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Kyle Shanahan Doesn’t Want a Playmaker at Quarterback

Brian Renick
Jan 26, 2021 at 8:39 AM0


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Once upon a time, Kyle Shanahan had a mobile, playmaking quarterback leading his offense. His name was Robert Griffin III, and he took the NFL by storm his rookie year, leading his team to the playoffs and winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. Then, in the team's first playoff game, against the Seattle Seahawks, RGIII tore some ligaments in his right knee and broke Kyle's heart. And just like a spurned lover, he vowed never to have his heart broken like that again. As George W. Bush once famously said, "fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."

Before, and since, the ill-fated RGIII experiment in Washington, Kyle Shanahan has had a very specific flavor of quarterback leading his offenses. They're all shades of Kirk Cousins, whether a brighter shade like Matt Ryan (league MVP in 2016) or a little more dull shade like Jimmy Garoppolo or Matt Schaub, Kyle has a type.

Shanahan believes whole-heartedly in his system, possibly to a fault, but it colors his quarterback evaluation at every turn. He wants a trigger-man who will read the defense pre-snap, progress through his reads, stand in the pocket, and hit the open man in the pattern. And there is always an open man.

This is why Kyle and his dad Mike loved Kirk Cousins coming out of Michigan State in the 2012 NFL Draft. Daniel Snyder, the owner, badly wanted RGIII on the team. The Shanahans did not. They didn't know whether RGIII, coming from a spread system at Baylor that never had him under center could run the play-action heavy system the Shanahans have built their careers on. Kirk Cousins, on the other hand, played in a pro-style offense at Michigan State and Kyle could evaluate, quite easily, whether Cousins could run his offense or not, which is why the team drafted him in the 4th round even though it gave up a King's ransom to acquire the #2 pick and draft RGIII. Kirk was always Kyle's ace in the hole.

When Shanahan became head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 2017, the consensus top three quarterbacks coming out of college were Mitchell "Don't Call Me Mitch" Trubisky from North Carolina, Deshaun Watson from Clemson, and some guy named Patrick Mahomes from Texas Tech. However, out of all the quarterbacks in that draft class, the one who caught Kyle's eye was a quarterback who ran a pro-style offense at the University of Iowa by the name of C.J. Beathard. Shanahan did not have to try and imagine what Beathard would look like running plays from under center because he saw it with his own two eyes. He could not say the same for the three guys listed above. This has probably been a painful paragraph to read for 49ers fans, knowing what Watson and Mahomes have become in the NFL, but it speaks to what Shanahan looks for at the QB position.

There is no doubt that Deshaun Watson, rumored to want out of Houston, would be incredible running Kyle Shanahan's offense, but I don't think Kyle is willing to invest the kind of capital necessary to bring him to Santa Clara. Matthew Stafford, on the other hand, has mutually agreed to part ways with the Detroit Lions this offseason and would cost far less in trade capital. He would fit quite nicely into the offense as a brighter shade of Kirk Cousins. If you compare Stafford's career numbers to Matt Ryan's career numbers before Kyle Shanahan took over as Atlanta's offensive coordinator in 2015, the similarities are quite striking:

Player Completion % Yards per Attempt Touchdown % Interception %
Matt Ryan 64% 7.2 4.5% 2.4%
Matthew Stafford 62.6% 7.2 4.5% 2.3%

If Matthew Stafford comes to San Francisco and takes the same leap that Ryan did under Shanahan (which is a big if with the current state and performance of the offensive line), the sky's the limit for this team, and especially the offense.

Stafford, Cousins, and Ryan are all shades of the same QB, but Stafford has significantly more arm talent than the other two. He would force defenses to defend the deep portion of the field, opening up more underneath opportunities for tight end George Kittle and wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk (a trio known as the YAC Bros.) to eat up yards after the catch. Stafford could unlock the offense, whereas Jimmy Garoppolo seems to be holding it back.

Even when you look at the draft, the top four QB prospects, Trevor Lawrence from Clemson, Justin Fields from Ohio State, Zach Wilson from BYU, and Trey Lance from North Dakota St., are all playmakers from spread offenses. They are not a shade of Kirk Cousins. However, do you know which two QB prospects are? Mac Jones and Kyle Trask. In fact, Matt Miller, formerly of Bleacher Report, reported back in November of 2020 that rumors were swirling in the scouting community that the 49ers sent chief talent evaluator Adam Peters to Alabama to see Mac Jones in person (he also stated, in the same report, that Peters was sent to BYU to scout Wilson as well).

The 49ers' draft position likely no longer has them in range for the Fields/Wilson/Lance trio, unless they give up significant capital to trade up and grab one of them. Kyle Shanahan has already experienced the fallout from a big trade of draft capital for a QB and having that player end up a bust. He knows it cost his dad a job, and he seems a little averse to reliving that same situation now that it's his job that would be on the line. If the 49ers address the quarterback position with an early pick in the 2021 draft, it's far more likely to be a mid-to-late round first, or early second, on Jones or Trask, than it is a big move.

See a pattern?

Deshaun Watson would be incredible in San Francisco. I believe any of the top four draft prospects would be as well. However, Kyle Shanahan would rather bet on himself, and his system, than swing for the fences and miss.

Kyle Shanahan doesn't want a playmaker at QB.
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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