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5 Qs, 5 As with Niners Nation: Getting to know the 49ers again

On Jimmy Garoppolo’s availability Sunday, Trey Lance’s potential and why SF is such a thorn in LA’s side

NFL: Houston Texans at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams will compete in a sequel against the San Francisco 49ers that LA fans pray will be far better than the original. Sequels don’t always work like that unless they’re The Godfather II so the Rams have quite the act to follow.

Los Angeles comes into this matchup having won five straight, most recently a 20-19 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Most LA fans probably bit off all their fingernails over the course of that thriller, myself included. On the other side of the ring, we have the 49ers who have won five straight themselves...over the Rams. A sixth-consecutive win for San Francisco would ensure a trip to the playoffs.

Let’s hope that LA can put a dent into their playoff hopes once and for all. Until that day arrives (which better be Sunday...OR ELSE), I sent five questions to Tyler Austin of Niners Nation and he sent me his responses back.

Q - Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returned to practice Tuesday and was limited due to a torn ligament in his thumb that he suffered on Festivus (Dec. 23). Head Coach Kyle Shanahan has said he won’t announce the starting QB until before the game Sunday for “competitive reasons”. In what amounts to being a make-or-break game for the Niners, how much would you trust a limited Jimmy against the Rams and what is your confidence level in Trey Lance if he’s forced back into action this week?

A - Oh, man. I think a lot of Niner fans might’ve seen Garoppolo’s thumb injury as a Festivus Miracle that would finally clear the path for Trey Lance’s rightful ascension. However, there’s a big difference between playing the lowly Texans, and a 12-4 team that’s in position to win the division.

Jimmy has spent more time in Shanahan’s system, has started the lion’s share of games this season, and has consistently played well against the Rams, so I completely understand the temptation to play him, even if he’s not quite 100%.

All that being said, my trust in Jimmy G waxes and wanes with about the same regularity as the moon. It feels like this season, especially with Lance waiting in the wings, has made clear the limitations on his game. He can look exceptional on tight window balls for big first downs, then baffle you with a costly pick that airmailed everyone on his team.

I suppose the answer comes down to this, I trust him to execute Kyle’s system and deliver the ball where it needs to go about 75% of the time. Everything else is a white knuckle nightmare. If he’s not completely healthy? Let’s drop it down to a 50-50 proposition.

As for Lance, the potential is so obvious it jumps off the screen and hits you over the head, but this would be a tall order for a 21 year old’s third career start. This past week, it took him a whole half to get settled and he made some rookie decisions that could look a whole lot worse against a defense featuring Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.

However, it’s hard not to love his confidence, love his physical traits, and, especially, love his rocket launcher of an arm. I, also, kinda like the upside of him not having much tape out there. My confidence level that he could make this a close game? High. That he wouldn’t make mistakes? Low. That he could actually win it? Somewhere in between.

I say we have the two compete in a Feats of Strength and whoever wins can start.

Q - While we’re on the subject of Lance, he was rather impressive last week against the Texans after a slow start. Following an early interception, Trey finished 16-of-23 for 249 yards and two touchdowns. Regardless of whether he starts this week, what has stuck out to you most while watching him in limited action this season and what is one aspect of his game that could use improvement going into 2022?

A - The first and biggest area of Trey Lance’s game that stuck out to me is his arm strength and accuracy downfield, especially when compared to Jimmy, who tends to live in the intermediate range. Lance’s ability to push the ball to receivers at different levels can change the dynamics of the offense.

This past Sunday, he averaged 10.8 yards per attempt, which was second among all starters, and 12.4 yards as his average depth of target, which was first overall. This felt like a revelation compared to how the unit usually operates. The more he plays, the better he learns the playbook, and the added possibilities that Kyle can dream up can only lead to good things.

As far as what he can improve, Lance can stand to get a little more judicious about how to end some of the designed run plays for him. Going back to his college tape, you can find more than a few examples of him trucking through a safety or a linebacker. But the FCS doesn’t have the size and speed of the NFL, and if Lance wants to remain healthy enough to have a career he’ll need to learn that it’s alright to go out of bounds or slide.

Q - I’ve been a huge fan of how Shanahan has utilized the diverse skill set of Deebo Samuel this year. It’s been incredibly fun to watch and it has me excited about the growing inevitably of position-less football. What are your thoughts on such a future and what other 49ers players could also benefit from playing out of position like Samuel?

A - I absolutely love the idea of “position-less football,” and the added advantage that can give an offense. It reminds me of a good pitching arsenal. The ultimate edge that a pitcher has over a batter is that he knows what he’s throwing and the batter doesn’t. That’s exactly what an offense has over a defense in football, and how you leverage the unknown against them can be the difference between success or failure.

Interchangeably moving your skill position players to confuse a defense and to guarantee yourself the best possible matchup seems like an obvious direction for the game’s most innovative play creators. To this end, I’ll include what is one of the wildest pre-snap formations that I’ve ever seen rolled out.

When looking at who else could make a Deebo-like transition on this roster, an answer doesn’t really come to mind, which highlights just how special Deebo is. He essentially got converted to running back out of necessity and thrived there, averaging 6.3 yards per carry, while also leading the team in receiving. He’s quite literally doing things that no one else has ever done before in the league.

Just for fun though I’ll shout out Kyle Jusczcyck, who’s listed as a fullback, but received the designation of “offensive weapon” when he signed. Looking at the variety of ways that Shanahan deploys the lead blocker as a target in the pass and run game, he actually might be the rightful harbinger of what football will look like… IN THE FUTURE.

Q - Going into the prior meeting against LA, San Francisco had lost four of five and were in danger of falling out of the playoff picture before beating the Rams for the fifth consecutive time (still pains me to type that). Since that win, the Niners have gone 5-2. What has been the key to their turnaround and why have they been the Rams’ kryptonite for the last few seasons?

A - It was pretty amazing to watch this team pull themselves back from the brink of disaster by beating the Rams. One of the biggest factors in the season’s turnaround, starting with that last matchup, has to be health. Returning to the lineup was one of the game’s most underrated players, Jimmie Ward. I’m sure everyone remembers what he did that night.

The 49ers’ secondary, specifically the cornerback position, has been a delicate balance between pretty bad and absolute catastrophe most of the season due to a lack of depth and injuries. Without Ward at safety to hold everything together, things looked more dire than ever, culminating when the team got manhandled by the Colt McCoy Cardinals at home.

Similarly, the play of a fully healthy Garoppolo, after his calf strain, with a well stocked cupboard of weapons that included the emergence of Elijah Mitchell at running back buoyed the offense. The man really seems to play just well enough to win when you need him to, and I have to give him credit for that.

I’ll also give Garoppolo a little credit for the Niners success against the Rams. His particular style of attacking the middle of the field with quick passes seems to vex the Los Angeles defense like no other. It picks on the unit’s biggest weakness, linebackers with no cover skills, and avoids its biggest threats, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.

Obviously, Shanahan is the one scheming all that up, so he deserves some shine. Speaking of Shanahan, let’s be clear, the man loves to run the football, and the Rams dare him to run it, and what does he do? Run it. If the Niners manage to sneak out another win against McVay, it’s going to be because they successfully pounded the rock and controlled the clock. Simple as that.

Q - At various points this season, Kyle Shanahan has received criticism for a number of items including how he’s handled the quarterback situation, Brandon Aiyuk’s usage and his overall record as a head coach. The 2021 season will mark Shanahan’s second winning season in five seasons in SF, regardless of how Sunday’s game ends. How much of that criticism towards Shanahan has been justified and what are ways he could grow as a head coach after this season no matter the 49ers’ playoff fate?

A - Personally, and maybe by default, I’ve found myself to be one of the bigger Shanahan apologists/defenders. There are legitimate reasons to criticize him, but the idea that he was on the hot seat this year felt completely ludicrous to me. Who else is out there? Did people forget this team was minutes away from a Super Bowl win? Wouldn’t starting over in a whole new system stunt Lance’s development?

The Brandon Aiyuk situation feels like the most ripe for questioning. Shanahan’s penchant for doghousing players he deems to be underperforming doesn’t have a great track record of turning around said player. In fact, you could argue the only one it has worked for is Aiyuk, and how much of that success was Shanahan’s mind games or just the result of reintroducing him into the game plan? There must be a better way to handle instances like this going forward.

As for how he handled the quarterbacks, I can truly see both points of view, by which I mean his and the fans who demand Lance. First, when it comes to big personnel decisions, I’m always one to give coaches the benefit of the doubt. They’re the ones there, every single day, watching and judging a player’s development and effectiveness, while we’re at home, tweeting.

In theory, holding onto Garoppolo for one more shot at a Super Bowl run with this roster, while a raw but more talented player learns on the sidelines, is a genuinely good idea. It offers you the best of both worlds, a chance to plan for your future and compete today. Not bad, if you consider most teams struggle consistently doing one at a time.

But reality comes at you pretty fast in the NFL, and when losing streaks and questions of locker room chemistry come up, all theories go out the window. Garoppolo’s eventual exit will allow the dust to settle and everyone to move forward into the Lance era cleanly. Until then, the decision of how starts this weekend might cause some heads to explode across the Bay Area.

Looking over what I’ve just written, it becomes clear that if Shanahan really had any area to improve it would be his relationships on the team. He’s never been mistaken for a players’ coach, and it might be by design, but I could see a little more of that with the X’s and O’s going a long way.