John Lynch, the 49ers' general manager, referred to “the elephant in the room" during an appearance on KNBR last week.
The 49ers hit their bye week with a 4-6 record. They still are alive in the NFC playoff race. But even the 49ers’ chief of player personnel acknowledges a big decision awaits regarding the future of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Garoppolo is out indefinitely with a high ankle sprain. If the 49ers are going to remain in the playoff picture, Nick Mullens (or C.J. Beathard) must play winning football.
The 49ers can deal with the future in the future. But there's nothing keeping us from start talking about 2021 right now.
Overreaction? Perhaps, not.
My “take” on what the 49ers will do at their quarterback situation is that they will explore all their options. And it could go either way.
It appears obvious Jimmy Garoppolo does not give coach Kyle Shanahan everything he wants from his quarterback. But, then, the question becomes, who will be available in the offseason to provide the 49ers with an improvement?
That is why your reaction might not be an overreaction.
There are financial reasons for the 49ers to give strong consideration to moving on from Garoppolo. The 49ers have a lot of free agents and the cap is expected to drop by approximately $20 million next year. The organization would open $24 million in cap space if they trade or release Garoppolo in the offseason.
Quarterbacks such as Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford -- heck, even Sam Darnold – are under contract to their current teams. They would come at a cost. Then, the 49ers would have to pay a large sum to the new QB.
The 49ers could draft a quarterback in the first round. But even with a draft pick just outside the top-10, that leaves a lot to chance.
Back to Garoppolo and his “fit” for Shanahan’s offense ...
Shanahan wants balance from his offense. He wants to run the ball successfully, of course. And he wants to take advantage of the successes in the team’s run game to dial up deep shots down the field. Success in one area, leads to success in the other area, and so on.
At least, that's how it is supposed to work.
But Garoppolo just seems reluctant or a tick slow to pull the trigger on those deep throws. He appeared to let it rip more at the end of the 2017 season when he had only a cursory knowledge of the offense.
The 49ers’ big plays come on short throws that result in yards after the catch. That’s great, but those plays do not necessarily soften a defense to open it up for the running game.
Garoppolo does not take shots down the field, but he also allows the defense too many opportunities to generate takeaways. He started 25 games, including the postseason, the past two seasons and he threw 21 interceptions.
Garoppolo had a good season last year as the 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl. But even in the short time he was healthy this season, he just did not look right.
My belief is the 49ers will remain non-committal when it comes to Garoppolo, who might not get back on the field this season. Shanahan and Lynch will continue to talk about how much they like him and how they win more with him than without him.
But they will always stop far short of making a guarantee Garoppolo will be back next season.
That decision does not have to be made until the spring, and that's likely how long it will take for them to formalize their plan.
Shanahan believes there is not a lot that separates Mullens and Beathard.
Shanahan said last week that Mullens is “firmly” in place as the starter. But it would not be a surprise to see that change or for Shanahan to find some role for Beathard, depending on the opponent and the game plan.
Certainly, all the other shortcomings on offense have not allowed Mullens the best opportunity for success. After the bye week when, theoretically, Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Deebo Samuel are available, whomever lines up at quarterback will have a better chance to move the offense.
Josh Johnson will see the field this season only in an emergency situation. Because of the COVID-19 protocols teams have to keep a third quarterback in the building because if there’s an injury one game, it might be too late to get another QB up to speed and active for the next game.
Johnson joined the 49ers’ practice squad last week as insurance. But that is likely where he will remain unless one of the QBs in front of him becomes unavailable.
White came to the 49ers late in training camp. If Shanahan had something against White, he would not even be on the practice squad.
White had the difficult task of trying to learn the offense. And with all the issues at wide receiver, all those non-starting players must learn all the positions. That makes it even more difficult for White.
River Cracraft got the nod to be promoted to the active roster because he came to the 49ers with knowledge of the system. Therefore, it made more sense to plug him into the lineup as a fill-in.
As for Taylor, he does not look like the same player. We can only assume his back and foot injuries have taken a toll on him. He has fallen out of the receiver rotation. And he has not contributed on special teams, either. He made a critical error against the New Orleans Saints on punt return when he signaled for a fair catch but let the ball land. The ball struck a teammate, resulting in a turnover.
One bright spot for the 49ers over the past couple of weeks is that clear-cut rotation of four receivers has emerged: Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, Kendrick Bourne and Richie James.
And while on the subject of bright spots ...
Rookie defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw is getting better and better. And when he is surrounded by better players and more depth on the defensive line, his production should take a noticeable leap.
Kinlaw heads into the bye week after playing his best game. He had 1.5 sacks against the Saints. Look for him to be the team’s best defensive lineman over the final six games of the season.
And, you’re right, he should be even more productive next season when he lines up next to Nick Bosa.