The 49ers have been trying their best to undersell rookie Trey Lance’s terrific training camp. After his dazzling preseason highlights in an uneven debut against the Chiefs on Saturday night — including the type of throw that Jimmy Garoppolo has never made — let’s hope Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco have changed their stance on Lance being a second-stringer.
Kansas City was an appropriate first exhibition opponent in 2021, because the presence of Patrick Mahomes should have been a strong reminder of what could have been for the 49ers in Super Bowl 54. After Mahomes made the money passes in the second half to win that game and Garoppolo didn’t, Shanahan and GM John Lynch set their minds on a higher-ceiling QB.
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When they made an aggressive trade up to No. 3 overall to select Lance, they probably expected to ease in a 21-year-old short on college playing experience with Garoppolo serving as one of the league’s better bridge options. That bridge should be burned now with Lance throwing immediate, absolute fire.
Lance (5-of-14 passing, 128 yards, one TD, 9.1 yards per attempt, 93.7 passer rating, four sacks) didn’t complete even 50 percent of his passes in his preseason debut, but that didn’t matter one lick.
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Garoppolo was efficient in one series before handing off to Lance in the first quarter, which was Shanahan’s pregame plan. After some opening-drive jitters in a three-and-out that included a missed short pass and a sack, Lance quickly proved what separates him from Garoppolo.
Lance zipped an 80-yard scoring bomb to backup wide receiver Trent Sherfield on the first play of his second possession. For good measure, with the 49ers backed up on their 1 two series later, Lance made a confident throw to backup tight end Charlie Woerner for a 34-yard catch-and-run.
Lance did accumulate 114 of his passing yards on two attempts, with only 14 on his other 10 attempts. He still was almost as efficient as Garoppolo (3-for-3 passing, 26 yards, 102.8 rating). Garoppolo’s big (and only) advantage is having great experience in Shanahan’s offense.
Because of how fine the 49ers’ system is — it has dangerous weapons, a great offensive line and an awesome running game — most above-average QBs like Garoppolo would have a high floor of success. But to take the team into the Mahomes stratosphere at QB, they need more big-play passing capacity and the element of effective complementary running. Lance’s arm was let loose. The impact with his legs is forthcoming.
When thinking about Lance’s night, consider the following: He saw limited time with dynamic young wideouts Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel. The 49ers also sat all-everything tight end George Kittle; the game’s best left tackle, Trent Williams; and savvy center Alex Mack. Felllow rookie Trey Sermon looked good running with Raheem Mostert out, but Shananan didn’t tip his regular-season hand with designed runs or encouraged scrambles for the ultra-athletic Lance.
Shanahan did see a few reasons to stick with Garoppolo: Lance’s inexperience-related issues with pressure, decision-making and accuracy. There’s also the reasoning that Garoppolo gives the 49ers a better chance to win games out of the gate before turning to Lance and his upside later — a la the 2012 Super Bowl run when Jim Harbaugh flipped from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick.
But consider also that the 49ers play the Lions in real Week 1, followed by the Eagles in Week 2. The schedule then ramps up to Aaron Rodgers’ Packers in Week 3 and Russell Wilson’s Seahawks in Week 4.
Lowly Detroit seems the ideal defensive opponent, even on the road, to break in a rookie QB in 2021. San Francisco should feel it can also knock off Philadelphia regardless of who’s starting.
There should be little confidence Garoppolo will outduel Rodgers and Wilson is consecutive home games. Lance, however, can be a literal game-changer if he’s in the lineup and well warmed up by then.
The clock has been ticking on Garoppolo since the 49ers drafted Lance. It might take a lot more strong practices and more polished preseason performances to convince Shanahan to change his mind. But don’t discount one big early throw from Lance playing a big part in making the critical initial decision.