SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Per tradition, San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle stood in front of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's locker as he fielded questions from reporters on locker clean out day following the 49ers' NFC Championship Game loss.
Kittle had just riffed on everything from the pain of losing to the Philadelphia Eagles to the amount of microphones one reporter was holding when the subject that he hasn't been able to avoid in his six years in the league was broached. When Kittle heard the word 'quarterback,' he stopped the question in its tracks, pointing out that he's no stranger to queries about the game's most important position.
"I've had a six-year career and I've had one year with one quarterback," Kittle said. "Other than that, I've had two or more. Four out of six (years), I've had three or more ... I just love a plethora of quarterbacks to choose from."
The sarcasm in Kittle's voice served as cover for the obvious frustration that he and the 49ers have had at quarterback since coach Kyle Shanahan arrived in 2017. While the Niners have enjoyed plenty of success -- they've gone to the NFC Championship Game in three of the past four years -- there's an unmistakable feeling that if they simply had a quarterback capable of staying healthy and productive, they'd have at least one Super Bowl title.
Instead, San Francisco has cycled through six quarterbacks -- Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, C.J. Beathard, Brian Hoyer, Brock Purdy and Trey Lance -- who have started at least four games since 2017. Injuries have played the biggest part in the game of musical quarterbacks and, after the Niners finished the loss to the Eagles with zero signal callers capable of throwing the ball, are once again driving the Niners' biggest offseason storyline: Who will be their starter in 2023?
If you'd asked that question in September, the answer likely would have been Lance, who the Niners drafted with the No. 3 overall pick in 2021 after trading two first-rounders to move up. If you'd asked in October or November, Garoppolo would have been a legitimate possibility. If you'd asked in December or for most of January, all signs would have pointed to Purdy, the final pick of the 2022 draft.
Here in February, the Niners don't necessarily have an answer, at least not one written in stone, save for the near-certainty that Garoppolo will not return after he becomes a free agent in March. Initial indications are that it will ultimately come down to Purdy or Lance, with Purdy the favorite if healthy. It's the only logical way to look at it because they are also the only two quarterbacks under contract for next year and beyond.
"I know we have two starters on our team right now that I believe we can win with," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "When you have that situation, you're not that eager to go looking around."
Based on his play in 2022, Purdy should be considered the leader to start next season, but whether that comes to fruition will depend largely on how he recovers from a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
Purdy is set for surgical repair on that right elbow on Feb. 22, with hopes he can be fully cleared in roughly six months, which would put him back at some point in training camp. When Purdy and Shanahan had their exit meeting, the topic of starting next year didn't even come up.
"In terms of who's gonna be the starter and who we're bringing in or any moves or anything like that, we didn't cover any of that," Purdy said. "Honestly, I didn't want to hear about anything. I just wanted to focus on my recovery right now and what I have to do with my arm moving forward."
Assuming Purdy can recover in time, it's hard to envision anyone usurping him as the starter given how he performed in eight starts. He was a revelation when healthy, finishing with a QBR of 70.3 (third best in the NFL) after stepping in for Garoppolo in Week 13. The Niners went 8-1 in games where Purdy took most of the snaps, with the lone loss coming against the Eagles in a game in which Purdy played just six snaps before suffering the elbow injury after being hit on a strip-sack by Haason Reddick. Purdy re-entered when backup Josh Johnson suffered a concussion and finished the game but was limited to just two short pass attempts and 13 handoffs.
"I don't know how you can't be confident in Brock Purdy after what he put together," Kittle said.
As Shanahan is quick to point out, the Niners won't have to make a decision any time soon due to Purdy's recovery, which opens the door for Lance to re-assert himself. Lance suffered a broken right ankle in a Week 2 win against the Seattle Seahawks that required a pair of surgeries to repair. But Lance is expected to be cleared in three to four weeks and said he should be back to 100% in time for organized team activities in May.
The Niners will have to add at least one more quarterback to get through the offseason program, but Lance should have no shortage of opportunities.
"I'm excited to go out and show what I can do," Lance said. "Same situation that it's been for me the last two years and, really, my whole life."
For their part, the 49ers acknowledge that the consistent quarterback injuries have made it difficult for them to get that sixth Lombardi Trophy, but they also know that Purdy and Lance represent their best current options. While acknowledging they will need to add another quarterback or two in some way, Shanahan said he wants "the best available that can fit into the structure of our team and the salary cap and all that."
Suffice to say, the 49ers aren't teeming with cap space and don't seem poised to go big-game hunting. At least not right now. That's especially true with Tom Brady already announcing his retirement and with the many complications that would go with pursuing Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, who is unlikely to be dealt in the NFC, has a contract far too large for the Niners to take on and will almost certainly require compensation beyond what the Niners could offer.
All of which leads to the natural conclusion that San Francisco will, most likely, lean on Purdy and Lance with the possibility of signing a mid-level veteran such as Andy Dalton, Jacoby Brissett or Teddy Bridgewater as insurance. Matt Ryan could also be an intriguing name if he becomes available and the price is right. That's a task made easier by having Lance and Purdy -- combined 2023 salary cap number of $10.19 million -- on their rookie deals.
"The bottom line is you better have a quarterback you really believe in because it's such an important position," general manager John Lynch said. "There happen to be two young guys that we really like, so I think that would lead us to that more than anything. ... I think it is something we can take advantage of if we choose to go that direction."
One way or another, the Niners hope they can finally find some quarterback stability and get a full season with the same starter for the first time since Garoppolo led the 49ers to Super Bowl LIV in 2019.
"It's just the situation we're in," Kittle said. "For some reason, our quarterback position gets hurt sometimes and it's unfortunate ... And we've been dealing with it for a while, so hopefully we can eliminate that bug and just play quarterback."