The San Francisco 49ers appear to have turned a corner.
At least that’s what the last two weeks suggest. Their consecutive victories over the Rams and Jaguars came by a combined score of 61-20 while the team climbed back into the No. 7 spot in the NFC playoff picture ahead of Sunday’s key game against the Minnesota Vikings, who are currently sixth.
San Francisco in its last two contests won the turnover battle 4-0 and had over 40 run plays in each. The 49ers also led by multiple scores at halftime and improved to 26-5 when leading at the break since Kyle Shanahan became head coach in 2017 (they’re 8-35 when tied or trailing at halftime).
Getting out to early leads, winning the turnover battle, running the ball in volume and getting efficient performances from Jimmy Garoppolo creates an effective and straightforward formula.
But what if things don’t go exactly to plan?
That’s one of the unknown subplots to Sunday’s game with the Vikings coming to Levi’s Stadium. The 49ers’ wins during their two-game streak have been blowouts, while the Vikings have a penchant for playing in close games. Nine of Minnesota’s 10 contests this year have been decided by one score or less, and they’ve played three overtime games.
The opponent doesn’t matter. The Vikings nearly beat the Arizona Cardinals, who are 9-2 atop the NFC, with a last-second field goal Week 2, but Greg Joseph missed a 37-yard attempt as time expired and Minnesota lost 34-33. The Vikings also played a 2-point game against the winless Detroit Lions in Week 5 that required Joseph to hit a 54-yard kick as time expired. They’re equal opportunity participants in nailbiters.
So can the 49ers pull out a close win if they don’t jump out to a big lead?
San Francisco is 2-3 in one-score games on the season, though none have come since the Week 6 bye. The 49ers began their season with five straight close games — though the season opener in Detroit hardly felt like one. They had a 31-10 lead at halftime before winning by just 8 after taking their foot off the gas in the fourth quarter.
So while it’s clear the 49ers have found a formula in their last two games, it seems unlikely they’ll be able to rely on it against the Vikings on Sunday. Whether or not they can win using a different formula, not a blowout where they can lean heavily on the running game, would be illuminating for their hopes at contending.
How pivotal is Sunday’s #49ers game against the Vikings?
Per @FiveThirtyEight, SF currently has a 52% shot at making the playoffs. A win over the Vikings sunday pushes the probability to 69%. A loss: 27%.
— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) November 26, 2021
Can Jimmy Garoppolo remain the starter in 2022?
Garoppolo, from a data evaluation, has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL over his last four games as he’s helped the 49ers get out of their rut. His 9.2 yards per attempt and 113.2 passer rating rank first among quarterbacks over that span.
All while rookie Trey Lance has only been given snaps in garbage time and hasn’t been used the way Shanahan forecast in training camp when he said Lance would have a part-time role in the offense while Garoppolo starts.
Shanahan was asked this week if he foresees a scenario in which Garoppolo returns as the starter next season despite the investment made in Lance last spring.
“I think there’s a chance for anything,” Shanahan said. “But I think we made it pretty clear that Trey is our guy of the future, whenever that’ll happen. But it was also nothing against Jimmy that we took him, but we do believe Trey will be our guy of the future. And like I said, I think it’ll be really hard if Jimmy’s on it for him to beat them out right away. So it is kind of going like that right now and I’m not thinking much past that.”
Reading between the lines, this is almost a full dismissal of the idea Garoppolo and his projected $27 million cap charge will stick around next season. Almost. Investing three first-round picks in Lance — trading from No. 12 to No. 3, sending the Dolphins first in 2022 and 2023, and a third in 2022 — makes it nearly impossible to stick with Garoppolo.
But what Garoppolo’s solid play could do for San Francisco is enhance his trade value, particularly during an offseason in which there isn’t expected to be a great class of quarterbacks in the NFL draft. And if Aaron Rodgers decides to stay in Green Bay, market forces might benefit the 49ers, given how many teams could be looking for a new signal-caller.
Teams like Houston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Miami, Denver and New Orleans could all be in the hunt for a veteran quarterback. Perhaps a bidding war would help San Francisco get back draft capital after investing so much in Lance, particularly for teams that don’t want to pony up for Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson (if they’re even available).
And yes, it’s worth noting Garoppolo’s $27 million might make him hard to trade with just one year remaining on his deal. But perhaps his camp and a new team would be amenable to a remade contract guaranteeing more money over multiple seasons. For example, it would make sense for Garoppolo to sign something like a two-year, $35 million pact that lowers his annual cap figure while also giving him more guaranteed cash. Then he would have another bite at the apple with his next contract, if he plays well.
Could Garoppolo stick around? As unlikely as it is, it’s not an impossible scenario.
But it wouldn’t reflect well on Shanahan’s decision-making, plus it would hamper the team’s ability to improve the roster elsewhere. Part of the benefit in having Lance is getting him on an affordable rookie contract. Lance’s cap figures escalate from $7.8 to $10.8 over the next three seasons, before his fifth-year option season in 2025.
With no first-round picks (currently) until 2024 and Garoppolo’s high salary, plus the need to pay Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel eventually, starting Lance at an affordable number would make it easier to find upgrades at key positions like cornerback and pass rusher. That would be far more difficult while paying $20 million more for Garoppolo.