'It took two guys being humble': 49ers can follow Chiefs' blueprint with Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance

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Why a QB battle in San Francisco is a good thing (1:34)

Max Kellerman outlines why he sees the 49ers having the perfect quarterback situation with Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance. (1:34)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Just a few days into the San Francisco 49ers' 2021 training camp, many of the adjectives used to describe their quarterback situation have taken a synonymous tone: unique, strange, weird.

But there's one word that's been unanimously rejected by the two quarterbacks -- Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance -- at the center of it.

"I don't know what you're talking about 'awkwardness,'" Garoppolo said, smiling.

"No, there's no awkwardness at all," Lance said.

If there was, it would be understandable.

Garoppolo is the incumbent starter with a Super Bowl appearance under his belt and a $26.4 million cap charge in 2021. Lance is the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, the hand-selected choice of coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch to replace Garoppolo at a date to be determined.

For as unusual as their situation might be, there is actually a relatively recent blueprint for the Niners to follow if they are going to make their two-quarterback situation work.

It's one Shanahan mentioned as far back as December as the type of ideal model for any team attempting to balance contending with a veteran starter while preparing a talented rookie to eventually take over: the 2017 Kansas City Chiefs.

Those Chiefs had gone 41-20 with Alex Smith as the starter in the previous four seasons, but failing to win a Super Bowl had coach Andy Reid seeking a long-term answer to get them over the hump.

At the 2017 NFL draft, the Chiefs dealt their first-round pick (No. 27), a third-round choice and a first-round selection in 2018 to the Buffalo Bills for the 10th pick, which they used on Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

"That's the most obvious example of having a really good quarterback and drafting a young guy and still having a success that year with a veteran and moving on the next year," Shanahan said the night the Niners drafted Lance.

Alex Smith started 15 games the following season, yielding to Mahomes in a meaningless regular-season finale with a playoff spot determined. This year in the Bay Area, Garoppolo remains the unquestioned starter with Lance the backup. At least for now. The challenge, should the Niners opt to follow Kansas City's lead, will be making that last the season without a looming quarterback question becoming detrimental.


Alex Smith: Communication key

By the time Smith arrived in Kansas City via trade in 2013, he had already been through plenty of challenges to his job. In fact, he was a Chief because the 49ers had drafted his replacement, Colin Kaepernick, in the second round of the 2011 draft and Kaepernick had played well enough to take the job and never look back when Smith suffered a concussion in 2012.

That experience shaped how Smith would react when the Chiefs made their move for Mahomes. The one thing Smith coveted most? Communication.

Entering his 13th year in the league, Smith had come to grips with the idea he was closer to the end than the beginning, so he knew his replacement would be on the way sooner than later.

But Smith had also earned the right to hear from his coaches when that replacement would be arriving. Former Niners coach Jim Harbaugh told Smith that Kaepernick was going to be picked before that draft and Smith appreciated the heads up.

"I wasn't caught off guard," Smith said. "I knew the deal. And I think that helps. ... You look at what's going on elsewhere in some quarterback rooms and some things didn't get handled the right way. So, I think that comes down to the personal level and the leadership and making sure that everybody is on the same page, there's open lines of communication and you have healthy competition. And I think when you have that, it can actually become such a positive thing for the whole team."

When the Chiefs decided to take Mahomes, the approach was the same. Reid and then-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, who now coaches the Chicago Bears, informed Smith of their plan to take Mahomes.

They also let Smith know they wanted him to remain in Kansas City and continue as the starter until Mahomes was ready to play.

"You just have got to have a good plan," Nagy said. "That takes communication, just talking through it and making sure everybody understands what it is. You don't hide anything. You're open with it. And I think that's what all the teams are probably going to do in these situations. That's what we did."

The Chiefs also took care to ensure Mahomes had the type of patient but competitive personality that would allow him to fit in and push Smith without making waves.

Upon arrival, Mahomes and Smith began building a relationship organically. Neither player forced anything but they put themselves in competitive situations as often as possible. The idea was to foster a fun atmosphere that would lead to natural battles on the field but with any sort of overzealous elements already removed from the relationship.

Mahomes, meanwhile, absorbed all Smith was willing to show him, from how to watch film to how to handle the huddle. In training camp, Smith worked exclusively with the top offense while Mahomes got his reps with the second string.

"I don't care what it was, we competed every single day and we'd keep score and that was just kind of the way it went," Smith said. "I do go back to being able to have healthy competition, to leave it all out there and then still be good teammates with that. I look back at it and it was so much fun."

While the relationship between Mahomes and Smith developed quickly, there was another huge piece of the puzzle that had to fall into place.


'It took two guys being humble'

One of the quickest ways to fracture a locker room is to have a quarterback competition that morphs into a quarterback controversy.

Hall of Fame 49ers quarterback Steve Young has seen that up close and wonders how the Niners will go about handling it given the locker room's affinity for Garoppolo.

"Jimmy has the locker room, which is part of the issue," Young said. "That locker room, with a new guy coming in and how they feel about Jimmy, John and Kyle have spoken how they feel. It's a complicated situation."

When the Chiefs made the move up for Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce had been with Smith for all four of his seasons. The duo was hitting its stride when the trade for Mahomes happened.

"I had to check myself initially because I'm such an Alex Smith fan and he was my guy," Kelce said. "That's my brother…I was a little shocked but I had to reel it back."

For Kelce, it was a matter of taking a moment to understand what the Chiefs were trying to do, touching base with Mahomes to see what he was bringing to the table and, ultimately, following Smith's lead.

With Smith embracing Mahomes, Kelce followed suit and so did the locker room. There was no magic potion to make it happen. It was a matter of getting to know one another and understanding competition can make everyone better if channeled properly.

"It took two guys being humble and being willing to work with each other," Kelce said. "It was a very unique scenario. You don't always get that in the quarterback room, let alone in the NFL, so they were very humble and on top of that they're great dudes and great competitors. They pushed each other and raised the bar for all of us."


Lessons learned

The 2017 Chiefs finished 10-6 and won the AFC West on their way to the No. 4 seed in the AFC. Like seasons before it, that year came to a disappointing end with a loss in their first playoff game.

But all parties gained plenty along the way.

Smith had his best NFL season, leading the league in passer rating (104.7) with 26 touchdown passes and five interceptions. In doing so, he pushed his trade value high enough that the Washington Football Team dealt a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller for him.

Soon after the trade, Smith signed a four-year, $94 million contract extension.

"Competition brings out the best in people so to say that it didn't have an effect on me is probably naïve," Smith said. "Not a coincidence at all."

Mahomes, meanwhile did not play the first 15 games but stepped in to start the season finale against the Denver Broncos. He went 22-of-35 for 284 yards with an interception in a 27-24 victory.

The following season, Mahomes took over as the starter and, within two years, won MVP and led the Chiefs to a win in Super Bowl LIV against, coincidentally, the 49ers.

"I learned a ton from Alex Smith," Mahomes said on Super Bowl media night in 2020. "I attribute a lot of my success, especially so early in my career to him. The way he was able to go about it, being a professional, going out there and having the great year that he had my first year and just seeing how he went about every single day and how to game plan and how to recognize coverages. He didn't hold anything back from me."

Whether the Chiefs would have gone further had Mahomes taken the reins sooner is a question that will never have an answer.

A week into training camp, the Niners are keeping Garoppolo with the starters and Lance with the backups even as the rookie has impressed. Whether the 49ers follow Kansas City's model will only be determined by a combination of time, Garoppolo's health and production and Lance's development.

Regardless, for as long as Garoppolo and Lance remain on the roster together, it would serve the 49ers well to create a Chiefs-like atmosphere for all involved. And if the Niners do walk the same path the Chiefs did in 2017, they'd almost certainly sign up for a similar outcome, albeit one with more postseason success.

"We'll never know what the other side of the story is," Kelce said. "But they approached it the right way. ... And Alex knew all along that Pat was there and eventually the keys would be handed over to him. It was such a cool experience to be a part of."