An old football adage, oftentimes attributed to the legendary John Madden, more or less goes that if you say you have more than one starting quarterback, you really don't have any.
Kyle Shanahan doesn't seem to agree with this idea. The San Francisco 49ers head coach stated Thursday that he thinks the trio of Brock Purdy, Trey Lance and Sam Darnold are all capable of leading a team:
"I do believe we have three quarterbacks talent-wise who are all capable of being franchise-like quarterbacks," Shanahan said at the Dwight Clark Legacy Series event, per The Athletic's David Lombardi. "Brock’s done that in his eight [games]. And we have two other guys on our roster who we strongly believe can do that also."
But only one can be the 49ers' Week 1 starter this season, and all signs point to Purdy being that player.
Shanahan and 49ers general manager John Lynch effectively named Purdy the 2023 starter this spring and admitted they received trade calls for Lance. Shanahan said Purdy would "be the starter going into [the season]" earlier this offseason and Lynch added that Purdy "earned that right to be the guy" after he led the 49ers to the NFC championship game this past season with a 7-1 record. San Francisco added Darnold in free agency after he spent the previous two years as the on-again, off-again starter for the Carolina Panthers following a tumultuous three-year stint with the New York Jets.
The case for Lance and Darnold
Shanahan refused to categorically rule out Lance or Darnold as the team's starter. He claimed Lance, who sat for a season after the 49ers took him No. 3 overall in 2021, would have "gotten to a level where he would’ve done similar stuff" to what Purdy did in 2022 had Lance not broken his finger in 2021 and broken his ankle in 2022.
"We did expect Trey Lance [to be the man for a long time] and I think that he still can be. You also don’t expect the last pick in the draft to come in and play at that level," Shanahan said. "He missed that opp and Brock came in and did. I truly think Trey can go in and do that, but Brock’s already done it and that’s a very good thing for us to have."
As for Darnold, Shanahan said he still sees him as a talented former No. 3 pick of the 2018 draft. Oddly enough, Darnold is the most experienced quarterback of the group, with 55 career starts under his belt.
"You watch his whole career and there’s no reason to think differently," Shanahan said. "He hasn’t been in the best situations, so we’re glad to have him here."
So why would Shanahan say all this? Perhaps he wants a true quarterback competition this offseason between three guys under the age of 26. The 49ers haven't had one in Shanahan's tenure as head coach after San Francisco traded for Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017 and named Lance the Week 1 starter in 2022.
Or, maybe Shanahan said what he said in case Purdy doesn't fully recover from UCL surgery by Week 1. While Shanahan said he thinks Purdy will be ready by training camp, it's impossible to know for sure until he puts on pads and begins to practice.
Another thought is that Shanahan is simply trying to bump up Lance's trade value before the 2023 season and lure a team into making an offer for him.
Either way, the 49ers will have one of the most important decisions of the year this offseason. San Francisco isn't just the favorite to win the NFC West (-175, per BetMGM), the 49ers have the second-best odds (+300) to win the NFC and are tied for the third-best odds to win the Super Bowl (+900).
A lot is riding on who Shanahan taps as the starting quarterback, and he isn't completely showing his cards yet.