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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Shanahan, Trey Lance, Sam Darnold analyze up-and-down start to the preseason for 49ers quarterbacks

Aug 13, 2023 at 5:57 PM--

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As was the case for the entire 49ers team after their ugly 34-7 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in their preseason opener on Sunday, there was a scattering of positives and negatives from the game for the 49ers quarterbacks to carry over into the days ahead.

With Brock Purdy on the sidelines along with the bulk of the team's starters, Trey Lance opened the game at quarterback for the 49ers, while Sam Darnold started the second half before Brandon Allen finished things out in the fourth quarter. Lance completed 10 of 15 passes for 112 yards and one touchdown but had three three-and-outs to start the game and was under a good amount of pressure from the Raiders' pass rush (four sacks) while drawing some criticism for not getting his passes away quicker. Darnold finished 5-of-8 for 84 yards, while Allen completed 5-of-8 passes for 36 yards and an interception on a pass that went through the hands of wide receiver Ronnie Bell.

After the game, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan gave his assessment of Lance and Darnold's performances, starting with Lance, who was making his first start since suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2 of the 2022 season. Lance looked rusty early on, but he didn't get all of the blame from Shanahan for the offense's slow beginning.

"It got off to a rough start for everybody. I don't put all that on Trey," Shanahan said. "I mean, three three-and-outs for the whole offense the first three times, so I don't put that all on Trey by any means. I thought the whole offense was sloppy to start."

The offense finally got moving on the fourth possession of the first half, which ended in a bizarre touchdown catch by tight end Ross Dwelley. Lance's pass was nearly intercepted on the play but bounced off the hands of Raiders defensive back Duke Shelley before landing in Dwelley's hands for the score. The play tied the game at 7 and was one of the biggest highlights in a day of lowlights for the 49ers, despite it almost being a rough moment for Lance.

"(Dwelley) made a hell of a play on the touchdown," Shanahan said. "I know it was almost a hell of a play for them with the pick, but that was the last guy on a bootleg. It flashed, and he put it on him, and that guy came in and tipped it and made a good play, but fortunately, Ross Dwelley was there."

The 49ers got back into scoring range twice with Lance at quarterback, but the first of those two possessions ended in a fumble while the second resulted in a missed field goal at the end of the half. It's understandable if Shanahan thought about seeing more of Lance after missing so much time over the past year, but he stuck to the plan of getting Darnold on the field early in the second half.

"It was hard to not put him in the third," Shanahan said of Lance.

Darnold got his first appearance with the 49ers started with a bang, connecting with Bell on a picture perfect 37-yard gain on the second play of his first possession. But that drive ended in a turnover on downs when Darnold failed to convert on a fourth down sneak, then the next two possessions ended in a fumble and a missed field goal before Allen took over in the fourth quarter.

Shanahan liked what he saw from Darnold in his limited action and hopes to see more from him in the 49ers' second preseason game next Saturday against the Denver Broncos.

"I thought he did a great job," Shanahan said. "I mean, coming in the second half and you're in there with twos/threes on the O-Line, same with the receivers and everything. So we wanted to be careful of Sam for that reason, but we also wanted him to play, too. So it was nice to be able to get Trey the whole first half, get Sam a little bit, and hopefully Sam will get a little bit more time next week."

Lance provided a bare-bones assessment of his performance while speaking to reporters after the game ("Honestly, I've got to go back and watch the tape, and I think I'll have a much better idea -- definitely some good, some bad," Lance said), but he seems to be taking things one step at a time with his comeback, and Sunday was a particularly important step considering it was his first playing time in almost a year.

"I was excited to get back out there," Lance said. "Honestly, today, that was the biggest thing -- go play real football again, go compete again. So that felt good, I guess, first and foremost. But obviously the score showed it. From drive to drive, I've got to execute better."

Lance put more of the blame on himself for the offense's slow start than Shanahan did, and he didn't use rust as an excuse for his first three drives ending in punts.

"It doesn't feel good to go three-and-out, especially to start the game," Lance said. "So that was definitely frustrating. But obviously I put it on myself. You continue to be better. Make sure the guys around me are ready to go, I'm ready to go. It starts with me, so I put that on myself."

Lance also took the blame for at least one of the four times he was sacked in the first half.

"For sure. I know there's one I definitely could have thrown away and avoided a sack, or at least it felt like it on the field," Lance said. "But, again, that's one of those things (where) I think I really got to go back and watch the tape, and I think I'd have a better answer for you after that."

But Lance got more productive as the half proceeded, thanks to an increased comfort level as well as some familiarity with the Raiders after practicing with them last week.

"I'd say more than anything, just things were opening up," I had a good feel for what they were doing, especially after these joint practices. So I felt good even going into the game, those first few drives. Just miscommunication, guys on different pages and gotta execute.

Darnold gave a somewhat more positive assessment of his performance, which was his first with the 49ers after joining the team as a free agent in the offseason. But like Lance, he put the blame on his shoulders for the offense not being able to do more when he was under center.

"I feel like I managed things well," Darnold said. "I think at the end of the day, as a team, we just need to play better. As an offense, we need to operate a little bit better. And yeah, you put a lot of that on yourself as a quarterback."

Despite not being able to put points on the board, the completion to Bell was a big one for Darnold in that it got the offense moving while also getting his feet wet in his first playing time with the 49ers.

"I think in the preseason and playing football in general, you want to be able to find completions," Darnold said. "I think that's the huge when you're kind of out of rhythm as an offense to kind of get back on track, just finding completions and figuring out a way to move the chains. So I think we did that a little bit, but then we kind of stopped ourselves on a couple of those drives."

With Purdy seemingly entrenched as the starter at the moment, the next two preseason games will help determine who the 49ers will choose as their backup between Darnold and Lance and how many quarterbacks the team will keep on their roster. How it all plays out remains to be seen, but Darnold feels the quarterback room has been progressing as a whole.

"I feel like the operation is getting better," Darnold said. "Again, like I said, there's still a ton of things that we need to work on. But we'll work on those things and get better."

Meanwhile, Lance hopes to continue progressing towards one day getting a shot at once again being the starting quarterback. Time will tell when or if that happens, but for now, he plans on continuing to do what he can with the chances he gets while letting the chips fall where they may.

"Just taking advantage of every opportunity I get, one day at a time, like I said earlier in training camp," Lance said. "Just trying to stay present, focused, one day at a time, and trust that whatever is meant to happen will happen."

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