SANTA CLARA — Quarterback controversy? Nothing to see here. That’s how Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo played it after the news broke that Garoppolo, the starter since 2017, would return to the 49ers after all.
Lance is the starter and Garoppolo is the backup heading into the 49ers’ road home opener Sept. 11 against the Chicago Bears. The two were convincing last week in making their case about why there won’t be a problem with the position that has defined a franchise.
They may live happily ever after and there’s a good chance everything will be fine in the locker room, but history suggests it won’t be that way in mainstream and social media.
Media aside, the 49ers’ fan base has a rich tradition of splitting its allegiance when it comes to quarterbacks.
When Lance throws a wounded duck or the 49ers lose a game they were expected to win, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan knows what to expect.
“When a quarterback has a bad game or loses the game, it’s going to last an entire week until they play again,” Shanahan said. “That’s why I don’t know how anyone can be successful in this business if they get caught up in that stuff.”
Quarterback controversies, like Super Bowl championships, are a part of 49ers history. With Lance vs. Garoppolo on deck, here are five to remember:
1. Joe Montana vs. Steve Young (1987-92)
While Shanahan told Garoppolo the plan was to go with Lance in 2022, coach Bill Walsh brought Steve Young aboard in 1987 to compete with Joe Montana by fudging the truth. It cost the 49ers’ second- and fourth-round draft picks to acquire Young, who was 3-16 as a starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers had drafted Vinny Testaverde No. 1 in the NFL Draft.
In his book “QB: My Life Behind the Spiral” Young said he came to the 49ers because Walsh told him Montana had “a second back surgery and he will not return from it.”
At his first minicamp practice, Young found out otherwise.
“He’s not hurt. At all,” Young said. Walsh, according to Young’s account, simply looked at him with palms upraised as if to say, `I didn’t know.”
Young’s arrival began a six-year odyssey, with Walsh openly pitting the quarterbacks against each other. Walsh even pulled Montana in favor of Young from a 36-24 playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings before the home fans at Candlestick Park after the 1987 season.
While most coaches avoid the concept of quarterback conflict, Walsh looked right into the camera and said, “Well, our strength is at quarterback, but our problem is we have two, and there’s a quarterback controversy developing and we’re going to have to select between Steve Young and Joe Montana.”
Neither man vented publicly. They played golf often, according to Young, who said in an ESPN feature “there was never a cross word between us.”
Said Montana to a local television interviewer: “We both respect each other’s ability, but we’re friends about it. I have to help him. He has to help me.”
Montana won Most Valuable Player awards and Super Bowl championships in 1989 and 1990 as Young restlessly watched from the sideline. When Montana injured his elbow, Young won the MVP in 1992, and Montana was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs with Walsh having retired and George Seifert taking over as head coach.
While Young wrote that both he and Montana resented the way Walsh handled it, he conceded, “What Bill was thinking is, `I’m going to get the best out of Joe Montana and Steve Young.’ And I’m not so sure he wasn’t right.”
Young finally emerged from Montana’s shadow after beating the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game and the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl following the 1994 season.
2. Alex Smith vs. Colin Kaepernick (2011-12)
The myth that NFL players don’t lose their job to injury was shattered when 49ers’ quarterback Alex Smith sustained a concussion in the eighth game of the 2012 season and coach Jim Harbaugh replaced him with second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
At the time, the 49ers had a 6-2-1 record under Smith and his 104.1 passer rating was a career-high. The previous season, Smith had the 49ers a fumbled punt away from a Super Bowl and authored one of the most memorable playoff wins in franchise history against the New Orleans Saints.
In this scenario, Smith is Garoppolo and Kaepernick is Lance, given the dynamic run-pass ability by a younger man. And it wasn’t easy for Smith to accept not getting his job back.
“The only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion,” Smith said at the time.
Yet Smith supported Kaepernick as Young had supported Montana.
“I think the biggest thing with Alex is he was always in my ear, making sure I was seeing the defense,” Kaepernick told NFL Network. “Did I see the safeties do this? Did I see the rotation? Did I see things like that. He was just making sure I have mental clarity when I step on the field.”
Kaepernick took the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans with wins over Green Bay and Atlanta in the playoffs, rushing for 181 yards and throwing two touchdown passes against the Packers. During media day at the Super Bowl, Smith took exception when asked if he wanted to see Kaepernick play poorly.
“Why do you play a team sport? If it”s all about yourself, go play golf or tennis,” Smith said. “I”m not saying all this has been easy. It hasn’t. But if you can”t be happy for a teammate”s success, there”s something wrong with you.”
The 49ers had a furious comeback fall short in losing 34-31 to the Ravens, and Smith was dealt to the Kansas City Chiefs following the season — the same path Montana followed after the 49ers opted to stick with Young.
3. John Brodie vs. Y.A. Tittle (1957-60)
Tittle had been with the 49ers since 1951, part of the famed Million Dollar Backfield that also included halfbacks Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson. But he was also the quarterback when the 49ers blew a home playoff game at Kezar Stadium against the Detroit Lions in 1957, losing 31-27 in a game in which they led 27-7 in the third quarter.
That was the year the 49ers took Brodie as the third overall selection out of Stanford. Brodie, younger and more mobile, was the future. The 49ers started Tittle 31 times over four seasons, winning 18 games, with Brodie going 9-8 in 17 starts.
The permanent shift to Brodie came when coach Red Hickey, elevated from assistant coach to head coach in 1959, installed a shotgun offense in 1960 to help compensate for issues on the offensive line. The 49ers first used it in a 30-22 upset of the Baltimore Colts. Brodie was injured during that game, but the 49ers won three of their final four in that system with Brodie as the starter.
The 49ers traded Tittle, 34, to the New York Giants after that season in exchange for offensive lineman Lou Cordileone, clearing the way for Brodie.
4. John Brodie vs. Kilmer, Mira, Spurrier (1961-72)
Kezar Stadium was famous for boo birds, and Brodie heard his share over the next several years as a starter for a franchise that had never won a championship.
“If you have a rookie who hasn’t done it before, the narrative’s going to be to put the rookie in and see what you got,” Shanahan said. “If you’ve got a guy that’s never played before, usually the backup quarterback is always the most popular guy.”
Billy Kilmer, who later led Washington to a Super Bowl, split time with Brodie on occasion in Hickey’s shotgun, primarily as a runner. George Mira was a second-round draft pick out of Miami in 1964 and played through 1968. Mira’s claim to fame was throwing a pass that Kilmer fumbled, with Minnesota’s Jim Marshall running the wrong way for a 49ers safety.
Steve Spurrier was a first-round pick in 1967 from Florida and winner of the Heisman Trophy. He spent two years on the same roster with Brodie and Mira and played through 1974. He was 6-2-1 as an injury replacement in 1972, the year the 49ers and Brodie blew a 28-13 lead and fell 30-28 to Dallas at Candlestick Park in the NFC Championship Game.
5. Frankie Albert vs. Y.A. Tittle
Albert was a 5-foot-9, 165-pound left-hander out of Stanford and a World War II Navy veteran. He joined the 49ers in 1946 when they were still in the All-American Football Conference, with the franchise joining the NFL in 1949. He threw 29 touchdown passes for the 49ers in 1948 and was credited for being the first to run a bootleg, where the quarterback rolls out and hides the ball on his hip after a fake handoff.
Tittle played three seasons with the Baltimore Colts of the AAFC before joining the 49ers in 1951, starting one game and three in 1952 as a dropback counterpoint to Albert’s ball wizardry.
Albert retired after the 1952 season, played one season in Canada and then returned to the 49ers as head coach in 1956. He was Tittle’s head coach through 1958, also a victim of the infamous playoff loss to Detroit in 1957.