SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It’s late in the San Francisco 49ers’ Aug. 7 practice, and quarterback Trey Lance is struggling.
As the workout winds down, Lance is trying to recapture the rhythm of the previous day’s practice, which he capped with a difficult cross-body throw for a touchdown.
On this day, whatever Lance discovered in that finishing flourish was long gone. Lance completed his first three passes but hit only one more in his final nine attempts. He missed wide. He missed low. He missed high. Lance’s final throw went right to linebacker Fred Warner for an interception.
An exasperated Lance grimaced and clapped his hands. After the horn finally sounded, he walked off the field, talking to teammates about his miscues.
When the Niners returned from their day off, coach Kyle Shanahan was curious to see how his young quarterback would rebound from what he would call a “rough” practice. The answer? Lance followed his worst day with his best. He was decisive and accurate, completing 14 of 19 passes, and displayed his speed, breaking off a would-be 65-yard touchdown run.
Over the course of 72 hours, the full Lance experience was on display, mixing tantalizing highs with frustrating lows. It became the theme of Lance’s first training camp as San Francisco’s starter. And it’s a thread the Niners expect to carry into the regular season for Lance, who, at 22 years and 125 days old entering Sunday’s opener against the Chicago Bears (1 p.m. ET, Fox), will be the youngest 49ers quarterback to start a season opener since the team joined the NFL in 1950. He will be one day younger than Alex Smith was when he made his first start in 2006.
“I would love to get Trey more practice and more experience — I would always want more of that,” Shanahan said. “He’s just as ready to go as he can be. He needs to get in these real games now and start playing, and there’s going to be times he makes some mistakes and he has to learn from them and find a way to still win the game and overcome some of those things as he learns on the run.”
All of which begs the most important question: Is Lance — from FCS North Dakota State with the fewest college pass attempts (318) of any first-round quarterback selected in the past 41 years — ready to take over for Jimmy Garoppolo and lead a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations back to the promised land?
Since using the No. 3 pick on Lance in the 2021 NFL draft, the Niners intended to turn the keys over to him this season, but it wasn’t until Aug. 29 that retaining Garoppolo as the backup became part of that plan.
That move creates doubts about how it will all work but made sense for the Niners in no small part because Lance struggled with injuries as a rookie. In addition to the fractured finger that bothered him all season, Lance suffered a left knee sprain in Week 5.
Garoppolo and Lance made their arrangement work in 2021 in opposite roles and have said all the right things about their current situation after switching spots on the depth chart.
“Me and Trey, honestly, I know that a lot of stuff gets made in the media, but we have a good relationship,” Garoppolo said. “Everyone can say what they want, but we went through it last year and it is very similar to this situation, so it’s not like we haven’t done it before.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t be tense moments. Outside pressure and discussion of a quarterback change is one thing. But Lance and Garoppolo are surrounded by teammates and coaches who know what the team can do when Garoppolo behind center.
“That team is built to win right now, and if Trey is not playing well and you’ve got a guy on the bench who has taken you to the places that Jimmy Garoppolo has taken you to,” Troy Aikman, the Hall of Fame quarterback and current Monday Night Football analyst, said. “I don’t know how you can look teammates in the eye or people in the locker room if you’re not doing what they feel is the best thing for the team. I hope Trey comes out, lights it up and plays great the whole year and he’s the MVP, but there’s going to be some growing pains.”
THERE’S NO HANDBOOK for a team to know when its franchise quarterback is ready to play. Most quarterbacks drafted as high as Lance are asked to immediately shoulder the weight of turning a moribund organization into a contender. When the 49ers used the third overall pick in the 2021 draft on Lance, 44 quarterbacks had been selected in the top three in the previous 50 NFL drafts and only two starters — Aikman and Peyton Manning — won a Super Bowl with the team that originally drafted them.
Lance is stepping into a far different situation in San Francisco, where the Niners are a little more than seven months removed from playing in the NFC Championship Game.
That means less pressure to carry the team on his back, but that is offset by the weight of expectations. The good news for Lance is he’s not only taking over a team loaded with talent, he’s doing so with Shanahan, a coach who has made a career of maximizing his quarterback’s skills.
It’s why Steve Young, the 49ers legend and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback, views the journey Lance is about to embark on as the ultimate opportunity to reach his potential.
“This is the place to find out how truly great he [could be], ” Young said. ” And if I could play right now — I could only dream about it — I would love to come back and play for this team and for this coach right now.”
Nobody knows better than Young what it takes to step into the starting job on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. When he took over for Joe Montana in 1991, the Niners had racked up four world championships, and anything less than that was considered unacceptable. Unlike Lance, Young already had six seasons under his belt. He didn’t have the growing pains that are sure to be part of Lance’s season.
In Lance, Young sees a quarterback with the ability to process information quickly, who is working hard to understand Shanahan’s system and boasts impressive arm talent. Young has called Lance “awesomely raw.” Young says patience will be required as Lance learns to do the small things such as when to run, when to throw it away, when to step out of bounds and when to slide, something Lance said he did for the first time in his career in the preseason opener against the Green Bay Packers on Aug. 12. Of more concern for Young is Lance’s ability to deliver the ball on time, with touch and into tight windows.
“This is gonna be a process,” Young said. “Anyone who judges him after even half a season, it’s gonna be tough to really know that this is who he’s gonna be. … If there’s a guy in the league who can do it with a young quarterback, and figure it out, it’s Kyle.”
SHANAHAN SPOKE GLOWINGLY of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen after watching him shred the Niners on Dec. 7, 2020. It turns out Shanahan wanted the quarterback with a similar profile in the 2021 draft.
Like Lance, Allen was a big, fast, strong-armed quarterback from a small school. Allen was also considered something of a project, the type who required time to develop after the Bills moved up to No. 7 in the 2018 draft to select him out of Wyoming. At the center of that development came a focus on fundamentals that could make him a more consistently accurate passer.
As a rookie, Allen had an adjusted completion percentage (a measurement that throws out dropped passes and throwaways) of 63.9%, sandwiching the occasional eye-opening throw with a variety of misses. Conventional wisdom says quarterbacks can’t drastically improve accuracy.
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Allen has proved to be a rare exception, bolstering his adjusted completion percentage to 66.2% in 2019 and 74.5% in 2020 before falling back to 68.7% in 2021. The overall improvement since his rookie season came through hours of offseason work with quarterbacks coach Jordan Palmer and his team.
“It was a lot [of things],” Allen said. “Understanding that process and then just being patient and trusting it.”
After early plans to use Lance in specific situations last year, Shanahan quickly scuttled them, finding that it disrupted his rhythm as a playcaller. But Lance made two starts for an injured Garoppolo, attempting 71 passes. He completed 41, throwing for 603 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions for a QBR of 33.4. Lance also rushed for 168 yards and a touchdown on 38 attempts.
This offseason, Lance spent time working with quarterback coach Adam Dedeaux in Southern California. Lance made some tweaks to his throwing motion, hoping to shorten it, but also wanted to get back to a more normal delivery after the remnants of a fractured finger suffered in the 2021 preseason forced him to alter it last season.
Lance completed 57.7% of his passes as a rookie, though his adjusted completion rate of 71.2% was significantly better. Still, Lance struggled with short and intermediate accuracy throughout training camp, especially when throwing outside the numbers. An Allen-like jump is asking a lot, but Lance hopes he will trend in a positive direction as the season wears on.
“I’ve had a great offseason and training camp,” Lance said. “There’s ups and downs to every day, every rep. So I’m learning as much as I possibly can. There’s countless areas that I know I’m going to continue to improve on and countless areas that I have improved on as well.”
At the 2021 NFL draft, Allen offered a message of encouragement to Lance, pointing out their similarities and how many doubters Lance would have coming from a small school where the “competition is too weak.” Allen told Lance to ignore the noise and let his game do the talking.
“In my opinion, there’s two guys that are in this league: There’s guys that figure it out and guys that get figured out,” Allen said. “It’s continuously improving and understanding what defenses are trying to do and just again trying to be the best teammate and best quarterback you can be.”
BEFORE LANCE, THE last time Shanahan was involved in drafting a quarterback in the top three was 2012, when he was Washington’s offensive coordinator. That team — coached by Shanahan’s father, Mike — also traded a package of picks to move up for a mobile, strong-armed quarterback named Robert Griffin III.
Although Griffin didn’t check some of the pocket-passing boxes that Shanahan prefers, he reimagined his offense to take advantage of Griffin’s skills. The result was one of the most electrifying seasons by a rookie quarterback in league history. Tasked with turning around a Washington team that had gone 5-11 the previous season, Griffin set rookie records for passer rating (102.4) and rushing yards (815) as the Commanders went 10-6 and made their first playoff appearance since 2007 before losing to the Seattle Seahawks in a wild-card game during which a previously hobbled Griffin tore the ACL and lateral collateral ligament in his right knee.
The 49ers went 1-1 in Lance’s two starts in 2021, though the win came in a must-have Week 17 game against the Houston Texans that helped propel the Niners to the playoffs. The sample was too small to make sweeping declarations, not that it prevented many observers from doing just that.
“Nobody is actually ready,” Griffin said. “The bottom line is you have to learn by trial by fire. So when everybody’s saying, ‘Oh, man, what I saw from Trey Lance last year, I didn’t like what I saw.’ I’m like, what did you see? The dude barely played.”
With the knowledge Lance would take over this year, Shanahan hasn’t completely changed the playbook, but there are wrinkles designed to take advantage of Lance’s strong arm and fast legs.
Unlike Lance, Griffin didn’t have the luxury of sitting a season before taking over, but he says he wouldn’t have wanted to. And though that extra time to adjust to the speed of the NFL can be beneficial, it doesn’t guarantee anything.
“I just think when people talk about readiness that there is no such thing as readiness when it comes to pro sports,” Griffin said. “You get thrown in the fire, and then over the course of time, you figure out, all right, can I, can this guy get it done or not?”