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SANTA CLARA – At the end of a phenomenal season that few people would have anticipated or believed had it been predicted, San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan had one difficult reality to face.
The 49ers quarterback room looked more like the carnage scene from Gone With The Wind. Each of the four quarterbacks who lined up for San Francisco this year ended up with a significant injury. From Trey Lance and his broken leg in the second game of the season to Josh Johnson and his concussion. In between, Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a broken foot and Brock Purdy is set to undergo elbow surgery that will require a six-month recovery after being hurt in the NFC Championship Game.
With that, the question is whether this was a random, freak year of injuries or whether there is a common denominator that can be fixed? It’s a subject that both makes Shanahan a tad uncomfortable and directly impacts the future and his dream of raising a Lombardi Trophy.
Future of 49ers quarterbacks
On Wednesday, Shanahan and General Manager John Lynch publicly committed to Purdy and Lance as the quarterbacks for next season, with Purdy as the likely starter. Shanahan added that he expects that Garoppolo will depart the team as a free agent and that the team was content with who they have at the position, quelling speculation that the team will chase another veteran in free agency or in trade.
However, Shanahan got a little testy when asked about the rash of injuries his team suffered this year.
“Yeah, I think when you ask that question that way, I understand, but I think if you looked at the injuries common sense would answer that question,” Shanahan said when asked if the slew of injuries created any hesitation for him.
“How have they gotten hurt? I’m sorry, (Johnson) got a concussion when he hit the ground, so that’s the fourth one you’re talking about. I’m sorry our quarterback got his elbow bent backwards on a normal dropback pass. I’m sorry, on a dropback pass someone rolled up on Jimmy’s ankle. And then we have a dual-threat quarterback who got hurt running the ball. To throw all those four in that category. No quarterbacks got hurt when we had to hand it off the whole second half, so we can look into that,” he said.
The problem is that the history runs deeper than simply this season. In four of Garoppolo’s five full seasons with San Francisco, his season was either ended by injury or he required surgery afterward.
This year, Garoppolo was hurt when an opposing defensive player hit him low. However, that player got there, in part, because another 49ers player missed a blocking assignment. With Purdy, the 49ers ended up with a bad matchup of Haason Reddick, who led the Eagles with 16 sacks, being blocked by a tight end.
What is causing injuries to 49ers quarterbacks?
FOX analyst Greg Olsen took Shanahan to task over that blocking scheme and repeated that criticism later in the game after Reddick again was matched up with a tight end in pass protection.
And while Shanahan is considered one of the great play designers and play callers in the NFL, he is generally very defensive when questioned about how he protects quarterbacks. With the exception of Robert Griffin III, who Shanahan coached when he was offensive coordinator with Washington, almost every one of the 49ers quarterbacks who played for Shanahan has talked about the close relationship he has with them.
Garoppolo is a prime example. He played effectively in 2021 and returned in 2022 even though the 49ers had drafted Lance with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 draft. Garoppolo did that, in large part, because he trusted Shanahan to give him a fair chance.
In earlier stints in Houston, Cleveland, Washington, and Atlanta, Shanahan’s relationships with quarterbacks were respectful even when they were terse. Shanahan and Atlanta starter Matt Ryan had their share of shouting match, but Ryan also felt that Shanahan helped him have the best years of his career.
“Kyle is one of the smartest coaches you’ll ever find and he respects the (quarterback) position,” former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels said when he played for Shanahan in Houston. “He cares about the position and how it’s run.”
At the same time, the circumstances are what they are. A slew of injuries cast doubt on the ability of the 49ers to keep quarterback healthy, let alone upright. At a time when the 49ers, who have gone to the Super Bowl or NFC Championship Game in three of the past four seasons, are loaded with talent, that creates doubt about the team’s ability to win a championship.
And that, ultimately, must make Shanahan think twice.