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The Trey Lance experience might not be smooth, but it’s exactly what 49ers need



© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it happened. Trey Lance got the keys to the offense.

After a lackluster first half in which the 49ers failed to capitalize on near perfect defense and a chasmic yardage advantage, Jimmy Garoppolo watched the second half from the sideline with a calf injury as Lance took over. If Kyle Shanahan does his job right, Garoppolo should never start another game for this team.

The move came as a surprise with Garoppolo not visibly limping in the first half. He began the day 6-for-6 with 70 yards and a touchdown, then threw an interception and looked exceedingly mediocre or worse before his day was over.

He said the calf injury happened on the first series and was a factor in some of his missed throws. Whatever the cause, he’s out for the time being. He’ll get an MRI to assess the severity of a calf injury which he said he hopes to be no more than a “couple week” injury… which is a fairly long starting timeline for a starting quarterback.

It’s not Garoppolo’s show anymore. It’s Lance’s.

And with Lance at the helm, the fit did not look hand-in-glove. That’s to be expected.

Lance looked out of sorts on multiple occasions. His feet were jumping around in the pocket before pressure arrived, he ran when he had passing options, and put his body on the line a few too many times.

He made mistakes, and they have to be pointed out and corrected like any player, especially at the defining position on the football field.

But the context for Lance is crucial.

The game plan was not designed for him, as Kyle Shanahan said, and it was an extremely difficult situation to put any quarterback in, let alone a rookie. Still, he gave the 49ers a chance, and barring that Trenton Cannon fumbled kickoff, may have won the game.

This is a point repeated too many times, but he is 21 years old, coming from the Missouri Valley Conference, where he played one full season, then basically didn’t play all of last year. He’d only thrown two passes before Sunday, one of which was called off for a penalty.

When Lance did get his chance, he wasn’t given a passing opportunity until his second series.

Due to that Cannon fumble and some punt shenanigans from the referees, Lance had to wait more than 14 minutes from the time he took his first snap to the time he took his first throw. If you’re trying to ease your rookie quarterback’s nerves, those long pauses aren’t exceedingly helpful.

On that second series, Lance missed an easy screen to Kittle and smartly threw away a pass to Deebo Samuel in double coverage. Lance declined to blame jitters for any mistakes, but they were evident.

For all of the uncertainty that he showed in the pocket, though, Lance showed exactly why he probably should have started over Garoppolo from the start, even though Garoppolo was the better quarterback from a traditional passing perspective and running the “Shanahan offense.”

When plays broke down, Lance escaped the pocket easily with his feet, highlighted by an impressive 4th-and-10 conversion when he avoided two sack opportunities, then ran up the middle for the first down.

In a pretty dire situation, Lance gave the 49ers an opportunity to compete even with a game plan that wasn’t built for him. With the benefit of a full week, you should expect to see more play-action rollout opportunities that compliment his skillset.

Shanahan said after the game that Lance has a lot to learn, and that’s been shown by the rookie performances around the league.

“It was good for him to take us down and score and drive there and the end, but it takes some time to play in this league, what you guys have seen throughout [the league],” Shanahan said. “It’s about knowing where to get rid of the ball, when to try to make those plays, when to check it down and have other guys do it for you, when to hang in the pocket, when to escape the pocket and he got a lot of real NFL game experience with that today and hopefully he’ll get better from it.”

But here’s the thing. Every rookie quarterback played significantly better this week. It’s almost like you get better at your job the more you do it. And this might as well have been Lance’s first day on the job.

Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars (1st overall pick): 17-for-24, 204 yards, 8 carries, 36 yards, 1 TD

Zach Wilson, Jets (2nd overall pick): 21-for-34, 297 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 3 carries, -2 yards

Trey Lance, 49ers (3rd overall pick): 9-for-18, 157 yards, 2 TD, 7 carries, 41 yards

Justin Fields, Bears (11th overall pick): 11-for-17, 209 yards, 1 INT, 3 carries, 9 yards

Mac Jones, Patriots (15th overall pick): 31-for-40, 275 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 1 carry, -1 yards

We saw what this offense was with Garoppolo. Without a stellar running game, it was non-competitive. With Lance, it’s not going to be perfect. He’s going to make a lot of head scratching plays. But his upside is virtually limitless.

He can extend plays in a way Garoppolo can’t, can open the playbook in ways Garoppolo can’t, and can target throws Garoppolo can’t.

Now, the offense will have to adjust. The offensive line didn’t look comfortable or prepared for Lance’s style in long pass sets or adjusting to him escaping the pocket, and given the limited reps that he’s had with the first team, that will take some time. That’s without mentioning that Trent Williams could miss some time, which is the last thing a rookie quarterback needs.

Unlike their NFC West counterparts, especially in Seattle and Arizona, the 49ers’ receivers didn’t look like they’d ever run a scramble drill before. That’s not knocking them, but this offense is going to become far more improvisational, and they need to be ready to play some backyard football.

The fact that those adjustments are needed now is largely on Kyle Shanahan’s shoulders.

Shanahan said there wasn’t an open quarterback competition and only provided limited first-team reps to Lance. It came off like he was waiting for Garoppolo to lose the job. And he did.

Now, Lance and the rest of the offense are playing catch up.

If Shanahan is the coach he’s supposed to be, this is on him to improve and coach through Lance’s weak spots until he becomes more comfortable, and to work with the athletic upside he has available.

This team can and should still compete for the playoffs with Lance, but it’s on his head coach to put him in positions to win and not just run the “Shanahan offense.” There’s always been a sense that Shanahan is so obsessed with his own system that he just wants a player to run that system, which is why those Mac Jones rumors were so believable.

But Shanahan took Lance, who’s a ball of clay.

Whatever injuries the 49ers have at key positions, and whether they bungled their other draft picks (Aaron Banks hasn’t played a snap, Ambry Thomas has no utility) is entirely irrelevant if Lance is great. The Chiefs have drafted worse than just about any team in the NFL. But they have Patrick Mahomes. Lance can be the 49ers’ trump card.

This is a career-defining opportunity for Shanahan to lean on Lance’s strengths and adapt the offense to fit his abilities, especially while he develops as a passer.

The moment he decided he was drafting Lance and moving on from Garoppolo, that was always going to be the case. Now it’s time for Shanahan to show he’s ready to make a leap into the future of quarterbacking.