SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan still won’t explicitly say who his starting quarterback is, but all signs point to the same person they have throughout the preseason: incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo.
In fact, it was Garoppolo himself on Wednesday who all but confirmed that he will start Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Detroit Lions.
“I told you guys a long time ago I had a pretty good feeling about it,” Garoppolo said. “I kind of joked about it but I always kind of knew where I stood and everything and now it’s official, I guess.”
That Garoppolo is expected to start against the Lions should come as little surprise given all that Shanahan has said on the topic since it was first brought up at the start of training camp on July 27.
At the time, Shanahan was asked if he was going to have an open quarterback competition between Garoppolo and No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance. Shanahan said then Garoppolo is “our starter” and explained on multiple occasions that he believed it would be difficult for Lance to catch and surpass Garoppolo for the starting job.
Those are the statements Shanahan again pointed to Wednesday when he was given yet another opportunity to name the starter.
“I’m not going to answer that because I feel like all you guys have got to do is look at how I’ve talked since July 27,” Shanahan said. “I almost wish I wasn’t hard-headed with it but I feel like you guys have been a little hard-headed and keep asking. I feel like I’ve already answered it. So, I’ll keep it at that.”
As camp and the preseason played out, Shanahan openly acknowledged that Lance would play this season, at least situationally, but he never said that he believed Lance had caught up to Garoppolo.
Over the final couple weeks of the preseason, Shanahan began hinting that Garoppolo was the starter, saying he had a “pretty good idea” of who the starter would be on Aug. 25 while declining to make an announcement. Minutes later, Garoppolo also said he, too, had a good idea who it would be while flashing a big smile.
The 49ers then began using Garoppolo and Lance in tandem with Garoppolo taking the bulk of the work with the starting offense and Lance getting occasional opportunities. In the preseason finale against the Las Vegas Raiders, Garoppolo and Lance rotated with the first-team offense for the first two drives with Garoppolo playing 14 snaps to Lance’s 10.
Throughout it all, Shanahan never even went so far as to call it a “competition” between Garoppolo and Lance, an important distinction he made sure to note again Wednesday, while also pointing out that Lance had gone through some of the usual bumps and bruises that are natural for a rookie quarterback.
“I never said that they were competing,” Shanahan said. “I always said when one guy we think gives us a better chance to win, we’ll never hesitate to make that decision but I think it’s been, when you look at a rookie quarterback, I don’t think anything has been consistent. I think it’s been up and down, some good, some bad. That’s also kind of exactly what you expect, too.”
On Sunday, Garoppolo is expected to begin his fourth full season as San Francisco’s starter, though he has started more than six games only once, in 2019. Including playoffs, Garoppolo is 24-9 as the Niners’ starter and 26-9 overall.
Despite a turbulent offseason that saw the Niners trade up to No. 3 in the draft to select Lance and the speculation about his future with the team that followed, Garoppolo said he was satisfied with the communication from Shanahan and the team the whole time, though he acknowledged it was a “weird” situation.
During camp, Garoppolo remained with the starting offense almost exclusively and had what Shanahan called “as sharp an offseason as he’s had since I’ve been around him.”
With Shanahan never referring to his quarterback situation as a competition, Garoppolo likewise said he never felt like he was in one.
“Not to me, no,” Garoppolo said. “I go into it pretty consistently every day, just the same attitude. It always a competition but you’re competing against the defense during training camp and now we’re competing against Detroit this week. That’s kind of where I’ve always been in my head and it’s helped me stay steady throughout this whole thing.”
All of which means the biggest quarterback question the 49ers have going into Sunday is whether Lance will make his debut, and how he will be used if he does. He’s continuing to work his way back from a “micro-chip” fracture in what is believed to be his right index finger.
Lance suffered that injury on Aug. 29 and did not take snaps or throw the ball at all in two practices last week or in Monday’s session. Lance was, however, back throwing in the portion of Wednesday’s practice open to media.
Depending on Lance’s availability, the 49ers could bring Nate Sudfeld up from the practice squad to serve as Garoppolo’s backup against the Lions. The team used one of its four possible practice squad “protections” on Sudfeld on Tuesday.
Asked what he hopes to see from Lance against the Lions, Shanahan kept it simple.
“I hope he’s healthy enough to be in uniform,” Shanahan said. “That’s my hope right now.”