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A Whimper, Not a Bang - the End of Trey Lance’s 49ers Career

Aug 26, 2023 at 12:34 PM--

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Two and a half years after the 49ers executed one of the largest pre-draft trade-ups in NFL history, the Trey Lance experiment is over. Brock Purdy is the starter, Sam Darnold is the backup, and Lance is gone, shipped off to the Dallas Cowboys for a fourth-round pick. The entire Lance saga in San Francisco is, without question, an embarrassment for the 49ers' front office. They didn't have what it takes to mold such an inexperienced, young QB into an NFL superstar so quickly. They misjudged Lance's athleticism, which they believed would give him an edge over the rest of the league while he sharpened the core of his game. They hoped that by bringing in Sam Darnold, a rivalry between third-overall picks would light a fire under Lance and unlock some of the greatness inside him. At seemingly every juncture, whether due to luck or flawed design, they were wrong.

But they admitted it. That's what makes this situation seem so jarring. General managers hold onto their first-round picks like golden idols, until the team suffers for it and tanks. Coaches stick with "their guy," hoping desperately to avoid a sudden losing streak that costs them their job. Owners around the league unilaterally dictate player and personnel decisions, much to the chagrin of everyone involved. In the NFL, you never see teams fully invest in their guy, give him room to grow and develop at a natural pace, and then admit when they're wrong. You especially don't see it without someone getting held up as a scapegoat and fired for the whole shebang.

The 49ers, in accepting culpability for their mistakes, have proven themselves to be one of the NFL's premier football clubs. This organization is aware, painfully aware, that humiliation cannot be an obstacle to winning. They tried going all-in for their version of Patrick Mahomes, and that ambition resulted in a debacle that will be rehashed and re-litigated for decades to come. But they had to move on. They have to do anything it takes to bolster a roster that's had their hearts ripped out so many times over the past four years. Niners fans have watched players like Frank Gore and Joe Staley give everything they had and still be unable to get over that hump. It wouldn't be fair to the unbelievable collection of talents and personalities on this team to sputter out so close to the finish line. It wouldn't be fair to Lance, whose future in the NFL still isn't written. Breaking up is hard to do, but it's for the best for everyone involved.

For now, San Francisco will enjoy the myriad benefits of parting ways with Lance. They'll save a minimal amount of salary cap space this year (a little over $900,000), and a few more millions next year, which will be necessary for keeping their other stars in-house. They'll be able to take advantage of that extra roster spot, and who knows? It might end up going to a bubble guy who ends up putting in a Pro-Bowl season this year or next. The 49ers will get back one of the mid-round picks they dropped to pick up Christian McCaffrey, who may have been the single most talented player on the team last year. Last but perhaps not least, the 49ers will be able to keep three QBs in a stable rotation on the roster. It's hard to imagine the team being better solely on account of not having Trey Lance as an option, but maybe that stability becomes vitally important down the line, especially if this season goes anything like the past few.

There are, certainly, reasons not to like the Lance trade. In addition to the possibility that Lance goes on to become an All-Pro for one of the 49ers' rivals later on, the minuscule cap savings this year means that a Lance trade was never going to allow the 49ers to make a critical mid-season trade, at least not by itself. Trading away Lance gives both breathing room and additional pressure to Brock Purdy, who now solidly bears the title of QB1. There's no more inherent risk there than there is for any other NFL team, but it Purdy goes down again, the backup situation looks a lot less flexible now. And the return on the trade feels questionable, considering all they got back was one mid-round pick. You don't think that if Aaron Rodgers goes down in Week 6 and Zach Wilson continues to do Zach Wilson things, the 49ers could have gotten at least a third? The trade needed to happen, to be sure, but the timing feels off, doubly so considering it happened on the Friday afternoon before the final preseason grade.

There's no one right way to feel about this trade. What hopes 49ers fans held for Lance was always tempered by his lack of runway, and the benefits of cutting ties means losing out the incredible potential that Lance has always held. But now Lance is gone, and his chapter in San Francisco has closed. What it represents is a colossal failure by the 49ers organization, squandering years' worth of resources for nothing. What it represents is the exact opposite, the drive of a championship-caliber team with an engine too well-oiled and well-built to spend a few more years tinkering with the frame. Mostly, what it represents is a story without a clean resolution. The 49ers paid the ultimate price, but they won't be able to ride off into the sunset because of it, Lombardi trophies in tow. They may eventually find that happily-ever-after, but not behind Lance. All they found for their trouble was a fourth-round pick.
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