In the run-up to the 2021 season, Deebo Samuel was so motivated that he became motivating. Of course, every pro athlete dabbles in social media self-help, but Deebo was a cut above with his Instagram mantras. The Tao of Deebo was profound, relatable, and, I’ll argue, prescient for this upcoming season.
Take this quote about failure. Deebo was talking to himself after a failed 2020 campaign, fueling himself toward his breakout, All-Pro campaign the following season.
The 2022 49ers season officially kicks off in less than 24 hours. It feels like we’ve been waiting for this moment since the trade went down in March 2021.
That fateful day kicked off a years-long process of the Niners attempting to build a ceiling for their team. The team already has a foundation: officially laid in for the first time in 2019, stress-tested in 2020, and fortified in 2021. That 2019 Super Bowl run was the first proof-of-concept for Kyle and John: with a deep enough defensive line, physical run game, and a competent QB that can operate Kyle’s system… you could beat anybody that doesn’t have an elite mobile quarterback.
After they lost to the Chiefs, the next two years were periods of creative destruction and evolution. Unfortunately, 2020 exposed major cracks in that foundation, as Jimmy’s main weakness - his availability - tanked the season, and all the core pieces (today’s captains) had to dig deep inside themselves through the struggle when they were stuck in Arizona all December.
Last year was about filling those cracks — the team got bigger and healthier as they rediscovered their foundational strength of running down the other team’s throat. All this talk about Jimmy taking the team on that playoff run last year misses the context that until Deebo got the ball out of the backfield, the offense was floundering. Defenses were loading up the seams and taking away running holes, and without an All-Pro taking handoffs, it was just a schematic disadvantage every time Kyle ran the ball. Bless his accurate intermediate game, Jimmy can only do so much against a defense designed to stop him. The team’s blocking brain trust can only do so much when the numbers are tipped against them.
That version of the 49ers is all we’ve known for the past few years. It’s good enough to get to the Super Bowl but not good enough to win it all.
The foundation isn’t in doubt. We all know about the stacked front seven, the star offensive weapons, and the new-and-improved secondary. We know less about the interior offensive line and even less about the 22-year-old tip of the spear. It’s just enough to know that we can stay in every game we play, but can we go blow-for-blow with the Josh Allens and Patrick Mahomes of the league?
All the failures of 2020 got us in position to draft such a high-end prospect. All the “failures” of 2021 got us in position to prepare the awesomely raw young quarterback adequately. All the failures of 2022 will put Trey Lance in position to make the biggest plays in the biggest game - creating a new level for us to enjoy.
That new level - a ceiling to strive for - is uncharted territory for the San Francisco 49ers. I believe that potential will be realized, faster than everybody thinks. They’ll keep reaching for that ideal, and in the act of striving, they’ll discover even more about themselves.
We’ve never seen a Shanahan offense run against a defense that respects the deep pass. We haven’t seen what it looks like when our fast, bruising perimeter blockers in the run game get even more space to get a head full of steam. The defender’s split-second hesitation or two-foot hedge to not get burned by a streaking Danny Gray or Brandon Aiyuk gives a pulling Trent Williams just that much more leeway to impose his will. The biggest strength of the offense — veteran star blockers like Trent and Juice, and Kittle — will be strengthened.
The margin of error will be that much wider as blockers get put in more positions for success, which gives ballcarriers more leeway to turn two years into four. We don’t need Mitchell, Wilson Jr, Mason, or TDP to be Pro Bowl running backs to average over 4 yards a carry and grind defenses down, lull them into sleep before burning them with a go route.
You might say that all of this depends on Lance actually figuring it out. It certainly does, but even the threat of deep passes and sideline throws alters how a defense plays. But yes, the point remains: those deep passes and broken plays and sideline shots take a ton of trust to execute consistently, and that rhythm can only built through loads of in-game reps.
We’ll have no idea where this thing will go early in the season. The output will be all over the place, but the input — we hope — stays the same, trusting that growth is non-linear and that there’ll be breakthroughs waiting at the end of the plateaus. It might happen gradually and then all at once. Those sloppy games in September and October will be necessary for it all to click in December and January.
I am confident it will happen. I’m not a film expert or a QB mechanics guru, so I base my confidence off of Lance’s personality and leadership. He’s a unique personality in a unique locker room culture, and the combination of his leadership ability and this team’s psychological make-up will feed off of each other.
Football is a sport about striking fear through the hearts of your enemies while sacrificing total trust in your teammates for the sake of cohesion. In his Hall of Fame speech, Bryant Young talked about how “letting someone grab my hand is as important as reaching for theirs”, and that interdependent fabric underneath a team’s locker room needs the right touch from its leaders.
It’s an incredible mental balancing act that requires a savvy touch.
“I look up to that dude a lot.”— 49ers on NBCS (@NBCS49ers) August 13, 2022
Trey Lance went and got Brock Purdy’s first touchdown ball pic.twitter.com/CLwGuzUGwm
From OTAs through the preseason, we learned that Trey Lance understood the assignment.
He personally texted all the rookies when they got drafted, welcoming them to the team. He chose to live with his receivers in Newport Beach rather than doing literally whatever the hell you want when you’re 22, making almost ten million a year. After their first NFL touchdowns, he ran to get the ball for Brock Purdy and Danny Gray.
These are actions, not words, that reflect his character. As the season progresses from those lay-up games against Chicago and Seattle and through the Chiefs-Rams-Chargers gauntlet, we know there’ll be adversity. I’m interested in seeing this particular part of his leadership come out in these circumstances because I know those circumstances will bring that out of him.
When Lance went to all those Warriors games for his birthday, he got a front-row seat to the greatest display of leadership in all of North American sports. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green talk about how important it is, as face-of-the-franchise leaders, to take on all the scrutiny, attention, and pressure so the other guys can do their job. They’ll catch all the heat, so guys like Wiggins, Looney, Poole, Payton II, and Porter Jr can step up in their own ways.
"I think accountability is important in anything, not just basketball. You have to accept your role in things... or none of this works."— NBA (@NBA) June 4, 2022
Draymond Green on accountability and being a leader.
Game 2: Sun. 8pm/et on ABC pic.twitter.com/TKZEWHBo2i
Lance will need to do the same, so his young offensive line can get on the same page, so the receivers and running backs can focus on getting their routes down, and so the defense can gel together and move along key young players like Kinlaw, Drake Jackson, Hufanaga, Womack, Moseley in their respective journeys (some obviously further along than most).
That’s another big thing I’m looking for this season: there’s a cluster of younger players that can make that leap that our “elite tier” players are already in. We know guys like Bosa and Warner can carry the team — but what about Brandon Aiyuk? What about Javon Kinlaw? What about our inexperienced interior linemen?
Again, this is where Lance’s kindness plays a huge role. This is a team that’s particularly suited for this style of leadership. This team’s whole identity is about growing closer through adversity.
On an individual level, every key player has had to go through something incredibly tough in their careers. Trent Williams had cancer. Nick Bosa tore his ACL. Javon Kinlaw and Mike McGlinchey have spent more time together rehabbing their injuries than they probably saw their partners. Deebo struggled to stay in shape, Aiyuk struggled to get out of the doghouse, Warner struggled to get out of his own head, and Jimmie Ward struggled to get his due.
And that’s just what we know from the outside. We have enough information to know that this isn’t an emotionally unintelligent team. They’re some of the hardest softbois on the planet, and Lance is coming in with the rare dual-threat of being kind and confident. These are such rare combinations; the fit is so uncommonly good that when I wonder whether Lance will actually find his rhythm and zone enough to hit the occasional explosive play, doing just enough for us to win…I come back to, “how could he not”? The talent is clearly in him. We’ve seen him do it in NFL games… the capability is in his body. You can’t say that about 20 or so starting quarterbacks in this league.
But when people talk about him being in the best situation possible, it’s not just a roster, scheme, or coaching fit. It’s a culture fit, a personality fit, an emotional fit that can bring the best out of everybody. Trey is the most variable and impactful factor in all this (hence the most interesting), and I just don’t see how him playing with those guys that (we feel like) we know so well doesn’t juice his flow state just enough to peak several times a game.
I love how this quote can equally apply to professional football as it does to folding your laundry (enough with the laundry chair!) or responding to an email at work, or getting the links done for the Golden Nuggets. Every day for the past year-plus, I read every piece of 49ers-related news to see what’s relevant for the daily link article. By this point, I can almost predict the media outrage cycles. Nobody has any clue how this will all turn out, which gives a lot of space for people to fill in with their preconceived notions. It’s really just anxiety around not having any control over this massively impactful yet completely mysterious thing.
So when people write articles or go on the radio trying to predict which game will be the end of Lance’s leash — does he get benched if he loses against the Falcons? The Rams? The Dolphins? - they’re not doing it irrationally. It’s an appropriate coping mechanism, even if it’s over-the-top when we start debating what it means to be an NFL captain.
But by this point, it’s time. It’s time to make the plunge. A full season as a backup, an entire training camp and preseason - it’s now or never.
We’ve waited for 10 AM PST on September 11, 2022, for a very long time. Beyond the endless offseason, where we had to distract ourselves with Lance roasting Aiyuk roasting marshmallows in Orange County while Javon Kinlaw berates this community’s favorite media person. Beyond the dramatic 2021 draft and the fateful day in March when they made the trade, and those multiple days in 2020 where everything was on fire.
We’ve been waiting for this day since Jimmy overthrew Emmanuel Sanders in the Super Bowl. Finally, clear eyes, full hearts, we’re getting a ring off of Josh Allen in February. This team will outkick conventional wisdom’s coverage, shock the world, and maybe bully Lance into getting his hair cut.
Whatever situation they find themselves in mid-season, we know they have it in them to rally when it matters. And even through the rockiest parts, we Niners fans have the blessing of “watching one of the great case studies in life,” as Steve Young put it. Trey Lance’s life is about to change, and so will ours. It’s been a long time coming. Whatever happens, we’ll deserve it.