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Don’t let offseason rumblings fool you, Trey Lance’s talent is still there

Chris Mezzavilla

Summer is nearly here. Flowers are blooming, bees are pollinating, and as the sun hangs in the sky later and later into the day, football, too, is clawing its way back into the brain. 

There is something unnerving about late spring football. It feels out of place before the NBA Finals have even begun, and while baseball — along with its ethos of encouraging matinee beers —is rounding into form.

Among the few welcome elements of the football landscape, or at least familiar at this stage, is 49ers quarterback uncertainty.

As has seemingly always been the case in Kyle Shanahan’s tenure — and which seems like it will forever be true — quarterback speculation is percolating. 

Will a Shanahan team ever settle the question at that position? If Brock Purdy were healthy, perhaps. At the moment, we have myriad queries.

Despite optimism expressed by Shanahan on Tuesday, we still don’t know when Purdy will return and whether he’ll be the same as he was before he was injured. He is supposed to begin throwing “some time” next week. Even that is vague.

In place of answers, there is the arrival of Sam Darnold, buoyed by some stunning, if not slightly confounding offseason praise. Some, like Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, have said he’s likely to be the No. 2, which might well mean the No. 1, at least on an interim basis.

Darnold, as anyone who has watched him can attest to, has been a mostly poor NFL quarterback. 

Before a 4-2 conclusion to last season, Darnold had thrown 54 TDs to 52 INTs over four seasons with the Jets and Panthers. 

His 55 interceptions since entering the league in 2018 are sixth-most in the NFL. His 61 touchdown passes are the fewest among that six-person group and 26th overall in that time frame.

But there’s talent. Talent, talent, talent. It’s funny how much praise you hear about Darnold’s talent and not Trey Lance’s. Darnold has been in some terrible coaching situations, but he has started 55 games. 55!

Lance? Four. The man was drafted No. 3 overall two years ago and yet all we find ourselves listening to are the drones of “wow, that Darnold guy is talented? Finally in a good situation with Kyle Shanahan? Watch out.”

Lance’s No. 3 pedigree is apparently not worth what Darnold’s is. 

Yet, if you were to compare raw talent — and some might disagree, arguing, fairly, that Darnold came out of college the more polished thrower — the scales would tip in Lance’s favor. 

It bears repeating, as social media continues to rapidly erode our collective attention spans, that Lance was drafted two years ago. He is 23 years old. In the short time he was healthy in his first training camp, he gave Jimmy Garoppolo a run for his money. 

Then he fractured his finger in the preseason opener in 2021. In concert with a plan from college through the draft — paired with a flawed throwing motion that has reportedly been amended —  Lance, by his own admission, was overworked, and often in discomfort.

His fractured index prevented him from throwing the ball properly and forced him to focus on re-learning how to throw a football. Lance said he didn’t quite get to 100 percent going into last season, before his devastating ankle injury.

All of that left him in a situation where he was swimming upstream. He told reporters on Tuesday that lost his love of football at some point along the way. The too-rigorous draft and NFL preparation, the injuries, the setback, the disappointments, they all waged war on his happiness.

Lance said he’s talked to sports psychologists throughout his recovery, and shouted out his physical therapist, Mike Sola, for working with him outside of a normal rehab schedule. For the first time since that first preseason game against the Raiders in 2021, Lance says he’s fully healthy.

Just as important is the fact that his joy has returned.

“I really feel like I am having fun playing football again,” Lance said.

Never underestimate the potency of joy in a profession. That revelation from Lance is profound, even if his injury history both encourages wariness of his long-term health and cautious optimism about what he may show in training camp.

If you’re the 49ers, though, you’d prefer known than unknown commodities, and there are only unknowns with Lance.

He may turn out to be a total bust: a wholly incompetent quarterback. At this stage, he’s closer to that than a productive option, or a semi-reliable backup. But he’s had two years to learn from Kyle Shanahan and a get a feel for the NFL machine. That’s not nothing.

Betting on Darnold — as horrendous and ghost-seeing as he has been in some stages of his career — is not a wholly outrageous proposition, either. The rose-tinted media affirmations of his talent this offseason reflect a confidence that the 49ers can channel the best of him. 

The fact that we still have no idea what Lance is creates even more questions for a team that has been and will continue to compete. Darnold, meanwhile, has plenty of tape, and will have the most cogent coaching staff he’s ever worked with. His last six games with Carolina offer legitimate cause for optimism. Jus look at what happened to Geno Smith when he escaped the clutches of the Meadowlands.

But why shouldn’t Lance get that same deference, especially at this way-too-early stage? 

These next few months will be about deciphering how much of those not-so-subtle rumblings will bear true in regards to Darnold. Might they be a subtle method of imploring Lance to come out firing?

Time will tell. But as the 49ers wait for Purdy to return, they have two quarterback options with as much talent, and as much to prove as any quarterback room Shanahan has ever had. It’s hard to imagine that competition being dull.


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