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Making sense of Trey Lance’s season-ending injury

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers lost on Sunday. Their win over Seattle is a mild reprieve from the dread of losing their starting quarterback for the season.

According to head coach Kyle Shanahan, Lance fractured his ankle in the first quarter and will undergo season-ending surgery on Monday.

Everything about this feels horrible. To see a 22-year-old with so much promise suffer such a devastating injury can leave you with little else but a hollow, sickened feeling.

So much of this season’s promise and excitement was based around seeing what Lance could do. Good or bad, and probably both, it would have been an incredible experiment to see Shanahan work with a ball-of-clay quarterback with a sky-high ceiling.

That won’t happen. The 49ers are lucky and grateful to have Jimmy Garoppolo around and they will assuredly be competitive this year.

But this is another year of lost development, and now Lance has an arduous recovery ahead.

The natural instinct after such a devastating injury, is to wonder: Could this have been avoided?

How Lance got injured was unusual.

But the path he was on, and the frequency and manner in which he was used as a runner warrants questions. The more you put a player between the tackles, the likelier it is they’ll get hurt. There’s a reason running backs have the second-shortest career lifespan in the NFL.

When asked about his process of deciding to run Lance between the tackles, Shanahan, understandably, recoiled.

If I was Shanahan, I’d be furious at suggestions that he was at fault for Lance’s injury. I’m sure no one is hurting more than Shanahan and for him to bristle at questions over how he used Lance is completely fair.

He’s spent the last two years working with Lance, getting to know him as a person, seeing him grow and develop. He’s a kid.

Other than Lance himself, there is no one more invested in seeing him succeed.

But I believe the way Shanahan used Lance, as a frequent runner between the tackles, was unsustainable, and would have led to other injuries, if it was not this one.

I don’t say that with any malicious intent, just out of a belief that the NFL is brutal, and running your quarterback like a fullback is likelier than not to result in some consequences.

Those consequences were clear in Week 5 of last season, when Lance rushed 16 times for 89 yards in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals and suffered a sprained knee. Nine of those carries were inside the tackles.

Shanahan’s counter to those questions, and prospective criticism over how he used Lance, was to reference Josh Allen, who consistently bulldozes defenders.

Allen’s season-crushing game against the 49ers in 2020 surely served as part of the inspiration to draft a quarterback like Lance, and every coach should have the desire to find a quarterback with those qualities.

But there are some differences between Allen and Lance.

Allen is a freak of nature. He’s got an inch and a listed 13 pounds on Lance.

That’s surface-level though.

Allen is much more patient, confident and cocky as a runner after years of developing his running abilities in the league. Lance has shown some hesitation, and acknowledged this week there’s been an adjustment to the speed of the game.

“I’m not bigger, faster, and stronger than pretty much everyone else,” Lance said. “Guys catch up a lot quicker, space is filled, guys close a lot faster, and I have to learn to protect myself, just being in a different situation knowing how important it is for me to stay healthy.”  

He said he has to protect himself, “especially running laterally.” That showed up last year, especially against the Houston Texans, when he took some crunching hits.

He also said that protecting yourself is not an option between the tackles.

“For the most part, when I’m running between the tackles or running on third down, I’m not ever going to slide and go fourth-and-two and just give up on the play and send our defense on the field if it’s a situation like that,” Lance said.

He’s a competitor. Of course he’s going to fight for extra yards when he can, especially on inside runs when battling through contact is a necessary hazard.

But Lance has run inside the tackles (and inside tight ends) far more than Allen did at that stage in his career.

As a rookie, of Allen’s 82 rushing attempts, excluding kneels (per PFF data), he ran between the tackles seven times. He ran another four times outside of the tackles, between the tight ends, so 11 times when he was really in the mix by design, not including QB sneaks.

He scrambled another 47 times.

Those runs inside the tackles represented just 8.54 percent of Allen’s rushing attempts as a rookie. It’s 13.41 percent inside the tight ends.

Last year, Lance rushed 37 times, excluding kneels. Eight of those carries were inside the tackles and 10 between the tight ends. That’s 21.62 percent of runs inside the tackles and 27.03 percent between the tight ends.

So far this season, four of Lance’s 16 carries were between the tackles by design. And yes, some of those are options, but when one of the options is for the QB to run between the tackles and it’s the right choice, it’s fair to consider that an inside run design.

Here’s how often Allen has carried the ball between the tackles in his career, by design.

And here’s Lance:

It’s a small sample size, but Lance carries the ball substantially more between the tackles, and especially early in his career, when Allen did far less of that.

This is without mentioning the frequency of those carries.

Allen has averaged 5.5 carries per game in his career, and 7.1 carries per game as a rookie.

In Lance’s first three starts, he averaged 12.33 carries per game. He had three in the first quarter of Sunday’s matchup before his injury, on pace for 12.

The other thing is, Allen is a much more crucial part of the Bills’ run game. The 49ers have had one of the most reliably effective rushing offenses in the NFL without a quarterback with a run threat. They do not need Lance to run the option to run effectively.

Their non-QB runners averaged 4.5 yards per carry on Sunday en route to 171 yards, and were running effectively all game.

Having Lance run by design absolutely helps, but it is not necessary to make the 49ers’ run game work. Shanahan has shown that for more than a decade.

Now, there’s zero question that the option is effective. Deebo Samuel’s 51-yard run came from that. And Lance has struggled to be all that effective running outside the tackles.

So from a pure strategic standpoint, Lance running between the tackles and being employed as a runner in option plays is an advantage, as Shanahan told Greg Papa.

Those plays are usually effective.

In 2018, here’s what Shanahan said about the zone read:

“Is your quarterback good enough at running with the football to make them commit to stop it? And once they do, is he good enough to make the passes that he has to that they just opened up?” Shanahan said. “If he is, that’s a huge issue. It’s tough to find that guy. And if you don’t protect him right and you don’t do the right stuff it is tough to stay healthy.”

That last part stings.

It’s evident that he wanted to lean on Lance’s running ability to make the Seahawks over-commit to the run to open up passing opportunities for him. That logic, as usual, is sound.

He may well have planned to lean on those running abilities — especially up the middle — more in the early season to give Lance more time to develop as a passer and to get defenses anxious about Lance’s running capabilities.

And if Lance wasn’t capable of making the basic throws in this offense without setting them up via up-the-gut runs, then maybe starting him was premature. I don’t subscribe to that belief, but his usage as a starter has clearly been far different than Garoppolo.

The question, though, was how long would that be sustainable? How long could the 49ers use him that way before he got hurt?

This is not questioning Lance’s toughness, talent, or the efficacy of the play calls. Looking at it from a pure X’s and O’s standpoint, they are effective plays. Shanahan, perhaps the best play caller in the NFL, has never struggled in that area.

And the notion that Shanahan is just a play caller, but somehow a poor coach, is a farce. He has developed a consistently stellar coaching staff which has led to multiple of his disciples taking on greater roles elsewhere.

His players respect him, and those who come into the 49ers organization from elsewhere rave about the level of professionalism. He has made a Super Bowl and the NFC Championship game in the two seasons he’s had a (mostly) healthy quarterback.

But on this issue, of using Lance in the capacity that he did, I believe he got it wrong. I believe Shanahan looked too rationally at the effectiveness of his play calls and setting up a game plan with too much confidence that Lance could sustain those blows consistently.

The 49ers’ offense has always been effective at running the ball. Lance simply being on the field is a run threat. His upside in being able to extend plays off schedule and target deeper areas of the field already gives this team a higher ceiling than with Jimmy Garoppolo.

This is not saying they should never run read-option with Lance. That is clearly an effective part of the offense with him and something he’s comfortable with. Running him between the tackles should by no means be off limits.

Hindsight is always 20/20. But you didn’t need hindsight to have concerns that running a franchise quarterback up the middle repeatedly was not and is not a sustainable method of preserving his health.

On the whole, this is just an absolutely brutal course of events.

This should not be interpreted as any sort of “I told you so,” just an assessment that there were signs for major concern in the way Lance was being used as a runner. It seemed likely, whether on Sunday, or some other time this season, that running him consistently between the tackles would result in consequences.

The 49ers protected themselves by retaining Jimmy Garoppolo. Their floor is higher, but their ceiling is lower with him than Lance, and the future at that position is now muddy.

This is an absolute punch to the gut. The 49ers will likely be successful this season, but this sick feeling will linger for a long time.


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