AP Photo/Chris Szagola
The San Francisco 49ers’ 2022 season came to an end in a demoralizing 31-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Left tackle Trent Williams’ involvement in a late-game brawl summed up the 49ers’ frustrations in a contest that they played with their third- and fourth-string quarterbacks who suffered injuries, committed 11 penalties and turned the ball over three times. Now, San Francisco has to entangle a multilayered quarterback issue going into the offseason.
Quarterback Brock Purdy exited Sunday’s game with an elbow injury after he fumbled on San Francisco’s first possession. Per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the 49ers believe Purdy suffered a UCL injury, and he’ll undergo an MRI on Monday. Though the rookie signal-caller returned to action in the third quarter for an injured Josh Johnson (concussion protocol), he clearly couldn’t throw the ball downfield. In the second half, Purdy only attempted two short passes.
Although the 49ers gave up a touchdown on the Eagles’ first drive, they don’t know how the game would’ve played out with Purdy healthy. Remember, he came into the NFC Championship Game with a 7-0 record as a starter, which includes two playoff victories.
For the regular season, Purdy threw for 13 touchdowns and four interceptions with a 67.1 percent completion rate and then put together a 332-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 41-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Wild Card Weekend.
Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images
We can argue that Purdy did enough to keep the starting job going into the 2023 offseason, but the 49ers gave up premium draft capital to move up for Trey Lance in 2021. They sent the 12th overall pick, a third-rounder and two additional first-rounders to the Miami Dolphins for the No. 3 spots.
The 49ers may see a lot of upside in Purdy after what he’s done in 12 games (eight starts), but they invested so much in Lance, who’s only played in eight contests (four starts) and thrown for five touchdowns and three interceptions with a 54.9 percent completion rate.
Lance hasn’t had an extended opportunity to showcase his potential because he served as a backup for Jimmy Garoppolo in 2021 and suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2 of the 2022 season.
Garoppolo will become a free agent in March. Based on the 49ers’ decision to open this past season with Lance under center, they’ll likely allow the former to move on elsewhere, which leaves the latter along with Purdy on the books.
AP Photo/Tony Avelar
If we look at financial stakes, Lance seems like the quarterback to start for the 2023 campaign. He has a $9.3 million cap hit compared to Purdy’s $889,253 cap charge for the upcoming league year.
However, Purdy had more experience in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s system and looked significantly better than Lance did in his first few starts.
Why is that?
Perhaps because Purdy started in all four of his years at Iowa State, coming into the NFL with more playing experience than Lance, who only started one full season at North Dakota State before he decided to forgo two terms of collegiate eligibility for the pros.
Over the next several months, Shanahan has to make the call on whether he found a starting-caliber gem in Purdy, who went last in the 2022 draft, or if Lance can provide more to the offense as the full-time lead signal-caller .
For now, the 49ers seem headed toward a full-blown quarterback competition between the Purdy and Lance, which doesn’t bode well for the latter because he had to shake off some rust with less playing time than his potential challenger in Shanahan’s offense. Keep in mind that Lance has only played in nine football games since 2020. In that same span, Purdy has perfected for 37 contests.
The 49ers may also have a wild-card quarterback option. A couple of weeks ago, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport mentioned San Francisco as a landing spot for Tom Brady, who’s had an affinity for the franchise from his childhood days:
San Francisco doesn’t need to sign Brady with two young quarterbacks on modest deals in the fold. Financially, that scenario doesn’t make sense for a team that will likely hand out a massive extension to All-Pro edge-rusher Nick Bosa and address its offensive line as center Jake Brendel and right tackle Mike McGlinchey prepare to hit free agency.
Ironically, considering that he turned 46 years old in August, Brady could stabilize San Francisco’s offense. He hasn’t missed a game because of injury since 2008 when he sat out all but one contest with a torn ACL. In Shanahan’s six-year tenure with the 49ers, the team had poor luck with injuries at the quarterback position.
Since 2020, Garoppolo has missed 18 regular-season contests with the 49ers. This year, Shanahan trotted out four different quarterbacks, and he finally ran out of healthy options against the Eagles. On Sunday, Purdy and Johnson got dinged up while Garoppolo and Lance watched from the sidelines in their street clothes.
With Lance under team control for at least two more terms (three with the fifth-year option) and Purdy on the books through the 2025 campaign, the 49ers may be able to squeeze in Brady for one year if they can fit him under the cap and address their roster needs.
Cooper Neill/Getty Images
In a discussion about Brady, the 49ers must contemplate if he’s worth the risk at this point in his career.
Sure, Brady led the league in completions (490) and helped pilot the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into the postseason, but he’s highly dependent on a strong offensive line, which is an area that San Francisco has question marks. Furthermore, and most obvious, the 49ers must weigh the possibility that Father Time has finally caught up to Brady. Perhaps his down year in terms of overall passing numbers isn’t a blip like the 2019 campaign but rather the beginning of a sharp decline.
As one of the most respected play-callers around the league, Shanahan has proven he can move the ball with healthy starting-caliber and backup quarterbacks. Between 2017 and 2022, he’s plugged in several passers in his offense, including Brian Hoyer, CJ Beathard, Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, Lance and Purdy. They’ve all looked serviceable under his tutelage.
Now, Shanahan faces a pivotal decision. Who will he hitch his offense to next year with multiple quarterback options available? Does he go with a young passer with potential (Lance or Purdy), hold on to Garoppolo for another year because he’s element of youth taking the reins (unlikely) or bringing in the most successful signal-caller in history, who’s also been healthier than his slew of recent starters?
Because of the 49ers’ blockbuster trade that allowed them to draft Lance in 2021, he’ll likely get an opportunity to reclaim the starting job, barring a one-year pivot with Brady. Even if the former starts Week 1, he may have a short leash because of what Purdy has done in a short period.
Regardless of what the 49ers plan to do at quarterback, Shanahan has garnered enough trust that we can expect the plan to work out. Nonetheless, Purdy, if healthy, (and perhaps Brady’s interest in going to San Francisco) muddies the plan for Lance to grow into the club’s franchise player.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.