Context matters when it comes to quarterbacks, especially rookies. Back in April, it felt sensible to think that whichever of the lauded passers the 49ers picked at no. 3 overall would be positioned to experience both the best immediate and long-term success of his counterparts. However, that assertion hasn’t held up, because San Francisco is still starting Jimmy Garoppolo, leaving rookie Trey Lance on the bench to develop after a year when he played just one competitive game in the FCS.
Regardless, no rookie quarterback has taken more pivotal snaps than Lance did on Sunday, when the former North Dakota State star made his second career start against the cellar-dwelling Texans. He filled in for Garoppolo, who’s nursing torn ligaments in his right thumb, and San Francisco’s postseason fortunes hung in the balance. Lance came through, helping orchestrate a comfortable 23-7 win to keep the 49ers’ path to the postseason alive.
“[I] probably settled in after that two-minute drive [at the end of the first half],” Lance told reporters after the game. “I think that is when I started talking to [QBs coach] Rich [Scangarello] and Kyle and kind of let them know that I felt settled, honestly. But yeah, hopefully, I can get started faster, whenever that next time is.”
If Garoppolo is healthy enough, coach Kyle Shanahan says the veteran will start this week’s regular-season finale against the Rams. But the 49ers brass has confidence in Lance. That trust has been earned, with Shanahan recently noting the rookie has enjoyed his most consistent month of practice since arriving in San Francisco. It translated to the 49ers’ win, which gave the franchise another glimpse into a tantalizing future. While those snapshots are more infrequent than most fans likely wanted, Lance’s outing serves as a strong testament to how not all rookies and teams are on the same timeline.
Lance can make the 49ers offense multidimensional. At 6-foot-4 and 224 pounds, he boasts 4.5 speed (allegedly) and has a bigger arm than Garoppolo. In the lead-up to the draft, when Shanahan toyed with everyone by being vague about which passer he intended to pick, the coach said, “You want to find Drew Brees who can move like Lamar Jackson.” Lance isn’t there yet, but Sunday featured an incorporation of designed carries and downfield passing shots that make Shanahan’s vision clear.
Lance finished his second start 16-for-23 with 249 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick. He also carried the ball eight times for 31 yards and was sacked just once. Despite a quiet start, he looked comfortable executing the passing game. Shanahan’s offense is renowned for scheming open middle-of-the-field receivers, often on crossing routes that allow targets to pick up yards after the catch. This has been Garoppolo’s calling card and a key reason he’s on pace to lead the league in YAC per completion (6.5) for the second time in three seasons (2019). (For what it’s worth, Nick Mullens led the league in 2018 as a 49er.) This season, Garoppolo’s average depth of target, meanwhile, ranks 10th lowest in the league, and only New York’s Daniel Jones (6.6 percent) has targeted players 20 yards downfield or more at a lower rate than Garoppolo’s 7.6 percent clip. That’s where Lance can change Shanahan’s offense. The Niners had no issues attacking deep with Lance, whose 12-yard average depth of target marked the highest for a San Francisco starting quarterback since 2017.
Lance went 9-for-15 with 205 yards on passes that traveled 10 yards or more downfield. Houston’s defense isn’t a juggernaut, but it’s not nearly as bad as you might think (the Texans entered the game ranked 18th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA defense ratings and 15th in pass defense DVOA). Lance did a much better job managing the pocket and avoiding punishment while surveying the field than he did in his first start against the Cardinals in Week 5. Lance also did well executing play-action passes (5-for-8, 69 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception), such as on his 45-yard touchdown to Deebo Samuel:
That’s a throw where the difference in arm strength between Lance and Garoppolo is obvious. Lance’s play fake has him drift far right beyond the hash marks at midfield, but he has enough strength to drop the ball into Samuel’s lap across the left side of the field at the 10. San Francisco’s vertical passing game is unlocked with Lance behind center thanks to his ability to push the ball to the perimeter. According to Pro Football Focus, Garoppolo owns the eighth-highest turnover-worthy play rate (4.3) among passers, but has the fifth-lowest big-time throw rate (2.1 percent). Essentially, he’s been reluctant to take chances downfield, but has still often put the ball in jeopardy. Part of that is because of his inability to make perimeter and downfield throws.
Might sound counterintuitive, but Trey Lance's passing style is less risky than Jimmy Garoppolo's. Throws outside the numbers/downfield where are there are fewer defenders. While Jimmy G throws it over the middle where there is tons of traffic with small margin for error pic.twitter.com/JFzNejBYM8— Chris Simms (@CSimmsQB) January 3, 2022
The passing charts reveal how Lance is willing to attack areas of the defense that Garoppolo doesn’t; Lance’s distribution to the deep portions of the field are essentially equal to Garoppolo’s distribution within 10 yards and behind the line of scrimmage. There are also plenty of plays from Sunday that demonstrate that Lance can execute in similar areas where Garoppolo has thrived. While Lance’s short accuracy in the flats could still improve, he showed a willingness to target the intermediate areas of the field, including over the middle, as he did on this big play to Brandon Aiyuk:
And this throw to Samuel, which was dropped:
If the verticality of San Francisco’s passing game with Lance weren’t intriguing enough, there’s also Lance’s mobility. His athleticism forces defenses to commit to stopping him in the run game, an element both Shanahan and the 49ers have experience successfully utilizing. Earlier in the year, Shanahan deployed Lance in a gadget role, and he scored his first career rushing score against the Packers near the goal line. The full gamut of QB-designed runs—including draws, reads, and counters—is available to Shanahan to call when Lance is on the field full time.
Lance didn’t lose yardage on any of his designed carries. He nearly had a rushing score, but a holding penalty negated it. San Francisco is already a strong red zone offense (league-best 68 percent touchdown rate), and having Lance only adds pressure to defenses around the end zone.
That combination of athleticism and arm talent allows Lance to also push the boundary in subtle ways where Garoppolo doesn’t. Take this first-quarter play-action throw, for example, in which Lance rolls left and has tight end George Kittle open in the flat (behind the line of scrimmage) while a defender is in his face. Instead of taking the quick dump-off that would have likely resulted in no gain, he buys enough time for the defender to jump before firing a dart to a second-level receiver past the sticks for a first down.
The upside plays are why the Niners mortgaged the future to land Lance, a signal-caller talented enough to take an already efficient offense into the stratosphere. But those are the kinds of small decisions that suggest Lance is inching closer to being ready to take over as the Niners starter. Garoppolo’s exit from San Francisco was always going to be a bit tricky—not that general manager John Lynch is itching for it (wink, wink)—but if he’s unable to play Sunday against the Rams, Shanahan has the right to be confident that his first-year passer will be able to step up. Even if he isn’t, the future certainly looks bright.