SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP)Coach Kyle Shanahan calls the personnel grouping and play into the headsets of the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks and Jimmy Garoppolo runs off the field and Trey Lance joins the huddle.
Switching personnel mid-drive is commonplace in the NFL with running backs shuttling in and out and teams switching from three-receiver sets to two-receiver formations all the time.
Doing it at quarterback is different, even though New Orleans utilized a package of plays in recent years for Taysom Hill and Tom Landry even alternated plays with Roger Staubach and Craig Morton during a game in 1971.
The Niners could take it a step further this season as they could mix and match a quarterback who was efficient enough to help San Francisco reach the Super Bowl two years ago in Garoppolo with a rookie who has game-breaking running ability and the big arm to stress defenses in Lance.
”Most teams don’t have two good quarterbacks,” offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said. ”The benefit is you can really do with players, things that they’re really good at. … You just really try to problem solve what’s the best way. It’s literally that simple. The benefits to us is really that we can utilize skillsets from everyone and do it in a manner that everyone can cohesively play together.”
How quickly and how often the Niners utilize the package could depend on how quickly Lance recovers from a broken index finger on his throwing hand. Lance practiced without a splint Monday but didn’t throw the ball or take snaps during the open portion of practice.
But if he’s able to do those things on Wednesday, Shanahan could start showing it off in the opener Sunday at Detroit.
The 49ers stepped up their work switching quarterbacks late in training camp and showed it off in a big way on the first two drives of their final exhibition game against the Raiders on Aug. 29.
Shanahan switched quarterbacks 11 times on the two drives with Garoppolo getting 14 snaps and Lance 10. Both possessions ended with QB runs, with Garoppolo scoring on a 1-yard scramble and Lance on a 2-yard keeper.
”It wasn’t a planned rotation or anything,” Shanahan said. ”I was trying to make it situational. So, I was just doing it mainly off impulse and whenever the down and distance felt like what we wanted to call. So, those guys seem like they handled it good.”
Garoppolo said the shuttling takes getting used to and he even talked with former New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees about how to handle it after running into him at a recent joint practice against the Chargers.
He said it’s a matter of staying ready and flexible but he sees some potential benefits in the stress it places on defenses to deal with QBs with different strengths.
”It was weird at first,” Garoppolo said. ”Just having to process the whole thing. But after being on the field, it was fun. When we’re clicking like that and the defense is scrambling like that, it makes it hard. We’re trying to win games out there and so whatever it takes, we’re going to do that.”
The quarterbacks aren’t the only ones dealing with an adjustment. Shanahan must make sure he decides on the play call quickly so he can get the right quarterback into the game and the right information to his players before the helmet communication system turns off with 15 seconds on the play clock.
The players on the field also have to be alert.
”It catches you off guard,” running back Raheem Mostert said. ”I’m used to having Jimmy in there the entire time. So then when Trey comes in, it’s just like, `Oh. Hey, here comes Trey. What are you doing here?’ But it’s cool, man. It’s definitely unique. It’s honestly fun. It’s fun seeing that. It really is.”
While both quarterbacks have experience in practice running most of the plays in the playbook, the other 10 players on the field know they just have to do their assignment and not worry about who’s at quarterback.
They do need to be aware of the differences in the signal calling at the line of scrimmage.
”The cadences are definitely different,” tight end George Kittle said. ”Trey is learning those a lot. But he’s getting better on them. It’s a lot different than he was day one. He’s come a long way with that stuff. That’s just something he’s got to continue to get reps at so you’re comfortable with them. Quarterbacks are thinking about a million things before the snap and whether it’s motions, whether it’s, `Hey, the defense is rotating, I got to change to a different play. Oh, wait, what’s the cadence?’ There’s a lot of things going on. Just takes a lot of reps.”
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