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Trey Lance - 49ers Smokescreen, or New Paradigm Entirely?

Jun 2, 2023 at 2:44 PM--

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The story of San Francisco's offseason is, has been, and will be the quarterback controversy between incumbent Brock Purdy and highly-drafted Trey Lance. Purdy, by merit of his ahead-of-schedule rehabilitation and the eight straight wins he was responsible for, is likely to enter the 2023 season as the starter. That makes Lance's role frustrating to decipher. To anyone not in the building, the dynamic playing out is clear as mud.

There's no question that the standard in Santa Clara is winning. If Purdy offers the 49ers a realistic chance for a 12-13 win season and even odds should they make it back to the Super Bowl, Purdy's in. If Lance is capable of becoming a top-5 QB in this league and tilting that Super Bowl in the 49ers' favor, then he'll find a way to get out on the field whether or not he starts the season on the bench.

But that ask - Lance transforming from a raw prospect to a truly elite player - isn't something the 49ers are ever guaranteed to get. And the comments that 49ers leaders have made recently have made it that much harder to determine their strategy going forwards.

This week, 49ers GM John Lynch and quarterback coach Brian Griese have both commented on Lance's progress so far in OTAs. Lynch mentioned that he was "really proud of Trey," and that "we still remain very high on Trey." Griese echoed his comments, stating, "I'm so proud of Trey because he did not let [his ankle injury] keep him down."

Those comments are curious, in the broader context of NFL media. Lance is a young player who really hasn't broken into the league just yet, and everyone involved understands that this barrier must be overcome before Lance can become his own player. Certainly, the encouragement is welcome. But the 49ers are a professional organization. Shanahan and Lynch have made it clear since Day 1 that glory and success will come to those that earn it. We've seen Shanahan put players in his doghouse before when he expects more from them, and faced with that adversity, some players ball out (Brandon Aiyuk) and others flame out (Dante Pettis). We haven't seen that pressure heaped upon Lance's shoulders just yet. In fairness, we haven't seen that pressure draped upon Purdy's either, given that he was almost literally the 49ers' only option and grew into his role like a bamboo shoot anyways.

So how to interpret all this? It's possible that Trey Lance just isn't it, and the fluffy comments surrounding him are hype to keep his perceived value high, or so say the jaded media analysts. Given the gargantuan sum the 49ers paid to draft him, that would be the worst outcome possible. And I don't think it's that likely. Given the context - his draft positioning, his youth, his injuries, his work ethic - there's nothing that he could have shown in the last few weeks that could have turned the coaches' minds from a "maybe" to a "hard no." If he was always going to be on his way out, a trade would've been executed around the draft. At the very least, the Niners consider Lance a fallback option if Purdy struggles or gets hurt, and Sam Darnold doesn't become a Foles-like cult hero.

If the Niners still harbor aspirations for Lance, then, where does that leave them? Sure, Lance could be and probably is marked for a backup role to start the season. If he balls out, great. If not, Purdy's still the plan. But how long is that arrangement sustainable? Are we really still in wait-and-see mode for the seventh straight year?

I recall a story from the hiring of the ShanaLynch duo, where Jed York had both parties allocate resources to the roster to demonstrate what they thought was the best way to build a team. According to York, Shanahan and Lynch agreed considerably - big investments in the defensive lines, ensuring premium players at offensive tackle, and shoring up the receiver corps. But at the top of the priority list, the position with the single most resources allocated to it, was quarterback. To their credit, they ended up investing big at QB with Jimmy Garoppolo, but his position was unstable as soon as it was clear he wouldn't win the 49ers a Super Bowl, not by himself.

But then they didn't double down by acquiring Tom Brady, or any of the other top-flight QBs that have hit the market recently. And now they're promoting the idea that with a stable of young, high-ceiling quarterbacks, they can find the highest level of success while spending money elsewhere.

And that's the biggest reason I suspect there might be something more with this unusual arrangement. Kyle Shanahan isn't known to be a particularly flexible coach - he's not Sean McVay or John Harbaugh. His genius tends to come from executing his concepts better than anyone else. But he's not completely impassive, either. Could he be open to creating a new type of quarterback dynamic, a roster-building quirk that bucks conventional wisdom in favor of getting the most out of the resources available to him?

If he is, Purdy-Lance could become something completely new. Not a quarterback controversy, but a quarterback rivalry. A growth-minded approach that uses each player's unique circumstances to keep them together, getting the most out of each other, for as long as possible. It's not Montana-Young, if only because holding two of the best players of any position on your roster is a statistical anomaly, but maybe it's the 21st-century version of trying to get there. Maybe Sam Darnold could join that group if he grows into a stable situation here, too.

Or maybe earnestly trying to cheat the system by innovating a completely different approach to the quarterback conundrum is too much to ask, because it's the kind of thing that blows up a franchise if it fails. Maybe the 49ers' best shot is trying to wait for a Joe Burrow trade in 2027 after all, and this is just what the 49ers are stuck with until then. Figure out who can play and who can't, offload everyone except your guy, and try to do things the normal way.

In that case, all this hubbub probably is just a smokescreen. Which is a bit disappointing, given the unique situation San Francisco is in. That it continually finds itself in. It's wise to expect the worst, of course. Niners fans have come so close lately, and been burned every time. It'd simply be nice if one of these days, those unique situations ended up giving them the best.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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