49ers

Schrock's observations: Jones, Fields showing 49ers the way

49ers
Mac Jones, Justin Fields

This is the way ...

While the 49ers were on their bye trying to conjure up some way to turn around a 2-3 season that is teetering on the razor's edge, perhaps coach Kyle Shanahan found his way to a television on Sunday. Maybe he got eyes on two quarterbacks the 49ers had a chance to draft at No. 3 overall when they elected to select Trey Lance. 

Perhaps Shanahan saw how those two quarterbacks, Justin Fields and Mac Jones, were given the keys by their respective franchises and are learning, developing, and, in some ways, thriving as young NFL quarterbacks. 

I'm not here to tell you Fields and Jones have been world-beaters. Far from it. They have been your standard rookie quarterbacks who follow eye-opening throws with head-scratching moments. Young signal-callers who throw back-breaking picks only to follow it up with long touchdown strikes. 

Every week Jones and Fields get a notebook full of NFL lessons to digest and help further their development.

Fields thought he had a free play Sunday when Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark came across the line early. Fields snapped the ball and took a shot downfield that was picked off. Unfortunately, the refs didn't throw the flag, and the interception stood. 

Later in the game, a sketchy holding call negated a 16-yard touchdown run by Khalil Herbert. But Fields was unfazed by the Bears' bad luck. On first-and-20, he hit Allen Robinson for 8 yards and then found Cole Kmet for 10. Then, after Herbert moved the sticks, Fields hit Darnell Mooney for a 5-yard touchdown to bring the Bears within three. 

 

When the Bears have let Fields be Justin Fields, he has shown off the arm talent and athleticism that had many believing he was the second best QB in the class. He has made off-schedule plays, exhibited toughness in the pocket, and won on the road. 

Fields also has been getting a crash course on dealing with and overcoming adversity in the NFL as illustrated in the two instances Sunday. Such is life as the Bears' quarterback. Fields has done well in challenging situations, and the trials and tribulations he is facing now will make him a better quarterback down the road. The Bears, likewise, will be better off, both this season and in the future, for having given Fields valuable starting experience early on.

In New England, the most NFL-ready QB of the class has lived up to his NFL draft profile. 

Jones, who outplayed Tom Brady in the legendary quarterback's return to Foxboro two weeks ago, had another high-pressure moment Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. With the Patriots leading by one and needing a first down to ice the game, Bill Belichick opted to let the rookie spin on second-and-15. But disaster struck as Jones' throw was off the mark and picked off by Trevon Diggs who returned it 42 yards for a touchdown. 

In just five seconds, the Patriots had gone from up one with the ball to down five with just 2:21 to play. A gut-punch for any quarterback, let alone a rookie making his sixth career start. 

But Jones showed incredible resilience and guts, going right back at Diggs on the next play and hitting Kendrick Bourne with a beautiful throw on a deep post for a 75-yard score to give the Patriots the lead. 

New England ended up losing in overtime, but Jones once again went toe-to-toe with one of the NFL's best teams and was good enough to win. 

What Belichick and Matt Nagy determined -- both at different points in the season -- was that their young quarterbacks were best-served learning and developing on Sundays, not practicing with the twos Monday through Friday. 

Shanahan has said that when Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy, the veteran quarterback will be the starter. It's clear that Shanahan doesn't think Lance can execute his passing game with the precision it demands and would therefore prefer to go to battle with the proven commodity in Garoppolo while Lance finetunes things. 

But the best way for Lance to become the quarterback the 49ers need is for him to be the 49ers' quarterback now.

Jones and Fields both are much better now than they were in their first NFL starts. They've learned lessons, dealt with adversity, and made plays that told them they belonged. They've been allowed to fail and shown they can succeed.

 
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The counter to all this is that neither the Patriots nor Bears are Super Bowl contenders. The 49ers believe they are.

But the 49ers also are 2-3, lack an offensive identity, and have issues in the secondary. Are they really Super Bowl contenders? And do those fortunes get drastically better with Garoppolo running the offense instead of Lance? The answer is no on both counts.

The 49ers also are a more talented team than the Bears and Patriots. Jones and Fields both are handcuffed by the lack of playmakers around them. Aside from Allen Robinson, neither the Bears nor the Patriots have weapons that can consistently threaten teams deep. The Patriots' receivers struggle to gain separation no matter the depth of the route and the Bears rely on Mooney and Kmet to get open if Robinson is blanketed. 

Even if Jones and Fields are more polished passers than Lance at this point, the combination of Shanahan, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle should be enough to ease the rookie QB in and increase the margin for error. 

Let's be honest: Even when Garoppolo was healthy, the 49ers' attack wasn't anything to write home about and the ceiling for the offense and team is higher with Lance even if it comes with hard NFL lessons.

Shanahan is trying to relive the 2019 season. But that team is gone, and that time is over. 

The 49ers drafted Lance to be the future. Maybe he can't lead them to a Super Bowl this season. It's almost a certainty that he can't. But he'll benefit greatly from starting the next 11 or 12 games, depending on when his knee sprain is fully healed, and there's no reason Lance can't lead the 49ers to a wild-card berth. I'd argue he has a better shot of doing so than Garoppolo does. 

If Shanahan and the 49ers truly believe in Lance's talent and ceiling, the right move is to hand him the keys and let him go. Yes, there will be plays like Jones' pick-six or Fields getting sacked on third-and-15 to take the Bears out of field goal range. Even Justin Herbert had tough moments last season, including getting embarrassed by Belichick and the Patriots.

That's life with a rookie quarterback.

But there will also be a lot of positives for both Lance and the 49ers, and perhaps inserting Lance gives the 49ers an offensive direction and a spark they have been missing through the first five games.

What's best for Lance should take precedent over some crusade to avenge a Super Bowl loss with a quarterback you decided wasn't the one for you. 

The Patriots and Bears prioritized their rookie quarterbacks and their development over everything else. And make no mistake, neither Matt Nagy, whose seat is scalding hot, or Bill Freaking Belichick are trying to do anything but win football games. 

They chose Jones and Fields over Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. They went with upside and risk over safe and savvy, believing it gave them the best chance to win now and in the future.

 

It's time Shanahan learns the way and does the same. 

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