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Why Trey Lance didn’t play against the Eagles and the 49ers conundrum at quarterback

San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

I want to see why the 49ers gave up three first-round draft picks for Trey Lance as much as the next person. There wasn’t one person who watched the first quarter of Sunday’s game and thought to themselves something along the lines of, “Lance can’t do this?”

That’s the emotional part of watching football. That’s normal, and I’d go as far as to say that’s needed. That can be true while understanding why Lance has played four snaps in two games, with all of those coming against the Lions.

First, you have to put yourself in Kyle Shanahan’s shoes.

Shanahan has made it clear that Jimmy Garoppolo is the starter. However, during a conference call on Monday, Shanahan was asked if he gets when people suggest getting Lance out on the field for developmental reasons down the line. Here’s what he said:

“Yeah, I understand every angle that people want to take with it. But I also understand that we’re an NFL team and we’re trying to win each game and we do have a starting quarterback and that usually makes it pretty simple.

But when your backup quarterback does have a skill set that can bring different things to the game, that’s what gives him an option for us to do. He has something that someone has to prepare for week in and week out. And I think that’s an awesome club that we have in our bag that we can use at any time. ”

What’s interesting here is Shanahan acknowledging teams have to be prepared for Lance at any moment. However, it doesn’t sound like we’ll see an uptick in Lance’s usage based on what Shanahan had to say next:

“But you don’t really make decisions based off your team of just putting a guy in totally just for how that is for him in the future. I think that’d be irresponsible to everybody else in the room.

You do it if you think it gives you a chance based off of what’s going on in that game, that game only. In the meantime, yeah, it’s nice for a guy to get out there. But if it wasn’t because he was bringing a different element that we thought could help us with something that we’re going against, there’s no other reason that we would do it.”

Against Detroit, Shanahan felt like the best time to use Lance was in the red zone. We didn’t see the rookie quarterback against Philadelphia for a few reasons.

Why no Lance?

The Eagles have one of the best and deepest defensive lines in the league. During the first possession, their defensive tackle jumped the snap, and it was a three-yard loss before Alex Mack or Daniel Brunskill could get out of their stances.

The Eagles hit Garoppolo on his first two dropbacks, which caused the throws to sail. Jimmy G’s time to throw was 2.44 seconds, per NextGenStats, which was the fourth-lowest in the league.

By design, the 49ers' offense shifted to getting the ball out of Garoppolo’s hands quicker. Lance’s first exposure doesn’t need to come against a defensive line that featured Josh Sweat, Derek Barnett, Fletcher Cox, and Brandon Graham on the field at the same time on the road when you’re down.

Shanahan’s leaned on the “quick game” passing attack after three three-and-outs to start the game. But, if you remember, back to the preseason, there were times when Lance wouldn’t throw to an open receiver in the quick game, whether during practice or the games.

Plus, I’d be surprised if Lance got a maximum of 15% of the reps during practice. He’s not the starter. Why would he?

Shanahan had to adjust his play-calling and game plan. That’s what good coaches do. Shanahan trusts that Garoppolo knows where to go with the ball in the quick game. This season, Garoppoolo has added the benefit of avoiding sacks and running out of pressure, leading to positive outcomes. The decision-making is there. Shanahan is leaning on that as opposed to the alternative result.

Look around the NFL. Have you noticed a trend with the rookie quarterbacks? Numerous turnovers, iffy under pressure, with splash plays sprinkled in. That’s what you get with rookie quarterbacks: growing pains.

The last thing Shanahan wants to do when he’s forced to throw his game plan out of the window after three drives is live with growing pains. The 49ers know what they have with Garoppolo, for better and worse.

Shanahan’s been emphatic that his main goal is to win and that Jimmy gives the 49ers the best chance to win. Think about what happens when Garoppolo plays. The team wins.

There are times the team carries Jimmy G (through 1.5 quarters on Sunday), and there are times when all it takes is threading the needle on a pass before the end of the half to give the team confidence and remind everyone, “oh yeah, we’re pretty good at this.”

After that throw and the touchdown drive before the half, the 49ers' defense forced the Eagles to punt on their next three drives while the offense scored on two of its next three drives. That throw from Garoppolo was the turning point of the game.

Conundrum at QB

The 49ers have a conundrum at quarterback. Garoppolo is maddeningly inconsistent. There was a two-play sequence Sunday that’s a prime example. Garoppolo misses Trent Sherfield on a “sail” concept on the first play — he was running a corner route to the sideline — that should be a layup throw for any NFL quarterback. Instead, it was an egregious miss.

In the next play, Garoppolo manipulates the underneath linebacker by looking to the right side. Then, once he hits the top of his drop, Jimmy fires to the left with great anticipation for an intermediate completion. He even passed up the check-down route that was open in front of him.

For now, it appears Shanahan is going with the inconsistent veteran he knows he can win with as opposed to the wild card rookie whose ceiling is rivals any rookie coming out of the draft during the past couple of seasons.

When you haven’t played in two years, mistakes are inevitable. Trevor Lawrence started all four years at a powerhouse and faced the best defenses in the country. He threw a fadeaway interception in the red zone on Sunday.

At one point, Jets quarterback Zach Wilson completed five passes to his team and four passes to the Patriots. From 1950 to 2016, the team that wins the turnover battle in the NFL wins the game.

I’m not saying Lance will come out of the gate and be a turnover machine, nor am I inferring that Garoppolo doesn’t make his fair share of turnover-worthy throws. But, in a bottom-line business, Shanahan, for now, prefers the veteran.

Here’s why San Francisco’s in a conundrum. Through two games, Garoppoloo has attempted two passes over 20 yards. One of them was the touchdown to Deebo Samuel. Here’s what his passing chart looks like:

When it’s not 2nd and 20, defenses are shrinking the field. They want Jimmy to throw the ball deep.

At the snap of the ball, one of the Eagles' safeties comes flying down and creates a loaded box. That means the running and throwing lanes and smaller, and the windows close quicker.

That’s why the 12-play, 97-yard touchdown drive to end the half was impressive. On the first two plays, the 49ers ran into a nine and an eight-man box. Garoppolo found Deebo on a contested route underneath to convert a 3rd & 3.

The following first down was a run with a screen pass to George Kittle after — who broke a tackle to pick up another first. The next four plays were throws to JaMycal Hasty and a scramble from Garoppolo before he picked up a first down on a quarterback sneak on 3rd & 1. The offense had to fight tooth and nail to get 40 yards before Samuel’s explosive play.

To give you an idea of how teams are shrinking the field, 36% of Elijah Mitchell’s carries have come against an eight-man box. That’s fourth in the NFL among backs with at least 30 carries. It’s tough to have success on the ground when there’s an extra defender to account for.

Even when it’s 8-on-8, you eliminate any double teams in your zone running game, and now everyone goes 1-on-1. As a defense, after a free runner, a 1-on-1 is the next best thing for you.

Lance’s time will come soon enough

Trey Lance is not Lamar Jackson. I want to make that crystal clear. Jackson makes professional athletes look like cartoon characters the way they flail around.

However, Baltimore is in a similar situation as the 49ers. The majority of their running backs are hurt, and teams are loading the box to stop the run. An easy way to counter that is by relying on the quarterback run.

Now, you have an extra player to account for the added defender in the box. Lance hasn’t had success on designed quarterback runs on a limited small sample size. You can chalk that up to how long the plays take to develop, and everyone in the stadium knows he’s running the ball.

With Lance under center, defenses have to respect the shot play down the field as well as his legs. That means on third downs, you won’t get the same types of pressure looks as you do with Garoppolo. But, equally as important, you’d see more zone coverage in fear of Lance’s scrambling.

Before we get there, Lance has to prove he can execute in the quick game, learn the playbook, and handle pressure. The latter will be challenging to figure out in practice. The timing for developing Lance and letting him play won’t be any easier, especially if the 49ers keep winning.

In a business where the end results trumps all, it’s apparent why we have yet to see Lance. If Garoppolo remains inconsistent while the running game struggles, Lance could answer any potential future struggles on offense.

A quarterback transition isn’t something that happens overnight, which is why the 49ers conundrum at quarterback isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.