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Revisiting How the 49ers Mishandled Trey Lance

Chris Beno
Aug 24, 2023 at 10:00 AM

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Saying the 49ers front office and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan mishandled QB Trey Lance isn't entirely a true statement. Yes, there were without a doubt some questionable decisions made that someone should be held accountable for. After all, Lance was named the starting QB last season but wasn't necessarily always put in the best position to succeed in his young career. Primarily concerning his development.

Since the 49ers sold the farm to move up to the 3rd pick in the 2021 draft to select the raw QB out of North Dakota State, the decision was made to redshirt Lance his rookie year and stick with veteran QB Jimmy Garoppolo. The idea was to give Lance time to develop and take in the NFL from the sidelines as opposed to being thrown out there to either sink or swim. After all, it worked for Patrick Mahomes and Steve Young—allegedly. It's a totally baseless claim if you ask me. The decision to sit him for an entire season was mistake number one.

Prior to the 2021 NFL season, Lance hadn't played any significant football since 2019, playing in only one game during the 2020 season due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was evident to everyone that what Lance needed was live reps. Not split reps, second-team reps, or mental reps, but as many live game reps as he could get with the full backing of the franchise supporting him. Lance never got that.

The issue was the 49ers felt they had a "win now" roster. The time and patience required to develop a QB as raw as Lance just wasn't in the cards for Kyle Shanahan when the Super Bowl window was wide open. That was mistake number 2.

Why even make that pick if you are unwilling to go through those growing pains? It feels like an emotional draft choice brought on by an infatuation with highlight reels and endless possibilities for your offense given Lance's physical attributes. No thought was given to the actual work and time required to actually pull it off.

In the 2021 season Lance saw his first action in week 1 of the preseason against the Green Bay Packers and scored the first TD of the game for the 49ers after the Garoppolo-led offense struggled to even move the ball. Including preseason, Lance appeared in 6 games that season and threw for 603 yards, 5 TDs and 2 INTs with a passer rating of 97.3, which really isn't bad for a backup "project" QB.

The stats don't tell the full story though. In those games during the 2021 season, the game plan put in place for Lance was…weird. Lance seemed handcuffed to game plans that made him the focal point of the running game as opposed to the facilitator of the offense. Those games had a vibe of Shanahan not trusting Lance with "his" offense.

Lance had 38 rushing attempts that year, 16 of those coming in his first start against the undefeated Arizona Cardinals. During that start, he suffered a knee spring that sidelined him, and his development, yet again. That's mistake number three—the way he was utilized.

Lance didn't get another opportunity to start until week 17 against the Houston Texans when he led the 49ers to a must-win victory to earn a playoff spot. But even then that wasn't enough. The 49ers put an injured Garoppolo ahead of him during the playoffs. The team did make it to the NFC Conference Championship Game, largely on the back of the 49ers' top-tier defense and running game (both of which would help out a young QB), but once again fell short due to the limitations at the QB position. Mistake number four—not trusting the future of the franchise.

The 2022 season was supposed to be a fresh start for the 49ers and for Lance as he was declared the starting QB. The team struggled in their opening game against the Chicago Bears while playing in a monsoon, and lost Lance in the opening drive the following week after he suffered a broken ankle against the Seattle Seahawks.

The 49ers then relied on Garoppolo to take over once again before he too was lost for the season due to injury in week 13 against the Miami Dolphins. Insert 7th-round draft pick QB Brock Purdy on his magic carpet. Purdy came in like a man on a mission and played within Shanahan's offense to near perfection. To Kyle Shanahan, his scheme comes first. He's always been comfortable with B-List QBs running it. Just limit mistakes, throw it where Shanahan wants you to throw it, and don't go off script. If you can do that, you're Shanahan's guy.

When it was all said and done the 49ers made it to another NFC Conference Championship where they fell short once again due to another 49ers QB injury, this time to rookie phenom Brock Purdy.

No one could have predicted the injuries that Lance had or the emergence of Brock Purdy. So the decision to go with him as the starting QB wasn't necessarily a total shocker. But to crown him after only 8 games and coming off of a major surgery to his throwing arm, and simultaneously not give Lance a chance to compete for the starting job was a little shocking. You can see Lance talk about it here on the Rich Eisen Show:

That competition never came to fruition which to me is mistake number 5. With Purdy being named the starter, Lance was left to battle with veteran QB Sam Darnold for the QB2 spot. Given the investment that the 49ers made to acquire Lance, he at least deserved the chance to compete for the top spot.

After news broke yesterday of Darnold being named QB2, the future of Trey Lance as a 49er is now in question.

The best thing for Lance and his development is to get on the field, not to be buried on the depth chart. WIth Shanahan's obvious lack of faith in Lance, we might see the 49ers move on from him sooner, rather than later.

According to ESPN's Nick Wagoner, if Trey Lance never suits up for the 49ers again, he will have played in the fewest games by a top 5 pick in the common draft era, which dates back to 1967.

In a way, Lance did get his shot. He just fell victim to circumstance. The 49ers also never took his development seriously. Both can be true. At this point, we can only hope the best for Lance, and pray that Shanahan gambled correctly by choosing a Purdy and Darnold QB room. Anything short of a Super Bowl will be a failure. If not, that coaching seat will get hot quickly, and maybe then there will be some accountability in the 49ers organization.
  • Chris Beno
  • Written by:
    Coming from Elk Grove, California I grew up a Bay Area sports fan. I've been cheering for the 49ers for as long as I can remember. In 2005 I joined the Army when I was 18 and got stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. I just kind of hung around here. I've always enjoyed writing and have typically focus on writing music. I am truly blessed to get to cover the 49ers, and have my articles published on the 49ers Webzone. I appreciate all of the Faithful that take the time to read the articles that myself and other contributors put out there. The 49ers have without a doubt the best fanbase, and best content creators around.
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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  • Cynic
    It was a big mistake. Move on. Shanahan and Lynch are a great team and have done a great job. Too many Niner fans don't appreciate how hard it is to have a winning, quality team that contends year after year.
    Aug 25, 2023 at 8:45 AM
  • BeauKnows
    Mistake #1 was reading this article. Once I reached mistake #3 in your list, I stopped reading. The first mistake the Niners made was to draft Trey Lance in the 1st round. This guy didn't have enough playing time under his belt. He wasn't that good to begin with, which is why he needed more playing time at the college level. Mistake #2 the Niners made was considering drafting this guy with the minimal experience he had. Every year teams draft QB's in the first round, hoping they found their franchise QB. They reach on guys who have 30 games or less of experience in college. There is no replacement for game time for a QB (the only reasonable advice given in your article btw). Game time at the college level does 2 things; 1) that QB learns his strength and weaknesses, can develop them, and better himself with each start and game time rep he has, 2) more reps = more tape, giving NFL scouts a chance to really see, watch, and understand the QB's strengths and weaknesses, and will show how quickly the QB can adapt, learn, and get better. Why do I think Purdy did so well? He had game time reps at the college level over 4 years. There's no replacement for knowledge.
    Aug 24, 2023 at 1:50 PM
  • Scott
    Beno no offense and I have been a Niner fan for long before you were born but all the new sports writers really think they have all the nuance of how the organization is being ran. The problem is Buddy you have no idea of all the inside decision making and what makes them do what they do. When it come to QB's you all think you have the answers. You don't! Just like you all had Jimmy traded 5 yrs ago. Try covering something other than Contract issues and focus on players abilities and short coming. You are really starting to be as annoying as Grant and that my friend is not a good thing.
    Aug 24, 2023 at 10:58 AM


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