InIn March, days after the San Francisco 49ers traded up for the no. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft, Kyle Shanahan answered questions at a press conference about the team’s offseason strategy. One of his answers seemed to reveal a shift in his approach to the quarterback position. Competent, capable quarterback play was no longer sufficient; the team needed elite play, something long considered the holy grail in the NFL.
“There’s a risk any season you go into without a top-five quarterback,” Shanahan said.
It was a notable admission from Shanahan, who built his reputation as a coach and offensive play-caller by getting the most out of quarterbacks like Matt Schaub, Robert Griffin III, and Kirk Cousins. He’s reached the Super Bowl twice in the past five seasons—once as an offensive coordinator in Atlanta with Matt Ryan and again as a head coach in San Francisco with Jimmy Garoppolo, losing both times. The 49ers trade came less than two weeks after their division rival, the Los Angeles Rams, announced their trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford. Rams head coach Sean McVay and Shanahan previously worked together in Washington—they were both brought up in the same style of offense designed by Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father and the former head coach in Washington and Denver. Both McVay and Kyle Shanahan went on to establish themselves as offensive-minded head coaches who succeeded with their own versions of the Shanahan system. Their offenses were among the league’s best, even if neither had a top quarterback. McVay and Shanahan both seemed motivated to try their luck with passers who they believed could transcend their quarterback-friendly schemes.
“Put simply,” Rams general manager Les Snead said at the time, “Chance to bet on going from good to great at that position.”
The pursuit of an elite quarterback is all-consuming for NFL franchises, and teams are going to extreme lengths to acquire one. The Rams and the 49ers have each made a Super Bowl appearance in the past three seasons—San Francisco with Garoppolo as its starter and Los Angeles with Jared Goff—but both were still willing to spend heavily on their successors. Garoppolo, who signed a five-year, $137.5 million contract with the 49ers in 2018, remains their starter two weeks into the 2021 season, but Trey Lance, the no. 3 pick in April, is expected to replace him eventually.
The 49ers traded two first-round picks and one third-rounder to Miami to move up to select Lance, who’s taken four snaps so far. Goff, who signed a four-year, $134 million contract extension in 2019, was traded to Detroit along with two first-round draft picks and a third-round pick and will still count for $24.7 million against the Rams’ salary cap in 2021. At the time, the $24.7 million was the highest dead cap charge a team had ever taken on to move on from a player (though the Eagles would soon surpass that record a few weeks later by taking on more than $33 million to trade quarterback Carson Wentz to the Colts). Those prior financial commitments and outlay of draft capital were no match for these teams’ aggressiveness when pursuing elite quarterbacks. The chance to go from good to great is worth the cost when good is no longer good enough.