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The 49ers Are Quarterback-Optional

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This is Josh Johnson's moment. Well, actually it's his 78th moment with 14 different teams, according to his Pro Football Reference transaction page. So let's say this is Josh Johnson's 49ers moment … except he's already had a difficult-to-fully-determine number of other 49ers moments, including 2014 when they signed and released him at least four separate times.

Anyway, it's a moment. And it could end quickly again, as the Carolina Panthers, who are in full smug mode after beating the Broncos and then tying with Bye, are releasing Baker Mayfield. That could also pique the interest of Kyle Shanahan-The-General-Manager for Kyle Shanahan-The-Coach. But no, this has to be Josh Johnson's moment, because he's waited longer in line than any other quarterback ever.

True, we are skipping over Brock Purdy, the 49ers' new starting quarterback now that Jimmy Garoppolo has joined Trey Lance in the Casted Foot Guild. Garoppolo lasted only one series of the much-hyped-and-little-delivered 33-17 win over Miami, re-introducing us to Purdy, this year's Mr. Irrelevant and now the team's third full-time starting quarterback. That is, until he gets his foot swallowed in the whirlpool and Josh Johnson becomes the first fourth-string quarterback to lead the team he inherited after a long and complicated probate battle to the Super Bowl.

This is possible only because the 49ers are built entirely upon defense, a defense that ate Tua Tagovailoa and the vaunted Dolphins offense as though it were care-facility tapioca. The 49ers have a frightening defense this year, and for all Shanahan's rep as an offensive Nikola Tesla, the 49ers are 41-26 over the last three years and change based on that defense. Brock Purdy will not change that. Christian McCaffrey propping up Brock Purdy will not change that either. This is not a new referendum on Garoppolo the way the Lance draft was. This is simply a new acknowledgement of the old truth that the 49ers are not quarterback-dependent in the typical modern-football way. They are the new 2013 Seattle Seahawks, the new 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the new 1984 Chicago Bears. You like their offenses well enough, but you sweat formaldehyde at the thought of their defense.

The Mayfield insurance policy seems tantalizing because he is a name, but that's all he is now. He has not found a home in Cleveland or Charlotte even though the roads to both places were paved and graded for him. He also doesn't seem like the sort of guy whom one seeks to hand the ball off 34 times. Indeed, Sunday was Shanahan's favorite kind of game by far—he has the ball for 40 minutes, which means his defense needs only 20 minutes of terrorizing time. It also helped that the Dolphins were stunningly cavalier with their 12 possessions, one third of which ended with a turnover.

Not all games will be this easy for San Francisco, but they will run to the same pattern. Purdy will not be asked to be even as intrepid as the new Garoppolo had become. The 49ers force the other guy to take the chances, and only one, Kansas City, is comfortable enough doing that in all situations. The Chiefs, coincidentally, hung a 44 on the 49ers in Week 7, so we can surmise the limits of San Francisco's might.

But at least they'll know that if Purdy's foot is eaten by a wolf, or prolapses in his sleep, or just starts spinning uncontrollably, the solution is right there. Josh Johnson, this is finally your moment. Do try to make it last until Friday.

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