Kurtenbach: Day 1 of the Trey Lance Experience is upon us

Peninsula Premier Admin

Last season was wild for the 49ers.

What, with the 3-5 start, the wide receiver playing running back, the constant quarterback question, the playoff games that were won on the gaffes of their opponents, and then the botching a fourth-quarter lead with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

And the Niners might have even more chaos in store for us in 2022.

The NFL product always captivates, and there might not be a more interesting and unpredictable team in the league than the Niners this season.

For some teams, it’s Super Bowl or bust. The 49ers are part of that class this season. This team is as talented as any in the league. Indeed, San Francisco could begin a new dynasty if that goal is achieved.

The Niners could also redefine “bust” if they fail.

And both possibilities seem equally likely ahead of Sunday’s season opener in Chicago.

Let’s start with the good: The Niners play in a wide-open conference — six teams have 10-to-1 odds or better to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. With the Niners boasting All-Pros on offense and a defense that could rival the team’s elite 2019 unit, San Francisco might just be a good bet.

But the Niners also enter 2022 with a “rookie” starting quarterback — coach Kyle Shanahan’s description, not mine — and one of the toughest schedules in the NFL.

The Niners also have the nasty habit of being one of the NFL’s most injured teams, year after year. Preseason injuries to starting free safety Jimmie Ward and tight end George Kittle could be a sign that the curse has not been broken.

A young quarterback, a tough schedule, and a penchant for injuries. Better teams have been taken down by less.

And then there’s the great peculiarity that will persist throughout the season: last year’s starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, is still on the team despite the Niners’ effort to trade him.

He’s Lance’s back-up now.

Oh, and then there’s the new offense Lance will run.

The team is keeping it under wraps, but at the center of the Niners’ offense this season should be the zone-read run, where the quarterback can hand the ball to the running back or keep it for a run of his own. It’s a bit of a blast from the past for Niners fans.

Shanahan ran the zone-read as Washington’s offensive coordinator a decade ago, turning quarterback Robert Griffin III into the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Then-49ers coach Jim Harbaugh saw Shanahan’s offense from afar and looked for ways to install similar looks into the Niners’ attack.

Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman tried the zone-read with then starting quarterback Alex Smith, but his carries lacked game-changing pop.

Backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s did not.

The Niners ran, ran, and ran with Kaepernick to a Super Bowl berth in 2012 and an NFC Championship Game appearance in 2013. Can they do the same with Lance in 2022 and beyond?

And while a lot has changed in the NFL over the last decade, Shanahan thinks the zone-read is still a viable offense in 2022.

“It’s a very sound scheme,” Shanahan said in 2018. “Is your quarterback good enough to run 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?”

“It’s tough to find that guy.”

Shanahan thinks the Niners found that guy in the 2021 draft, and they traded three first-round picks to draft Lance.

That hypothesis needs to be tested on the field, though. The young quarterback, in his second NFL season, has thrown only 389 passes in non-exhibition games since high school.

If Lance is the real deal, the 49ers should be an improved team from last year — a campaign where everything seemed to go wrong, and yet the Niners were oh-so-close to playing in the Super Bowl.

If Lance is not “that guy,” then the question is if he’s better than Garoppolo, both in theory and practice.

Quarterbacks are everything in the modern NFL, making 2022 a pivotal year for the 49ers and Shanahan. The Niners’ head coach came to the Bay in 2017 with a mandate to turn around an organization that had become a laughingstock after that 2013 season. The Niners’ berth in the Super Bowl two years later achieved that goal. Then the bar was raised. The Niners are still one of the NFL’s premier franchises, after all.

That next step — annual playoff berths and perennial title contention — has eluded Shanahan’s Niners since that Super Bowl run. In the end, Shanahan didn’t trust Garoppolo’s play or ability to stay healthy. Going to Lance is a bold move, but it represents the promise of consistent excellence.

No one is expecting that to come easily, though. Young quarterbacks are eaten alive by an NFL that has never been smarter or more athletic. It will be a bumpy ride, and with Garoppolo and an outstanding team in tow, there will be plenty of politics along the way.

And maybe some good football will be played, too.

Ultimately, no one knows what the 2022 49ers — Shanahan’s grand experiment — will be, just as no one could have predicted the Niners’ 2021 journey.

That’s why all eyes need to be on the Niners from Sunday’s season opener in Chicago to the team’s final game, whether that comes on New Year’s Day, a playoff game, or amid the confetti after a Super Bowl victory in Arizona.

Contributed by local news sources

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