After leading the 49ers to victory in his second NFL start on Sunday, rookie quarterback Trey Lance should once again get the call in the season finale.
In fact, the entire offense sputtered its way through the first half, managing just three points, which came on the half’s final drive, against a poor Texans defensive unit. Head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t seem to be meshing with his quarterback, and add to the fact that Lance’s interception led to a Texans touchdown drive, there wasn’t much to like about the Niners offense in the first half.
But Lance came alive in the second 30 minutes of the game, ultimately finishing 16-of-23 for 249 yards and two second-half touchdown throws, the first to running back Elijah Mitchell from 8 yards out after an interception of Texans quarterback Davis Mills. Two drives later, Lance found wide receiver Deebo Samuel for a 45-yard bomb off of a play-action bootleg to push the 49ers’ lead to 17-7 with 9:56 to play, essentially sealing the victory for San Francisco.
Lance also used his legs to good effect during the game, and although his rushing stats (eight carries for 31 yards) don’t light up the box score, his ability to extend plays with his legs and make something happen, as he did on a late first-quarter completion to wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk from his own end zone, where Lance bought time in the pocket and found Aiyuk for a first down.
This last element of Lance’s game is one of the main reasons why the 49ers should once again start him against the Los Angeles Rams in their final regular-season matchup. And yes, this should be the case regardless of de facto starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo‘s health.
Trey Lance, not Jimmy Garoppolo should be starting for 49ers vs. Rams
Shanahan said after the win over Houston that Garoppolo would return to the lineup if he was “100 percent healthy and could do everything like perfect,” but later added that it would be difficult for the 49ers’ incumbent signal-caller to get to 100 percent.
But the fact of the matter is that while Garoppolo has the experience factor over Lance, there are two things the veteran lacks that Lance possesses.
For one is the ability to use more of the field with his passes, due to Lance’s stronger throwing arm as compared to Garoppolo. Just compare Lance’s passing chart from Next Gen Stats in Sunday’s game to almost any of Garoppolo’s and you’ll see not just that Lance throws the ball deeper downfield, but also that his arm allows him to use the space outside the numbers, something that Garoppolo struggles to do:
Next Gen Stats takes that even further, noting that Lance averaged “the most air yards/attempt (11.5) and threw for the most yards on 10+ air yards passes (205) by any 49ers QB in a game over the last three seasons,” which would include not just Garoppolo, but also former 49ers quarterbacks C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens:
And while Lance’s interception (and nearly another one on the final drive of the first half) came on those deep, outside-the-numbers throws, his ability to make them adds another wrinkle to the Niners offense that Garoppolo simply cannot add himself.
The mental part of those attempts will come with time, but the arm strength, as they say, can’t be taught.
The second element that Lance adds is the extension of plays. Sure, he’ll need to learn when to take advantage of his legs and run, or when to simply buy time in the pocket, but he showed a few instances last Sunday, such as the aforementioned throw to Aiyuk, where he wasn’t too quick to bail on plays as he did more often in his Week 5 start against the Arizona Cardinals.
In other words, the rookie is learning.
Trey Lance can give 49ers an edge Jimmy Garoppolo can’t
Garoppolo isn’t incapable of creating something out of busted plays or buying time when receivers are covered, but more often than not those plays end in sacks, while Lance’s elusiveness allows him to escape and create plays.
Much like with arm strength, Lance will learn when to run and when to keep his eyes up the field, but Garoppolo will never become an elite athlete in the same way Lance is.
The question is, however, why does this mean the rookie should maintain his spot regardless of Garoppolo’s health heading into a season finale with a playoff berth on the line? Wouldn’t the 49ers prefer the steady hand of an experienced veteran in this spot instead of a rookie who has started all of two games in his NFL career?
But Lance’s skill set outweighs Garoppolo’s veteran experience since the rookie, at his best, gives the offense the best chance to move out of the middle of the pack in the league and become one of the NFL’s elite units.
And so, Sunday in Los Angeles is not just about 2021, but 2022 and beyond, and giving Lance the opportunity to step onto the field at SoFi Stadium and prove himself could be valuable for the team moving forward, while also opening up the offense in ways that it just can’t be with Garoppolo at the helm.