The NFL, in all honesty, is not a tale of two quarterbacks.
It sure looked that way during last season’s Super Bowl, with an age-defying star, Tom Brady, outlasting an ever-nimble phenom, Patrick Mahomes.
But this isn’t so much about those two quarterbacks. Instead, let’s talk about the NFL’s ever-evolving approach to the position.
Do you ride the veteran pocket passer with a knack for victory? Or go with the young gun — actually the run-and-gun — whose mobility truly makes it an 11-vs.-11 affair each snap?
Just look who’s front and center on this season’s 49ers, with incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo grooming/mentoring/staving off hot-shot rookie Trey Lance.
So who has the right of way? This isn’t the first time the NFL appears at a crossroads at the most scrutinized job on the field. Mobile quarterbacks and generational athletes have come and gone.
High school and college ranks are breeding grounds for Lance like quarterbacks, those state-of-the-art phenoms who can dissect defenses with rocket arms and nimble legs — and overlooked quick wit. They can play seemingly any skill position, only to opt for the glory and control of quarterback.
For the 49ers, they last enjoyed a dual-threat option when Colin Kaepernick burst on the scene and led the 2012 team to the Super Bowl. Kap was, at least at his onset, a rushing and passing dynamo.
Steve Young was once, too. Then he developed into a Hall of Famer, maturing with record-setting efficiency as a passer. Jeff Garcia was a three-time Pro Bowler whose mobility helped him fight to survive every down.
By mortgaging their draft future and selecting Lance with the No. 3 overall pick, the 49ers got more than insurance for the injury-plagued Garoppolo. They got the prototype for future playoff stardom, or at least another style to deploy.
“There’s lots of different ways you can do it,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I don’t look at it as in trends of the league. I look at it as there’s some special players or special people.”
The NFL bid farewell to two of its top, pocket-oriented gunslingers this offseason with the retirements of Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.
When it comes to NFL MVPs, it fluctuates between a savvy veteran quarterback not known for his mobility (see Brady, Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers), to an up-and-comer who baffles defenses with his escapability and legs (see Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Cam Newton).
“There’s lots of ways to do it,” Shanahan added. “And people are proving that more and more. Especially the more high schools, the more Pop Warner, my kids’ school, my kids’ flag football team goes no-huddle and just shows pictures. They go fast as could be.
“And man, a lot of people are getting trained in offenses in different ways. A lot of much better athletes are also learning how to play the quarterback position.”
Shanahan thrived on improvisation as a mobile quarterback as a youth, before transitioning to wide receiver as a Saratoga High freshman.
Those wide-open offenses that are being played today have roots in California.
After watching his son, John, flourish in the spread offense at Granada Hills High under Jack Neumeier, Jack Elway brought that system into the college ranks, first at Cal State Northridge and then San Jose State in the late 1970s. Now, some 50 years later, it’s the norm to see offenses deploy four to five receivers.
But figuring out what type of quarterback is best for success remains in debate.
Mobile quarterbacks are nothing new to the 49ers. Young harnessed his scrambling ways to evolve into one of the NFL’s most efficient passers of all time. Some 20 years later, Kaepernick stormed through defenses primarily with his breakaway speed more so than strong-armed throws.
“To see a quarterback run the way he runs, that’s unbelievable,” then-49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said of Kaepernick after he ran for two touchdowns and 181 yards (most ever in a game by an NFL quarterback) to beat the Green Bay Packers 45-31 in his playoff debut in January 2013.
Like Kaepernick, Lance checks in at 6-foot-4 and about 225 pounds. But, from initial looks on the 49ers’ practice field, Lance is not a second-coming of Kaepernick, who had more straight-line speed.
Lance came out of a pro-style offense at North Dakota State that employed play-action concepts mirroring much of what the 49ers do under Shanahan. That said, Lance did run for 1,110 yards and 14 touchdowns while passing for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns (with no interceptions) in leading the Bison to the 2019 Football Championship Subdivision national title.
Lance seems more comfortable moving behind the line of scrimmage, and Shanahan wants his quarterbacks to hang in the pocket and keep their eyes downfield as long as they can.
Immediate success for Lance or any quarterback is tough in the NFL, as Hall of Famer John Elway testified earlier this year.
“Young quarterbacks always make mistakes,” Elway, now the Denver Broncos’ president of football operations, said in January. “I made a million mistakes my first two or three years, but it’s how you can learn from those. … It’s a very difficult position to find.”
At that same Broncos news conference in which George Patton was introduced as their general manager, Patton noted: “We all want the franchise quarterback, and that’s the No. 1 goal — trying to draft and develop or acquire any way you can.”
Why is that so difficult? Mobile quarterbacks are trending in the draft, but look at who has won Super Bowls the past 20 years — not the dual-threat quarterbacks, all due respect to the escapability of Rodgers (2010 Packers), Russell Wilson (2013 Seattle Seahawks) and Mahomes (2019 Kansas City Chiefs). Otherwise, the Lombardi Trophy went to Tom Brady (seven times since 2001), Peyton Manning (twice), Eli Manning (twice), Brad Johnson, Ben Roethlisberger, Brees, Joe Flacco and Nick Foles. Mahomes rushed for a career-high 308 yards last season, so it’s not as if he’s a running quarterback. Same goes for Buffalo Bills upstart Josh Allen, whose rushing totals have declined annually (631 yards to 510 to 421) as his passing efficiency improved (107.2 rating last year).
A year ago, Baltimore’s Jackson was coming off an MVP-winning season that included 1,206 rushing yards, and his encore act included 1,005 rushing yards. He’s won 1 of 4 playoff games, however, so that rushing ability hasn’t translated to success when it counts most.
ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit suggests a compromise, not always in large supply around the NFL, might be one key to finding success in the current era of quarterbacking. He points to Chiefs coach Andy Reid and Mahomes as an example.
“Andy Reid said, ‘You know what, I’m tired of trying to figure out these college quarterbacks that are all in a shotgun running some kind of Air Raid offense. I’m going to adjust my offense to Pat Mahomes,’” Herbstreit said. “… These guys had figured, instead of saying you’re going to learn how we do it in the National Football League, they’re adjusting things to these college quarterbacks.”
Shanahan is adjusting. Defenses just don’t know how he will adjust this coming season.
“It will always evolve,” Shanahan said. “That’s why sometimes the wildcat would be good, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes no-huddle will be good, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes zone defense will be good, sometimes it won’t.
“It matters on how you group people together, what your choices are and how you plan on using that person.”
That person. That quarterback. That dichotomy everyone tries to figure out on every team every day of the year.