Trey Lance's last desperate hope to be 49ers' starting quarterback

Trey Lance and the 49ers probably didn't envision it would all come down to this.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance / Ethan Miller/GettyImages

It appears time is running out for Trey Lance to become the future of the 49ers franchise, and there's only one thing he can hold out hope for.

If there were any doubts about which quarterback the San Francisco 49ers wanted to start in 2023, they were erased on Sunday, Aug. 13 during their first preseason game of the season against the Las Vegas Raiders.

Even though both he and general manager John Lynch had said so before, head coach Kyle Shanahan already told reporters he planned on resting his starters.

As such, quarterback Brock Purdy didn't suit up for the 34-7 exhibition loss. Instead, it was Trey Lance and Sam Darnold receiving the lion's share of snaps at quarterback.

Lance saw all the snaps in the first half, finishing his day going 10-of-15 for 112 yards, a touchdown and a passer rating of 111.0.

On paper, that looks pretty good. But Lance also took four sacks, two of which were instances where he should have got the ball out sooner, and he also tossed two would-be interceptions that luckily bounced in his favor, including that touchdown pass that deflected off a Raiders defender's hands and into the arms of tight end Ross Dwelley.

Overall, it wasn't the performance the Niners wanted to see from Lance.

Trey Lance needed to dominate 49ers training camp, preseason

The No. 3 overall pick from the 2021 NFL Draft, one for whom San Francisco gave up two additional first-round picks and a third-rounder, is still far away from being considered a bust. He's only 23 years old, had only one season as a starter in college at North Dakota State, 2019, and has a mere four regular-season starts at the pro level.

In short, he needs practical experience.

The 49ers were giving it to him entering 2022 when they admitted it was time to move on from their former starter, Jimmy Garoppolo, leaving Lance to start that year while being open to the inevitable growing pains he'd experience.

But Lance suffered that season-ending ankle injury in Week 2, which led to Garoppolo's return under center. Jimmy G's own injury later that year segwayed into Purdy becoming a national star almost overnight.

The Niners are justified in naming Purdy their starter going forward, even though he's coming off a torn UCL in his throwing elbow, suffered in the NFC Championship game last January.

What Lance needed to do in response, however, was to completely outclass both Purdy and Darnold during training camp, doing so by the most significant of margins and using his talent to the extreme.

Then, in a practical game setting with an audience watching, Lance needed to do far more of the same, leaving no doubt in Shanahan's mind who the better quarterback is.

Lance didn't achieve either.

A so-so training camp, coupled with an uninspiring preseason debut on Sunday means Lance didn't improve his chances to even sniff the starting job over Purdy.

And that might have been his last, best shot. But there's still a glimmer of hope for Lance.

Trey Lance still has this last shot to start for 49ers

OK, technically, there are two ways in which Lance can return as San Francisco's starter.

Purdy, whose surgically repaired elbow kept him out of offseason workouts, could suffer some sort of aggravation or setback. Or he could likewise suffer another debilitating injury, leaving someone like Lance to step up by default.

However, it's rare for starters to completely lose their jobs to injuries, so we can't count upon that, nor should we.

Either way, both scenarios involve elements that are out of Lance's control.

For Lance to regain the starting job, Purdy would essentially have to implode during the regular season when the games counted. Forget playing like he did a season ago. The final pick of the 2022 draft would have to look like, well... he was the final pick of the draft. And then some. Purdy would have to be downright bad for a lengthy stretch in order to force Shanahan's hand back to Lance.

Even then, Shanahan could theoretically turn to Darnold, whose $3.5 million in guaranteed money means he'll be on the roster.

All the while, Lance has to dazzle in practices and in whatever game situation he sees, and the opportunities simply may not be there, which is something NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco pointed out in a brutally honest piece on Lance's future in San Francisco:

"But there is also one unavoidable truth about Lance’s future with the 49ers: As much as he develops and improves, he might never get another chance with the team that traded up to draft him.

And that is because the 49ers believe they found themselves the “real deal.” That’s what coach Kyle Shanahan recently called Purdy, the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft.

If Purdy remains healthy and plays near the level at which he performed as a rookie, he will remain as the starter."

The last sentence is key.

Sure, pundits will criticize the 49ers' trade-up for Lance, assuming the results fall way short of expectations. Yet the Niners can hopefully boast about Purdy being "the guy" despite missing out on Lance.

And few will question San Francisco being good, as the team has made back-to-back NFC Championship games and also has a Super Bowl appearance in a four-year window. Good teams can afford these mistakes more than bad ones, and as long as Purdy delivers, it won't matter as much.

For Lance, though, it's turning into a very uncertain future that points to his time with the 49ers running out awfully soon.

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