We have now witnessed 10 full quarters of Trey Lance as the 49ers’ quarterback. There are no clear answers on his ceiling in the long-term, let alone what to expect from him in the short term.
There is the stark reality is that if Lance performs in a playoff game as he did in Sunday’s first half, San Francisco would face a pretty difficult situation and be unlikely to win.
He missed two potential walk-in touchdowns, had at least three unnecessarily low throws, had one flat ball tipped, nearly wasted a potential field goal opportunity with a near interception, and was picked off with a bad decision on one of the plays which had walk-in touchdown potential. The wobble on some of his throws are definitely a cause for concern, too.
We have no idea whether Lance will play well against a much tougher defense. Next week’s regular season finale against the Rams is effectively a playoff matchup against a team which is fighting to win the division. It should provide a reasonable indication of how he could fare if tasked with the running the offense in the playoffs.
At the same time, Lance’s raw traits are the great equalizer and were on prime display in the second half.
In what should be a surprise to no one, he’s shown that he improves with extended reps. For him — a 21-year-old with more limited college experience than any other quarterback in his draft class — to be inconsistent after sitting for 12-straight weeks is expected.
But Jimmy Garoppolo is a 30-year-old, eight-year veteran who makes rookie mistakes to this day, and has to thread a much finer needle towards sustained success.
Instead of having to matriculate the ball down the field, Lance provides the home run opportunity on every single play. Rather than needing to to scheme something brilliant, lean on an outstanding play after a reception or a defensive mistake, Lance provides that in perpetuity.
He can turn a broken play into a first down, and will likely do so more often as he gets more comfortable with NFL timing and the rhythm of defensive pressures. If not for a Brandon Aiyuk hold, he’d have notched a walk-in rushing touchdown on Sunday.
His arm talent — while clearly unrefined — and willingness to push the ball down the field resulted in three explosive plays in the second half.
The deep ball he threw to Brandon Aiyuk came out too late, and as he took a hit, but that’s also part of why it turned into a 37-yard gain on a defensive pass interference. As nauseating as it is, the modern NFL rewards deep, underthrown balls by demanding defenders to clear the airspace for receivers.
Those plays have been called far more against the 49ers than to their benefit, and while it shouldn’t be a legitimate route of gaining yards, it is. Four plays after that pass interference call, Lance found Elijah Mitchell for a walk-in, lead-taking touchdown.
Two drives later, he put the game away with a 45-yard touchdown pass deep to Deebo Samuel, who ripped away from his defender.
On the ensuing drive he ripped a fastball over the middle to George Kittle, who made a comically impressive one-handed catch.
He also nearly connected with Brandon Aiyuk on a deep fade in the back corner of the end zone.
These were all reminders of the fact that Lance, as unpolished as he is in his current state, adds an element to the San Francisco offense which has not existed before. He can launch the ball to areas of the field which Garoppolo doesn’t even think about.
While it will take time for him to develop into a polished passer, that element of his game forces defenses to account for something new.
Garoppolo’s passing charts are largely grouped over the middle of the field and 10-or-fewer yards when outside the numbers. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with throwing over the middle of the field, but the predictability of where those targets come from allow defenders to sit on underneath throws over the middle.
It’s why you saw that Bobby Wagner interception against the Seahawks, and why there are multiple instances of Garoppolo throwing near-picks when underneath defenders flash towards the line of scrimmage, then sink into coverage. He loves throwing short over the middle, and is still fooled by defenses — who know his tendencies — far more frequently than he should.
To his credit, Garoppolo has excelled in two-minute drills. The 49ers have found consistent explosive plays with him at the helm, but they rely on yards after the catch. Given the skill position players San Francisco has within its ranks, that’s a somewhat viable recipe.
But as Shanahan said earlier this season, Garoppolo’s interceptions on those throws over the middle are part of the risk-reward. Because those quick-fire throws are the only consistent method he has of getting those chunk passing plays, you have to live with them.
However, it is substantially more likely to find explosive plays on deep targets. And by challenging those deeper areas of the field, it also increases the likelihood of finding more favorable coverages on shorter patterns, and lowering the risk part of the risk-reward calculation.
Those largely YAC-based explosives can become easier to find with a quarterback who forces defenses to account for throws outside of the Garoppolo hot zones.
There is much made about “unlocking the playbook” which might be a misleading concept if the playbook has been built around a quarterback who has a defined range of preferred target areas.
But you have to imagine that if defenses have to respect every inch of the football field, Kyle Shanahan would have a field day in finding creative ways to attack them.
Yes, there’s the reality that Trey Lance was shaky against a now 4-12 Texans team and Garoppolo is unquestionably the more reliable quarterback at this stage. But there has never been a more perfect time for Lance to take the reins and learn how to operate as an NFL quarterback.
The downside is more palpable with Lance, but Sunday was another glimpse at his upside, and that’s a cause for legitimate, long-term optimism.