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What to make of Trey Lance’s failure to launch with 49ers



© Daniel Bartel | 2022 Sep 11

Trey Lance is a Dallas Cowboy. And he never really got a chance to be a San Francisco 49er.

Two years and fourth months after the 49ers spent a king’s ransom to acquire him, they cut their (enormous) losses.

His bizarre tenure has no adequate comparisons in the NFL.

A more appropriate mirror to the 49ers’ Lance project is in the field of aviation.

In the 1940s, film and airplane magnate Howard Hughes — played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2004 film “The Aviator” — poured $7 million of his own money into building the world’s largest plane, the H-4 Hercules, for the U.S. military to use in World War II.

The behemoth project, partially due to Hughes’ OCD and perfectionism, wasn’t finished until after the war ended.

In 1947, the Hercules made its sole flight. Hughes took off in it for less than a mile, for half a minute, roughly 25 feet off the water in Long Beach.

A glimpse of what could be. Never to be flown again. Forever stashed away in storage facilities and museums.

It just took too long. So, too, did the 49ers’ project with Lance. Despite the investment of three firsts and a third-round pick, Lance finds himself stashed away again, just in different environs.

San Francisco’s ballsy swing on their quarterback of the future was a total whiff.

We saw moments, but they were so short-lived you could blink and miss them. Before he ever had a chance to try, he was gone. He has played eight career games, starting four.

Per Josh Dubow of the A.P., Lance’s four starts are the fewest for a top-five drafted quarterback drafted in the common draft era for the team he debuted with. His eight games for the 49ers are the fewest ever for a top-five pick with their original team.

That’s where the whiplash comes from.

We don’t know what Trey Lance is going to be. We never got to see it.

But the 49ers no longer have time to wait and find out.

Anyone who witnessed Lance with an unbiased lens against the rest of the 49ers’ quarterback crop in this training camp saw he was not up to par.

But, of course he wasn’t. He hasn’t played. This camp was the first time he could throw a ball properly since playing at North Dakota State.

Everyone expected him to take time and reps — something Kyle Shanahan stated time and time again he needed — to develop. Neither commodity has been available to him.

When Lance broke his index finger against the Raiders in the preseason finale in 2021, his career path changed. In that camp, there was a genuine competition between him and Garoppolo, before the latter pulled away.

After that injury, Lance, who had over-thrown coming into that camp — dealing with the infamous “arm fatigue” — had to adapt and learn how to throw a football off his middle finger.

Flash forward to 2021. He was given the starting job, still using an disadvantageous throwing motion.

His first game was a mud bowl in Chicago. A game later, he snapped his ankle.

Garoppolo was re-embraced a bit too eagerly, led a playoff push, then Brock Purdy happened.

Now we’re here.

Lance worked all offseason. He improved. But he’s an inconsistent 23-year-old who has thrown 102 NFL passes over three years. The 49ers can’t afford to bet their Super Bowl hopes on a question mark… though that’s exactly what they did when they drafted him.

The front office at least has to be given credit for not subscribing to the sunk cost fallacy.

Every pick used to acquire Lance is in the past. The draft slate is clean. And they are ready to win now with quarterbacks who have exhibited far more capability in running the offense than Lance, whose moments of promise have been layered inside a sandwich of indecision.

The real blame for this situation goes back to the original decision: to draft a raw quarterback to a roster ready-made to win.

It was a project which would require patience, of which Kyle Shanahan would somewhat understandably did not, and could not, have.

Shanahan felt, correctly, that the roster could be improved by adding a quarterback on a rookie deal. He also hoped that the 49ers could acquire someone with the upside to elevate them from the always-the-bridesmaid status they’d experienced with Jimmy Garoppolo.

But the decision, like many of Shanahan’s, was informed heavily by scar tissue.

In that cursed 2020 season, standing at 5-6, the 49ers were convinced that they were capable of mounting a second-half playoff push. That ended when Josh Allen went scorched earth on them in a 34-24 loss to the Bills with Nick Mullens at the helm.The team was shell-shocked.

The 49ers had a “longer than usual” Monday meeting to follow, with Shanahan admitting the result cut deep.

That was a defining moment. Shanahan saw the reality of trying to compete for a Super Bowl against a well-rounded team with a human moose at quarterback on a rookie contract. They drafted Lance five months later.

When Lance broke his ankle on a carry, and Shanahan was asked about running him up the middle, he countered that it wass something the Bills “do all the time,” with Allen.

He thought the 49ers needed an upgrade, and he wanted his own version of Allen.

Garoppolo could execute the offense and make on-time throws, especially over the middle. But what he was missing, and what the team needed, was someone with the ability to do the following:

  1. Make off-schedule plays
  2. Stretch defenses vertically by connecting more regularly on deep throws, especially passes outside the numbers
  3. Run the ball, or at least respect the possibility of a quarterback run

The 49ers wanted a rookie quarterback who could do all that, and at least someone who could match what Garoppolo could do, but stay healthy. To their credit, but mostly to their luck, they found most of that with Purdy, on a cheaper deal than Lance.

Purdy showed he has the processing speed, intelligence, and confidence that’s endeared him to Kyle Shanahan in a way that no one has since Kirk Cousins.

Because of Purdy, the miss on Lance hasn’t mattered all that much. It won’t matter at all if they win a Super Bowl.

But that doesn’t take the sting out of it.

There was a notion, held by plenty of folks, including myself, that putting a rookie quarterback in a system with a talented play caller and star-studded cast was an ideal landing spot.

In reality, it was probably the worst place for Lance to go. He had no time to fail.

And instead of San Francisco stacking its roster with someone like Micah Parsons, along with other first-round talent, they ended up with eight Lance appearances and a 2024 fourth-round pick.

Might they have fared differently in the past two playoff runs with Parsons, and/or other high draft picks as opposed to a quarterback who wasn’t on the field? It’s impossible to say. But they undoubtedly would have gotten more than what they got from Lance.

That, of course, is all with the value of hindsight.

The 49ers can’t worry about the prospect of Lance turning into the quarterback they hoped he’d be elsewhere. He wasn’t working out with them.

So, Lance is in Dallas, a place where he projects as the No. 3 quarterback, hoping he won’t find himself sitting in storage there, too.

Is that really a better destination for him, as the 49ers said they would try to find, or just somewhere different? Did the 49ers just move him from a storage unit to a gaudy museum display case?

We don’t know. We don’t know whether he’ll be a long-term backup, a future star, or even follow a Geno Smith-like trajectory. We probably won’t even get that answer in Dallas.

It’s a situation that leaves you feeling hollow.

What we’re left with is the hope that we may at least, one day, see what Lance is capable of.

That, and a harshly poetic proposition: the distant possibility that Lance may enact revenge on the 49ers as a member of the Cowboys, haunting them in the same fashion Charles Haley did.

If the 49ers win a Super Bowl, none of this matters. If they don’t, it will be a career-defining miss for Shanahan and John Lynch. No pressure, though.