After Kyle Shanahan's 49ers blow another lead, QB change leads offseason questions

By now, even the casual fan knows it's not really a gamble to go for it on fourth-and-short in opposing territory. It doesn't take a course in advanced analytics to know that.

That's why it didn't make any sense that, in the middle of making history by blowing a 10-point lead in the NFC championship game, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan never considered going for it on fourth-and-2 at the Rams' 45-yard line.

"We were never thinking about going for that," Shanahan said, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

The 49ers led 17-14 at that point. The Rams scored on their next two possessions and won 20-17.

"We just didn't want to," Shanahan said when pressed on his decision. "We were up three points and didn't think it was the right decision."

On Tuesday, with a couple days to mull it over, Shanahan said, "I strongly feel that was the right decision." 49ers fans probably disagree.

It was a crushing loss to the Rams and it won't get easier to process through a long offseason. Everything went wrong near the end, from a harrowing dropped interception to the offense disappearing and Shanahan being too conservative as well. That loss will linger for a while.

For a team that got within a few minutes of making a Super Bowl, the 49ers go into the offseason with a lot of questions. Maybe about the coach. Definitely about the quarterback.

49ers face big questions

Shanahan has played a big role in ...

- The largest blown lead in Super Bowl history as the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator when the team infamously blew a 28-3 lead to the New England Patriots

- A game that was tied for the second-biggest blown lead in Super Bowl history, the 49ers blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to the Chiefs

... and now the biggest blown lead in the fourth quarter of any conference championship game. The 49ers led by 10 in the fourth quarter. No team had ever led by 10 points in the fourth quarter of an AFC or NFC championship game and lost before Sunday. Teams trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter of a conference championship game had been 0-70 before Sunday, according to Rams Wire.

The three memorable losses aren't all Shanahan's fault. He did great things to help all three of those teams get as far as they did. But it's a troubling history.

One plausible reason Shanahan said he never thought about going for it in that key spot is he didn't trust quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. And that leads to the 49ers' biggest offseason question.

The 49ers announced to the NFL world that they didn't fully trust Garoppolo when they traded multiple picks to move up to No. 3 overall in last year's draft and take Trey Lance. There was some sad irony in that lack of faith manifesting itself in the fourth quarter of an NFC championship game. Garoppolo couldn't move the ball in the final minutes as the lead slipped away. His desperation pass as he was being sacked by Aaron Donald was intercepted and that ended the game, but there were failures before that. The 49ers didn't have enough in the passing game to put the game away, or stop the Rams' momentum.

When Garoppolo spoke to the media that covers the 49ers on Tuesday, he spoke about his time with the team in the past tense. While Shanahan wouldn't commit either way ("If we knew exactly what was happening, we would’ve told Jimmy," Shanahan said), Garoppolo will be moving on unless something unforeseen happens.

"Don’t want to live in the past or anything, but I mean, I knew this would happen eventually, but you can never be totally prepared for moments like these," Garoppolo said.

The lingering question all season was whether Lance, who played at North Dakota State and only played one game in 2020 due to COVID-19 reasons, was ready for the NFL. Garoppolo never gave Shanahan the chance to seriously consider a quarterback change, if he ever wanted to. Garoppolo was fine. The 49ers got hot late in the season. They won a lot of games with him.

But it doesn't make sense for Garoppolo to come back. He has trade value. No. 3 overall picks don't sit for one year very often anymore, much less two. And Garoppolo is a fine NFL quarterback, but there's probably no higher level for him. Maybe there is a higher level with Lance. It seems inevitable to everyone, including Garoppolo, that shortly after leading the NFC championship game by 10 points in the fourth quarter the 49ers will make a major move at the most important position.

Jimmy Garoppolo walks off the field after the 49ers' loss in the NFC championship game. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Jimmy Garoppolo walks off the field after the 49ers' loss in the NFC championship game. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Is Trey Lance ready?

Lance showed some good things in his two starts. He made some impressive plays. He has a huge arm and plus mobility. He also struggled early in all his appearances before heating up. When he struggled he looked indecisive. There's not enough tape on Lance to know with much certainty if he'll be a top-end NFL starter, but the physical talent is clear.

"I think next year looks bright for him," Garoppolo said. "Dude’s as talented as it comes."

49ers general manager said John Lynch liked what he saw when Lance played, and that "gives me a lot of belief that it’s there and that he’s exactly who we thought he was when we picked him. And we’re really excited about that."

It's no sure thing that Lance will be a star right away, but it's time to find out. If he's an immediate upgrade at quarterback, the 49ers can be right back in the NFC title game. The defense played very well in the second half of the season, and it looks like hot young defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans will remain with the team. The 49ers have a great running game and it will get even better if Raheem Mostert returns from injury or 2021 third-round pick Trey Sermon improves and can add depth behind rookie surprise Eli Mitchell.

There are a lot of pieces in place. The 49ers could be right back as contenders next season. There are just more questions than you'd expect from a team that came up just short of a Super Bowl.