came the dreadful day in early 2000 when Young announced his retirement. It was the last time the 49ers would have Hall-of-Fame quarterback-level play. Though they would have a few years of Pro Bowl-level QB performance, it would never come close to the glories they enjoyed in the '80s and '90s.

Since then, the 49ers have had some good quarterbacks, some decent ones, and some downright awful ones. They've had signal-callers that no one would ever want. Names like Cody Pickett, Ken Dorsey, Trent Dilfer, Chris Weinke, J.T. O'Sullivan, Troy Smith, Blaine Gabbert, Brian Hoyer, C.J. Beathard, and Nick Mullens. If you need to go lie down for a few minutes, I'll wait.

Is it just bad luck? Are the 49ers cursed? Is it payback? Once you've had back-to-back Hall of Famers at the QB position, are you now destined for disappointment? Is it the missteps made by the organization, or simply bad luck that has cursed the position over the past 20 years? Let's take a look:

Drafting Alex Smith instead of Aaron Rodgers

In 2005, the 49ers selected Alex Smith number one overall. They chose Smith over a guy named Aaron Rodgers. As it's been well-argued, no one knows if Rodgers would have fared any better on those horrible 2005-2010 teams. Would Smith have become Rodgers if he got to sit behind Brett Favre? Would Rodgers have become Smith if he had to change offensive coordinators every year? It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Rodgers had been the QB Jim Harbaugh inherited in 2011.

Smith was a good NFL QB, but he was no Rodgers. We'll never know how this would have turned out, but it seems like a bad decision.
Verdict: Bad decision

Choosing Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith

In 2012, when Smith went down with an injury, second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick stormed onto the scene. The 49ers' offense immediately went from kicking field goals to scoring touchdowns. Once Smith was healthy, Harbaugh stuck with Kaepernick. It was the right choice at the time.

But the more Kaepernick played, the more NFL defenses caught up to him. And though he was a force to be reckoned with, it would have been interesting to see if the more consistent Smith might have been the better long-term choice than the uber-talented Kaepernick.

By 2014, his third season as a starter, Kaepernick's lack of development, and unwillingness to work on his areas of weakness, made him a very inconsistent passer and decision-maker. I thought Kaepernick would become a superstar, but he fizzled out within a few years. Smith, meanwhile, went on to have some good seasons in Kansas City.
Verdict: Bad decision

Drafting C.J. Beathard in the third round in 2017

I'm not sure if C.J. Beathard, who was John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan's first drafted QB, was supposed to be a starting quarterback or not, but I doubt you'd take a guy in the third round if you only expect him to be a backup.

Forget that Beathard was taken in the same round as Montana (ugh!), he was taken a few rounds earlier than he should have been. He's a career backup, and should never have been the first QB taken by this brand-new regime.
Verdict: Bad decision

Failing to draft Patrick Mahomes (2017) or Lamar Jackson (2018)

Not only did the 49ers draft Beathard in the third round of the 2017 draft, but they also passed on a very interesting prospect who has already robbed them of a Super Bowl win—Patrick Mahomes. They passed on Mahomes in order to draft a defensive tackle, Solomon Thomas.

Then a year later, they drafted an offensive tackle, Mike McGlinchey, instead of another intriguing QB prospect, Lamar Jackson. Swings and misses in back-to-back drafts. That hurts!
Verdict: Bad decision

Choosing Jimmy Garoppolo over Tom Brady

After the 2019 season, when Tom Brady became a free agent and made it known he wanted to play for his childhood team, the 49ers chose to stick with Garoppolo.

Count me as one who wanted them to stick with Garoppolo. He had almost won the Super Bowl, and Brady had not looked good in 2019. But I was wrong. So were the 49ers.

Brady likely would have won the Super Bowl with the 49ers in 2021—and maybe 2022.
Verdict: Bad decision

Garoppolo's many injuries

A knee injury in 2018 that cost him almost the entire season. A high ankle sprain in 2020 that cost him more than half the season. A calf injury in 2021 that cost him a game and a half. A thumb injury in 2021 that cost him one game. An injured shoulder in 2021, which required off-season surgery. A broken foot in 2022 that cost him more than a month of games.

2019 was the only season Garoppolo was healthy.
Verdict: Bad luck

Using 3 first-round draft picks on Trey Lance

It's still too early to determine if it was a bad decision or not to draft Trey Lance with the number three overall pick in the 2021 draft. But you can argue that they paid too much to get him. Has a player ever worked out, when his team used that much draft capital to obtain him? I'm not sure.
Verdict: Bad decision

Lance's injuries

Lance has started only four regular season games for the 49ers. He's been injured in two of them. Add to that the finger injury during the 2021 preseason, and Lance has almost as many injuries as starts.
Verdict: Bad luck

Brock Purdy's injury

If it wasn't enough that the 49ers lost Lance and Garoppolo during the 2022 regular season, they lost the team's undefeated quarterback early in the NFC Championship Game, when Brock Purdy went down with a torn UCL that may force him to miss training camp, and even some 2023 regular season games.
Verdict: Bad luck

Indecisiveness over who is QB1

Is Purdy the 49ers' QB1 once he's healthy? John Lynch seems to believe so, saying Purdy is the "leader in the clubhouse" to be the 49ers' starting QB next season. Shanahan appears to agree. But the 49ers don't even know when he'll be healthy enough to return.

Even though Lynch and Shanahan sound like they know Purdy is the guy, they are still saying there will be a competition for the number one spot. Lynch said that Purdy (when healthy), Lance and Sam Darnold will compete for the job.

Wait. And Sam Darnold? Does Sam Darnold really have a shot at being the 49ers' starting quarterback? It would seem so. And it would seem that Shanahan has little confidence in Lance, regardless of what he says.

Shanahan spoke on Tuesday on the 49ers' QB situation, and said, "Trey had that position going into the year. We were real excited about that and we think he would've had a hell of a year. He only got in one and a quarter games and then he went out...Brock played eight games and won all of them and played at an extremely high level.

"We believe Trey can be that. I think he would've done it last year if he had stayed healthy. The good thing for him is with Brock being hurt and stuff, he has an opportunity to try and regain that. That's also why we brought in Sam. Because we can't be set for sure on Brock because you never know how the injury will go. We think it will go well. We're optimistic about it but right now that's on hold. So that opens up an opportunity for Trey and for Sam to come in and show us what they have."

They say they believe Lance can be great, but their decisions are saying something different.

It sounds like Lynch and Shanahan are telling us Purdy is the guy once he's healthy. But he is a 7th-round pick, coming off of a serious injury to his throwing arm.

If Purdy isn't ready, or never returns to full health, then Lance and Darnold will compete, which seems strange, considering everything they spent to draft Lance and all that they've said about him. Either way, it promises to be an exciting and dramatic offseason and training camp.
Verdict: Bad decisions AND bad luck

So what's the problem with the 49ers QB room? Why has the 20-year run as NFL QB royalty turned into a 20-year NFL soap opera? Does someone have a 49ers quarterback voodoo doll tucked away under their mattress?

Is it bad luck? Or is it a series of bad decisions? It's likely a little of both, but it seems like more bad decisions than bad luck. Make better decisions and the next 20 years will certainly be better than the last 20 years. It's the only chance the 49ers have in resurrecting Camelot.
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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