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Kyle Shanahan is the main decision-maker in Santa Clara.
He doesn’t like to broadcast it, but that’s been the case since he took over as the team’s head coach in 2017 and was allowed to hand-pick a general manager.
And if you had any doubts to Shanahan’s power, they were put to rest on Saturday, as the Niners trimmed their roster to 53 players.
Under normal circumstances, a team keeping three quarterbacks would be peculiar but not troubling. But in keeping three QBs on Saturday, Shanahan eschewed prudent and pragmatic team-building strategies; instead opting for an unrealistic and idealistic path that plays to his ego.
Yes, the Niners cut a player who might actually help the team win games this season in exchange for one that would be unlikely to land another job should he have been cut Saturday.
Why? Because Beathard is Shanahan’s guy, and the Niners’ head coach is not willing to admit that he was wrong about him. Perhaps worse yet, no one in the building is going to tell him otherwise.
Now, it’s not surprising that Shanahan is still championing Beathard — he’s been doing it, despite stacking evidence, since before the quarterback was in the NFL.
Beathard was a fringe prospect at best — it was questionable if he would even be drafted — but Shanahan liked him so much that he had the Niners trade up to select him in the third round. And once he was on the team, Shanahan has provided him a wide berth for failure.
I am no quarterback guru, but I honestly don’t know what he sees in him. Maybe he’s a superstar in practice. I do know that he’s unquestionably tough as nails and has a pretty strong arm, too.
But we’ve seen enough game film to know he lacks accuracy, field vision, and pocket presence. He’s been sacked 35 times in 10 starts — with abnormally high culpability rate — and has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. His 1-9 record is unquestionably terrible but feels appropriate, and that, juxtaposed with the fact that he has been dramatically outplayed by the two quarterbacks that have spelled him — Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017 and Nick Mullens in 2018 — when injuries forced him off the field, sends a clear message: Beathard isn’t a quarterback who can win you games.
But Shanahan refuses to accept the message or he doesn’t hear it.
Neither inspires much confidence in the Niners’ head coach.
At some point, you’d expect pragmatism to kick in, but now that he’s a head honcho, Shanahan has become an idealist who, instead of changing boards, would rather try to whittle down a square peg so it fits in a round hole.
And the only round peg, it seems, is Kirk Cousins.
(Wait, might Shanahan think that Beathard is Cousins 2.0?)
Of course, there’s vague validity to the argument that the Niners should keep three quarterbacks because of Garoppolo’s injury risk coming off an ACL injury. But other moves around the NFL Saturday and the nature of the position in the modern NFL render it moot.
I often think back to a passage from former Eagles quarterback and ESPN broadcaster Ron Jaworski’s book “The Games that Changed the Game” (it’s a solid read).
Jaworski and then-ESPN broadcaster Jon Gruden were at Colts practice, talking to offensive coordinator Tom Moore, when Gruden asked why Peyton Manning’s backup quarterbacks weren’t taking many — if any — snaps.
Moore’s response: “Fellas, if 18 [Manning] goes down, we’re f***ed, and we don’t practice f***ed.”
If Garoppolo goes down, the Niners might not find themselves in such dire straits, as Mullens put up comparable numbers in eight starts last year.
But why prepare for bad luck to strike twice? Especially when you consider the opportunity cost.
If San Francisco has to start Beathard, the Niners aren’t going to win games. That’s not a guess, that’s not opinion, that’s history.
Why keep a player with such limited usefulness to the team? Why cut a player at a position where depth is necessary or a player who can at least help out with special teams — you know, a player who might help the Niners win games in 2019 — instead?
And then why pass it off as if it was the prudent thing to do?
“We were happy to carry the three in. That’s a great position to be in a position of strength… Not that we weren’t open [to a trade] but a certain price had to be met and it wasn’t, so we go in happily with these three,” Niners general manager John Lynch, who is culpable in this bizarre move, said Saturday. “The hard part about today was that we felt that a guy earned his way on the roster and we weren’t able to keep him… There were today upwards of three or four guys, who we felt had earned their way on, and it’s difficult to look a young man in the eye and say ‘yeah, you earned it, but we just don’t have a spot for you.’”
That could have easily been two or three players. But again, Shanahan can’t admit that Beathard isn’t one of the 53 best players on his team.
And the argument that Shanahan should keep around a third quarterback because they “know his system” (and those kinds of guys are hard to find) doesn’t hold water, either.
There are free-agent quarterbacks who know Shanahan’s system. They’re sitting by the phone right now. They’ll probably be sitting by the phone should Garoppolo or Mullens pick up an injury.
Remember Brian Hoyer? He was cut by the Patriots on Saturday.
Tom Savage, who was technically a member of the 49ers last year, was also a cut-day casualty.
The Niners could even get interesting should truly terrible fate befall them: Robert Griffin — another Shanahan quarterback — has been demoted to the third-string in Baltimore. The Ravens might just toss him to San Francisco for free if Lynch asks nicely.
And while I don’t think any of those guys can win San Francisco games, they’re at least on equal footing with the 1-9 Beathard, whose most appreciable quality is that he has worked with Shanahan.
I do feel bad for piling on, as Beathard has been a pro with the fans and media, but he’s a living embodiment of the sunk-cost fallacy — at least as long as he’s a Niner.
Shanahan made a bad pick — or, at the very least, he did not maximize the value of a third-round selection — and for the last two years, he’s wasted games and valuable roster spots trying to get out of the hole.
That’s bad roster management from the Niners’ true roster manager. And with the season looming, it’s just another reason to question if Shanahan and the Niners are ready to make a leap in 2019.