By Bruce MacGowan
Special to the Examiner
Like it or not, the Trey Lance era is probably going to start Sunday when the Niners host lowly Houston.
It’s highly likely that Jimmy Garoppolo’s thumb injury will end his season, so coach Kyle Shanahan will put the offense in the hands of his top draft pick and see he can carry San Francisco into the playoffs.
At 6-4 and 235 pounds, Lance is one of those special athletes who can do the same things that stars such as Russell Wilson of the Seahawks and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes do; complete a high percentage of passes but also keep opposing defenses on their toes by effectively running the ball
In recent years, there have been spates of college quarterbacks who have come into the NFL and performed exceptionally well early in their careers. The Bills and Ravens both his the jackpot with Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson while Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow have given long-suffering Ohio NFL fans hope as starters with the Browns and Bengals.
Many 49er fans were clamoring for Lance to replace Garoppolo earlier this season, but much of that noise quieted down in recent weeks when Jimmy G. put up excellent numbers to spark the 49ers back into the playoff hunt.
In an ideal world, Shanahan would wait until next year to bring the prized newcomer in as the starter and not have to put a 21 year old rookie into the pressure cooker with two must wins coming up.
But we should remember that only a few years back, Niners’ first-string quarterback Alex Smith went down with an injury and Colin Kaepernick took over and eventually led the 49ers into the Superbowl.
Although he played just one full year at North Dakota State and had starts in four games in two other campaigns, the numbers Lance put up are eye opening. The Bisons did not lose a single game out of the 19 in which he appeared. During his brilliant 2019 season, Lance clicked on over 65 percent of his passes, completing 192 in 287 attempts with 28 TD strikes and NO interceptions.’
During that brief college career he also rushed for 1100 yards while scoring 14 times, and he sparked a 28-20 North Dakota State win over rival South Dakota state in the FCS National Championship by zipping around for 166 yards on 30 carries.
One scout gave Lance this glowing evaluation after the 21 year old had a terrific pre draft workout:
“Lance has an absolute cannon. I think Shanahan’s ability to design plays combined with Lance’s athletic ability and ridiculous arm strength will offset Jimmy Garoppolo as a more accurate quarterback.”
To Lance’s credit, he has quietly watched from the 49ers’ sidelines most of this season, absorbing as much as possible from his coaches, teammates, but especially from Garoppolo. And give Jimmy G. credit, as he has been a helpful mentor to his teammate, not showing any outward resentment. Garoppolo knows what the 49ers have invested in this bright young star-to-be, as the rookie will probably be taking his job next year.
Perhaps he has handled the situation in a smooth and more professional manner than others might have after working as an understudy to the greatest quarterback in NFL history; Tom Brady of the Patriots. Garoppolo made it quite clear early in training camp he was going to give Lance as much advice and help as needed.
“I was in a similar situation in New England,” Garoppolo said back in July.
“So you see those things firsthand, and you see it playing out in the media through other teams…. I think that when it’s at it’s most natural; you can really build a normal relationship between two people. Anything he needs, I’m willing to help him.”
Lance saw his first action during a brief appearance in the season opener against Detroit, electrifying the fans at Levi’s Stadium when he scampered around the left side of the line for a five-yard TD.
Then, when Garoppolo was injured in the first half of an early season home game against Seattle, Lance had to be rushed in. Lance ended up compiling 157 yards through the air while firing two TD passes
“He wasn’t expecting to get in and I thought he ran the ball well, hit some passes, obviously missed some passes. He was in as tough situation as we re down by two scores but he did a good job moving the chains a couple of times with his legs. But it was a typical first game.”
The following week Garoppolo was still on the mend so Lance got his first start. Although the Cardinals won that game, Lance acquitted himself very nicely, rushing for 89 yards on 16 carries while going 15/29 through the air for 192 yards, no TDs and one interception.
Ready or not, Lance will almost certainly be running the show Sunday against the Texans and Shanahan feels he’s ready. He feels confident, especially since Lance has looked better in practice of late.
“I feel this last month has been his best,” Shanahan said earlier this week during a press conference.
“And I think if you talk to the defensive coaches, defensive players or myself watching it, I think we’d all feel the same.”