We have no clue what goes on behind closed doors at NFL facilities. We want players to play without understanding the full context. Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer wrote a detailed article highlighting Trey Lance’s injury last year, with quotes from 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Shanahan has been open about how there was a competition in training camp last year at quarterback. He told Breer the same:
“The first two weeks of training camp, we were considering it a real good competition, the way he came out. And then the more stuff went in, Jimmy being so used to it and Jimmy playing at a high level, Jimmy and him, there was separation between the two. There were some rookie things that he was doing. He just needed more time, and I was pumped that Jimmy gave him that time.”
Trey being close to Jimmy out of the gate shouldn’t be a surprise. Neither should Jimmy pulling away from the rookie once more of the install was put into the playbook.
Lance’s ceiling has a chance to be sky-high. It doesn’t take long to see his talent. Lance’s physical tools grab your attention, but his play within the pocket — going through reads, not dropping his eyes when pressured, etc. — leads you to believe the 49ers have a special player.
Before Lance could fight back in the competition, he injured his finger. I’m not going to rehash that, but the article lays out how general manager John Lynch was impressed by Lance not using the injury as an excuse.
Fast forward to the regular season, and Lance impressed again after his second start, and how he’s progressed since:
“The pressure was on, because if we lost that game, we were out of the playoffs and everybody knew it. He started slow, and he came back and finished in that second half, he got on fire, threw a [45-yard] touchdown to Deebo [Samuel]. We ended up easily winning the game, and that was kind of when, Alright, this guy can overcome adversity. We know he has the ability. It’s a matter of time for this guy.
And then just having him in the offseason, the way he came back prepared, the way it went in OTAs—the difference between OTA 1 and OTA 7, and the difference between OTA 7 and right now. The guy only gets better when he’s thrown out there.”
The coaching staff throws out the term “stacking days” routinely. The hope is Lance improves each week incrementally. That way, come November, during the middle of a playoff run, Shanahan has trust in his quarterback to run his entire offense.
But there will be moments where Lance makes mistakes. Multiple, even. Lance acknowledged it’s about how he responds to said mistakes:
“I’m going to be a lot better than I was last year. Everything’s slower. Some of [the tape] is tough to watch because you see some of the dumb mistakes. But that’s part of it. That’s part of playing the position, that’s part of being in my first year. There’s going to be mistakes again this year, and for me it’s about how I respond. It’ll be easy to turn the page. And for the frustrating moments? I had them today, I have them every day.
But I think how we respond, how I respond personally is what’s most important.”
Lynch told Breer he believes Lance’s ceiling can become a reality without putting pressure on him to be “that guy” in Week 1. Shanahan spoke about an added element Lance brings, his legs:
“To win in this league, you’re gonna have to make plays in the pocket, you’re gonna have to be a drop-back passer, do all that stuff, and I see him having the ability to do all that, which excites me. You want that with every single quarterback you go for, but very rarely do I feel that way about a guy who I think also is a threat to run. And you look at our division, you look at some of the guys we go against and how we can get advantages on people, and so many people in the league are running similar stuff to us now.
Defenses see it more now. When they’re practicing against their own offense throughout the offseason, they’re just a little bit more used to it. And I love the idea of being able to add another element that maybe some other people can’t. You can do the same stuff, but if they play it this way, we do have another option. Our guy can run.”
Last year, defenses went out of their way to take away the middle of the field and the 49ers outside running game. The Niners had few counters aside from “give the ball to Deebo.” This year during training camp and the preseason, we see the evolution of the offense under Lance.
All of these empty formations come with the threat of Lance running. I’d wager that we’ll see more throws outside the numbers during the first three games than we saw during the first half of last season. And that’s before we get into how Lance opens up running lanes for the backs and takes shots down the field.
It’s exciting to think about why Lynch and Shanahan are high on the 22-year-old quarterback. Based on Shanahan’s comments, Lance is the missing piece to put the 49ers over the top:
“You can win with a run game and with a quarterback who can make some plays, whether it’s throwing or running it, as long as you do have a top defense. And that’s how we’ve tried to build it here to catch some of those teams until you get someone like that. And I think we have a chance to have a player grow into someone like that.”
Lance is surrounded by one of the best-supporting casts in the NFL. The talent is there, and so is the work ethic. If he isn’t flustered by adversity, San Francisco has a chance to win often and right away.