Trey Lance threw a touchdown pass on his first and only NFL pass Sunday, then for the most part retreated to the bench Sunday and watched Jimmy Garoppolo put on a clinic.
The 49ers won 41-33 with the Detroit Lions scoring a flurry of points at Ford Field in garbage time and even got in a position where with the help of a miracle they could have tied the game. None of those points were as concerning as injuries to cornerback Jason Verrett and running back Raheem Mostert in terms of the 49ers’ final 16 games.
The one area that received the most scrutiny since the 2021 NFL Draft turned out to be the area of least concern. Garoppolo ran the show while Lance, the No. 3 overall selection, began the process of being spoon-fed bits and pieces of the 49ers system under the guidance of coach Kyle Shanahan.
Look no further than the NFL debuts of the top two picks — Trevor Lawrence of Jacksonville and Zach Wilson of the New York Jets — to see which of these potential franchise quarterbacks is in the best situation for a long and fruitful career.
The Jaguars were blown out 37-21 by a Houston team which by acclimation is considered the dregs of the NFL. Lawrence was 28 of 51 for 332 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. He piled up the big yardage numbers once Houston had taken a 37-21 lead.
As for Wilson, he too put up some late stats in a 19-14 loss to Carolina and quarterback Sam Darnold, who the Jets never surrounded with a legitimate supporting cast and was sent packing. Wilson was 20 of 37 for 258 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. And while Lawrence was sacked only once, the Panthers dropped Wilson six times.
Lance, by contrast, operated from the cocoon of limited plays designed to suit his strengths. Four of them in all. His only pass went for a 5-yard touchdown to Trent Sherfield. He ran three times for two yards. Garoppolo, meanwhile, was 16 of 24 for 303 yards and a touchdown.
Lawrence and Wilson were doing their best to read defenses and make decisions with confusing options working with teammates who were blowing assignments and missing blocks. What Lance did was limited in scope with much better players surrounding him. Create with his ability to run with a pass option. One thing or the other. Basic. And the threat of Lance running is what enabled Sherfield to make an in-cut, then break outside for an easy touchdown.
“That’s what gave me the time,” Lance said. “That’s kind of the goal. Make the defense think I’m going to run the ball. Trent ran a great route, then made a great catch.”
When Lance got in on the opening series, you half wondered whether Shanahan was going to go to a full-fledged two-quarterback system. He said afterward he didn’t anticipate using Lance that early, but the right situation in the red zone presented itself so he went to the rookie early — and then very little afterward.
While many coaches recoil from anything resembling a quarterback controversy, Shanahan seems to enjoy the speculation game. He watched with delight as a number of draft analysts were convinced Alabama’s Mac Jones was the target at No. 3. Ever since, Shanahan dropped every breadcrumb he could that led to Garoppolo as the starter with a dash of Lance thrown in without ever stating it publicly until Wednesday of Week 1.
He chided the local press in a half-serious way for not figuring it out. Most everyone had figured it out and hinted as much but were just waiting for the actual stone tablet proclamation from the head coach.
Barring injury, and with Garoppolo that’s always a concern, Lance’s time as an apprentice could be a considerable one. Garoppolo was very much in command against the Lions, his early fumble aside. And Lance’s ability to create is something Shanahan can’t resist in terms of adding another threat on an occasional basis.
“We’ll always have some stuff in for Trey,” Shanahan said. “It’s the first time we have a No. 2 quarterback that has a skill set the No. 1 doesn’t have in terms of being a threat to run. When you have that there’s always the option of different plays you can run. We’ll have that up at all times. While Trey’s the No. 2, that will always be an option. But when the No. 1 ever gets hurt, that’s when you have to open everything up.”
Exactly where Lance is with that process only Shanahan and his offensive coaches know for sure. Lance didn’t think missing some practice time with a chipped finger on his throwing hand in the last preseason game was a big deal, but did give a window into the process of getting him up to speed if necessary.
“Learned a lot and got to watch Jimmy and Nate (Sudfeld) operate at a high level at practice,” Lance said. “I don’t like to miss any days, obviously. I didn’t think it slowed me down at all. I had to take time and find different ways to get reps. Our video guys do a great job with different ways to watch film, virtual reality and things like that.”
If anything, Garoppolo looks energized by Lance’s presence rather than taciturn. He’s got a 25-8 record as an NFL starter and he’s being pushed to be even better. And Garoppolo has always had the support of his teammates.
“He threw a couple shots today and delivered,” tight end George Kittle said. “He’s just going to just continue to play at a high level for us and lead this team.”
If Garoppolo can remain upright and productive with Philadelphia coming up next followed by Green Bay, Seattle and Arizona, Lance can gradually work his way onto the field rather than be thrown off the high dive without knowing how to swim.
As Lawrence and Wilson can attest, the resulting belly flop can be a painful one.
Contributed by local news sources