The Trey Lance experiment ended first with a whimper, and then on Wednesday, a thud. The San Francisco 49ers announced that Lance, the former No 3 overall pick, will be the team’s third-string quarterback to start the season, behind Brock Purdy and Sam Darnold.
Lance was allowed to leave the team’s facility and miss practice after receiving the news. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said that he “really hopes” the team keeps Lance, but the quarterback moving on is now inevitable – whether the team can figure out a trade remains to be seen.
In truth, the decision to go forward with Purdy and Darnold was made before this year’s draft. The Niners didn’t want to fess up to it yet, but that was the meat of Ian Rapoport’s pre-draft report that the team had fielded offers for the 23-year-old.
The Niners were just listening, they wanted you to know. They hadn’t called or picked up the phone to anyone. Honest. They were sounded out, and, hey, they were just doing their jobs by listening. That, of course, was nonsense. It was PR speak for: We have some offers we like but we want to see if there’s more out there on the market.
The Niners decided to cling on to Lance as a fallback option for Purdy, who had elbow surgery during the offseason. Purdy is now back up to full speed and Darnold has supplanted Lance as the team’s No 2. Darnold was dynamite down the stretch last season with the Carolina Panthers, save for a blip in his last game. If you gave Shanahan a couple of cocktails, he’d probably admit there’s a part of him that wants to see what Darnold – another former No 3 overall pick – could do with the starting gig.
Give some credit to Niners general manager John Lynch, Shanahan, and company. They’re not holding on for the sake of holding on. They understand the idea of a sunk cost. The deal to move up for Lance has been done. They can’t resurrect the three first-round picks they traded to move up to draft him. But they can still spin the theory of Lance into something, some tangible asset that can help them win in this precious window when their defense is still whole and Purdy is still cheap.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When they selected Lance, the Niners were drafting an idea as much as a player. That may sound pompous, but it’s true. Shanahan pushing for Lance in a draft that included Mac Jones (a more prototypical Shanahan prospect) was emblematic of a philosophical shift. What if, the theory went, they could take all the wonders of a wide-zone-then-boot-styled offense that had wreaked havoc on the league and they could pair it with some option and pistol goodness?
Could you fuse those two distinct poles into one, cohesive offense? The traditional Shanahan concepts would be even more lethal. And the new ideas would bring a measure of you-go-here-I-go-there football that is, by definition, impossible to defend against. Rather than silo the offense from play to play, the two styles would complement and then amplify one another.
Shanahan was gunning for the kind of system the Eagles developed with Jalen Hurts that ended up taking them to the Super Bowl last season.
Injuries and Lance’s lack of development undercut Shanahan’s shift. Lance started the team’s first two games last season, but suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2. By the time Lance was healthy again, Purdy had usurped him. Shanahan pivoted again, dealing for running back Christian McCaffrey and refashioning the offense around a brand of ‘positionless’ football.
With this core operating on this timeline, it’s the right decision to end the Lance experiment. But it is a sad day for any self-anointed scheme dorks. The idea of Lance’s blend of size, speed, wiggle, power, and arm talent in a refashioned Shanahan offense was tantalizing. But the Niners are too good and too overwhelming to goof around with experiments. They have an offensive savant and interchangeable superstars at the skill positions. There’s no need to overthink this or to get too fancy. Given all their pieces on offense and the wizard working the sidelines, a pocket distributor with enough verve to create something out of the structure is all they need to be among the favorites in the NFC.
Purdy fits that bill. Lance does not. And Lance The Asset can be used better elsewhere by bolstering an already stacked roster, and recovering a smidge of the draft capital the 49ers doled out to move up in the draft.
Lance will have admirers elsewhere. Lance’s play in short spurts has made grim viewing, but he’s still on 23, is clearly a fantastic athlete and was always going to be on a steep learning curve after very limited experience in college.
How limited? Fun fact: Lance has only attempted 519 passes in his entire football career. He attempted 99 passes in high school. In college, where he had only one true (exceptional) season as a starter, he attempted just 318. For context, Patrick Mahomes attempted more passes in a single season at Texas Tech than Lance has in his football life and 648 in the 2022 regular season alone. In two seasons in the league, Lance has just 102 attempts.
Lance needs to play. He needs reps – and the kind of live game reps you cannot get in practice or even in preseason games, which feature backups and vanilla schemes. The Niners cannot afford to have a quarterback learning on the job. Their championship window is now.
A move back to his home state with the Minnesota Vikings makes sense. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could take a low-cost flyer. The New England Patriots should have interest. At times, Lance has been an abject disaster, but there’s an interesting player still there under the rubble. The Vikings and Patriots are dealing with similar issues that led Shanahan to bet the farm on Lance in the first place.
There will be plenty of talk of the roads not taken: Should they have taken Justin Fields or Jones instead? Should they have held their ground, mined the veteran free-agent pool, stuck with and built around Jimmy Garoppolo, or waited for a disgruntled veteran like Aaron Rodgers to land in their laps?
The price the Niners paid for a one-year college starter with barely any football experience was always baffling. But there was at least a theory to the madness: the Niners were taking a big swing in an attempt to keep up with the NFL’s arms race. They wanted to pivot the entire basis of their offense around a particular style, to chase a Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, or Mahomes of their own. They saw Lance as the guy.
Sometimes, that courage is rewarded. Sometimes, you’re left looking like Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes.
The Niners will count the cost of the miss. Miami turned the three first-rounders handed to them by the Niners into Jaylen Waddle, Tyreek Hill, and Bradley Chubb. The Dolphins had to attach picks of their own into those respective deals, so it’s not a direct one-to-one, but they were only made possible thanks to the bounty that San Francisco coughed up.
Lance has not been the only miss. Shanahan and Lynch bet on Garoppolo instead of bringing Tom Brady back to the Bay Area. Once they decided Garoppolo wasn’t good enough, they bet on the promise of Lance over the known quantities of Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins or Rodgers. On the two biggest calls, they’ve come out bust. The revisionist history has already started on who made which call.
When we look back at the 49ers’ Shanahan-Lynch era, the decision to move up for Lance will loom over everything. If Purdy turns out to be the second coming of Brady – or even Cousins – the Niners might have lucked their way out of an all-time clunker. If Purdy turns into a pumpkin, the Lance decision will be held up as proof of two of the league’s smartest minds trying to outthink the room – and costing the team its championship window.