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The 49ers Bet Their Future on Trey Lance. Where Will He Be in the Biggest Game of Their Season?

Is San Francisco winning because of Jimmy G or in spite of him? Sunday’s NFC championship game could be a referendum on one of the splashiest moves of the offseason—and what the Niners did next.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 49ers are a car that has everything. It has heated leather seats and a navigation system that never gets lost. It has the ability to parallel park itself. Kyle Shanahan is what you’d get if Xzibit from Pimp My Ride was a football coach, and he’s renovated San Francisco to the point where it has a mini fridge, a panini press, and a PS5 in the back. You cannot fathom how many cupholders these Niners have. Unfortunately, this perfect car has a golf-cart engine. The engine will get where you need to go, but you have to drive down the highway at 17 miles per hour—with lane after lane of furious drivers honking at you—as you drink the cappuccino that the car’s built-in coffee maker has brewed.

The 49ers’ crappy engine is Jimmy Garoppolo, the team’s extremely handsome and extremely limited quarterback. With Garoppolo powering the offense, the Niners have puttered all the way to the NFC championship game. If they beat the Rams Sunday, they’ll reach the Super Bowl for the second time in three years—Garoppolo’s only two full, healthy seasons as San Francisco’s starter.

But it doesn’t feel like Garoppolo is responsible for that success. In the 2019-20 playoffs, the Niners averaged 204 rushing yards per game while Garoppolo averaged 142 passing yards. Many feel that the 49ers could have defeated the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV with a superior quarterback performance: Garoppolo threw two ugly picks and overthrew a deep ball that would have given the Niners a fourth-quarter lead. The same story is unfolding this January. San Francisco has squeaked out a pair of thrilling one-possession wins in which Garoppolo has combined for no touchdown passes and two interceptions. In Saturday’s 13-10 win over the Packers, the offense didn’t score a touchdown at all. The Niners triumphed behind the strength of their phenomenal defense and special teams, while Garoppolo somehow turned a play in which tight end George Kittle was wide open in the end zone into a costly interception.

The Niners are well aware of Garoppolo’s limitations. That’s why they went out this offseason and got a fancy new engine fit for a race car. They made one of the most aggressive trades in recent NFL draft history, giving away three first-round picks as part of a package to move from no. 12 to no. 3 overall. Their target? Trey Lance, a rocket-armed 6-foot-4 quarterback who powered North Dakota State to an FCS national championship in his lone season as a college starter, throwing for 28 touchdowns and no interceptions.

Heading into this season, Shanahan played coy and waited for as long as he could to name a starter. But since then, Lance hasn’t been a significant factor in the Niners’ plans. The rookie has served as Garoppolo’s backup, starting games in weeks 5 and 17 only when Jimmy G wasn’t available. Outside of that, Lance hasn’t seen meaningful snaps since Week 4.

The Niners bought this beautiful, powerful new engine, and it’s just sitting in the garage. Now, it’s too late to install it in time to make a difference.

Some NFL quarterbacks, like Teddy Bridgewater, are considered game managers. They don’t make spectacular plays, but they rarely commit turnovers either. Other quarterbacks, like Jameis Winston, come from the school of touchdowns and interceptions; they turn the ball over frequently, but that’s because they’re always trying to make big throws. Given the Niners’ record with Garoppolo under center, you might think that he falls into the former category—but you’d be wrong. Garoppolo is one of the league’s rare high-risk, low-reward QBs.

Of the 35 NFL quarterbacks who had at least 200 dropbacks in 2021, Garoppolo ranked 32nd in “big time throw” rate, a Pro Football Focus statistic that tracks passes “on the highest end of both difficulty and value.” Meanwhile, he had the second-highest “turnover-worthy play” rate. Jimmy G threw as many interceptions (12) as former teammate Tom Brady, but had 23 fewer touchdown passes (20). To illustrate Garoppolo’s knack for nearly turning the ball over without threatening the defense, watch the high-arcing lollipops he lofted to receivers in the flat during Saturday’s game against the Packers. He’ll risk a pick-six to gain 2 yards.

It’s telling that the Niners have taken to using superstar wide receiver Deebo Samuel at running back. Yes, Deebo is a uniquely gifted playmaker who happens to excel in this role. But as a bonus, San Francisco no longer has to rely on Garoppolo to get the ball to its most effective ballcarrier.

Clearly, the Niners front office does not believe Garoppolo is the long-term answer at quarterback. After all, it traded three first-round picks to move up in the draft and select Lance. Simply taking a quarterback in the first round would have been a sign that the 49ers were interested in moving on from Garoppolo. But they did more than that, making an ultra-aggressive trade that will dictate their future for years to come. There’s no justification for doing that unless they considered improving at quarterback to be a top priority.

It’s easy to see why San Francisco’s brain trust was sold on Lance. He’s big, fast, and strong. When Lance plays, he fires passes into tight windows and runs with power upfield. He connected on an 80-yard touchdown in his first preseason game. (Garoppolo hasn’t thrown an 80-yard touchdown in his pro career.) He scrambled for a first down on a fourth-and-10 in a matchup against the Seahawks in early October. (It’s the only time San Francisco has picked up a first down on fourth-and-10 or longer since trading for Garoppolo in 2017.) In Lance’s second regular-season start, a 23-7 win over the Texans on January 2, he hooked up with Samuel on a 45-yard touchdown pass.

Unlike Garoppolo, Lance is willing to throw the ball downfield. Jimmy G had 441 passing attempts in the 2021 campaign; he had three touchdowns on throws that went more than 20 yards downfield. Lance had 71 attempts this season; he had two such touchdown passes on less than a sixth of the total attempts. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Lance posted a higher average depth of target in the win over Houston than any Niners quarterback had in a game since 2019. His touchdown to Samuel traveled 44.5 yards in the air; Garoppolo has only one deeper touchdown throw in his career.

It’s true that Lance showed flaws in his two starts. He was skittish against the Cardinals in October and overthrew a receiver for a bad interception. He struggled in the first half against the Texans, and the Niners trailed 7-3 at halftime before rebounding for a win. But Garoppolo has also made a ton of awful passes while lacking Lance’s tremendous physical gifts, downfield throwing potential, and playmaking ability. I think this team could have achieved similar success with Lance starting instead of Garoppolo.

At this point in the playoffs, however, it would be ridiculous for the Niners to switch from Garoppolo to Lance. It’s too late. San Francisco doesn’t have time to allow for Lance’s growing pains. It chose not to use this season to let Lance develop, and now there’s nothing it can do to change that.

As the Niners try to take the final few steps to win a Super Bowl, it’s hard not to feel like they made a massive miscalculation with Lance. The team still presumably sees him as the quarterback of the future—it better, given the steep price it paid to get him. But the 49ers have a hell of a roster, and they’re still powered by the same QB they were so desperate to replace.

But they didn’t just fail to improve at QB. They missed a chance to make their roster incrementally better elsewhere. The 2021 pick that San Francisco traded to Miami (no. 12) was later traded to Dallas and used on Micah Parsons, the runaway favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year who’s already one of the best linebackers in the NFL. Think about this Niners defense with Micah Parsons. Even if they didn’t take him, they still could’ve shored up other weak spots to bolster their Super Bowl chances.

Past NFL teams have made postseason runs with first-round quarterbacks riding the bench: The 2017 Chiefs made the playoffs while starting veteran Alex Smith over rookie Patrick Mahomes; the Packers made the playoffs in each of the past two years after selecting Jordan Love in the first round of the 2020 draft. But both of those teams had more productive quarterbacks than Garoppolo, and neither traded up into the top three to nab their quarterback of the future.

Yet that’s where Shanahan’s creativity comes in. The Niners don’t need to start Lance against the Rams to benefit from his tremendous talents. They just need to go back to what they did early in the season, when the coach deployed Lance in goal line and short-yardage packages. In Week 1, Lance threw for a touchdown against the Lions on his first career pass:

Two weeks later, the Niners brought Lance in to run for a touchdown against the Packers:

But after that touchdown against the Packers, Lance hasn’t appeared in a package role for the Niners again this season. He made three appearances to spell Garoppolo after injuries and played the final drive of a blowout win against the Jaguars in Week 11. The Lance gadget plays were successful; Shanahan simply stopped going to them.

It’s the time of year when NFL teams should bust out every possible advantage in their repertoire. In many ways, the Niners are already doing this. Samuel is not their usual return man, but they put him back to handle a kick for just the fourth time all season against Green Bay—and it resulted in a 45-yard return that set up a rare scoring drive. (The drive culminated in a field goal, because Jimmy G.) San Francisco also debuted a package in which star offensive lineman Trent Williams lined up as a lead blocker, with devastating results for those unfortunate enough to get in his way.

So I’m begging the Niners: Let Lance see the field. One touchdown in the NFC title game—or the Super Bowl—could be the deciding factor in what could go down as a championship season for the ages. Shanahan is a million times smarter at football than me—and a million times smarter than many of his fellow NFL coaches. Surely, he has plays at his disposal that could maximize Lance’s myriad advantages over Garoppolo.

The 49ers went out and got the perfect engine for their otherwise perfect car. Let’s see what happens if they finally give the accelerator a tap.