The Los Angeles Rams and 49ers represented the NFC in the Super Bowl the two seasons prior to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' run this season.
Both organizations executed plans that worked, even if they did not pay off in Super Bowl titles.
And they have gone about it in entirely different ways.
The Rams’ daringness to pull off a trade with the Detroit Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford was the perfect example of the approaches both organizations have taken.
The Rams continue to toss away first-round draft picks like latex gloves. The 49ers did not have the stomach to get deeply involved in a quest to acquire Stafford. It also is clear they did not feel the same desperation to move on from Jimmy Garoppolo like the Rams felt to replace Jared Goff.
Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch stated in December -- and again after the 49ers’ 6-10 season came to an end -- that they expect Garoppolo will be the team’s starting quarterback next season.
The 49ers, however, will keep the subject open for interpretation until the club restructures Garoppolo’s contract to guarantee a big portion of his scheduled $25.5 million pay for the 2021 season.
But it’s looking more and more like Shanahan and Lynch’s stated expectation will be a reality. Garoppolo is the most-likely quarterback to be lining up behind center for the 49ers this season.
Shanahan and Lynch's votes of confidence for Garoppolo were in stark contrast to what Rams general manager Les Snead said most recently about Goff.
The Rams have taken on a very aggressive approach to their roster, but that comes with a lot of risks. The Rams will have $42 million in cap money tied up in their quarterback position -- before a possible restructure of Stafford’s contract. They have another $50 million devoted to Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.
Coach Sean McVay and Snead value acquiring proven NFL players and the large price tags that come along with that over first-round draft picks.
Without those picks, the Rams struggle with the constant churn of the roster that’s necessary to augment their top-level talent with talented, lower-cost players who can make significant impacts on their first contracts.
But, obviously, that approach did not prevent the Rams this season from fielding the NFL’s best defense. The 49ers, on the other hand, have taken the opposite approach.
A year ago, the 49ers traded one of the game’s top players, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, to pick up a first-round pick and avoid doling out a top-of-the-line contract that significantly eats into the team’s salary cap.
The 49ers’ stated goal is to build a program that maintains consistency and enables the team to compete for championships on an annual basis.
However, history has shown there is only one way to accomplish that goal.
There are few examples in the salary-cap era in which a team establishes itself as a yearly contender without a transcendent quarterback.
New England (before Tom Brady moved to Tampa Bay Bay), New Orleans, Green Bay, Seattle and Pittsburgh are good examples of organizations that have been perennial contenders. And they all had one thing in common: Reliable quarterbacks who consistently gave their teams opportunities to win games.
The last time the Rams used a first-round draft pick was in 2016, and they invested it in Goff to give him a chance to be that guy. The Rams have now traded each of their first-round draft picks through 2023.
The 49ers invested a second-round pick in Garoppolo in 2017. Then, the organization extended him with a lucrative five-year contract.
The Rams saw enough and believed Goff was not the answer.
Garoppolo, on the whole, still has the trust of the 49ers that a team with him is a better option than what the team -- and the future -- would look like without him.