The Niners got a glimpse of their future Sunday. Guess what? Looked a lot like their past.
Led by rookie quarterback Trey Lance, filling in for injured starter Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco grinded out a crucial, late-season win over the visiting Texans, 23-7. They ran the ball well. The defensive line crunched the quarterback when it counted. The coaching staff drew up nifty plays to spring receivers wide open.
Sound familiar? That’s been the winning formula all season, resulting in a 9-7 record and a playoff spot on the line with one game left to play. Get your popcorn ready, folks. San Francisco must win in Los Angeles next Sunday to get in.
Going into this weekend’s contest with Houston, it was all about Trey. Everyone wanted to see whether Lance could get the job done. No. 5 came through in a big way.
From the onset, you could see the rookie was comfortable in the saddle, throwing the ball with confidence and avoiding the pass rush with some fancy footwork. It was clear head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t ask Lance to do too much.
The Niners ran the ball a lot, introduced some clever read-option plays and found a way to get Lance extra time to read the field and throw, using rollouts and deep drops with similar effect. The run/pass ratio is right where you would expect would be, with 37 plays by land opposed to 23 in the air.
Other than an ugly looking interception late in the first half, Lance conducted himself well, connecting on 16 of 23 passes, including two touchdowns to mitigate the one pick. Much like Garoppolo has done to great effect, the rookie managed the game and relied on the team’s strengths (running, defense) to bring home the win.
Back to the future, Santa Clara style.
“I think he did some real good things,” said Shanahan, of Lance’s second career start. “Besides that bad interception, I thought he protected the ball real well. He was very efficient. That big play at the end was huge. For the most part, he made some pretty good decisions running the ball.”
Lance handled the spotlight with humility and grace, thanking Garoppolo for the help he offered on the sidelines during the game and congratulating his teammates for their success.
“Being able to make some throws, and guys making plays, made things easier,” said Lance. “I was excited. I felt prepared.”
Sure looked that way. So, where does that leave us going into the last week of this never-ending NFL season?
All things considered, 49ers fans should be delighted. Their team is relevant. It controls its postseason destiny. And a group of young Niners are emerging as stars, giving hope for success far into the future.
Perhaps best of all, the Niners’ future looks ready for the present.
Think of the group that’s come together this season. Running back Elijah Mitchell. Receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. George Kittle at tight end. Nick Bosa and Fred Warner on defense. That’s a championship-quality core that could make noise this postseason, next year and beyond.
Now you have the opportunity to add Lance to that mix, allowing Shanahan to dust off a few chapters of his playbook that he could never use with Garoppolo.
Maybe it’s just the new year and everything seems possible. But this team reminds me a lot of the early Harbaugh-era teams that suddenly had talent stacked up at most every position, two and three deep.
Credit Niners General Manager John Lynch for building a roster that’s survived an avalanche of injuries this season and is still holding up.
Now it’s on to LA to face a historic rival in another must-win game. Shanahan will have a tough decision on his hands once again, choosing who will start at quarterback. Everyone’s saying the right thing on that front, signalling that Garoppolo will play if healthy. While that’s a big “if,” Lance has shown he can play under playoff-like pressure.
The way the Niners see it, they’re already in the postseason.
“It’s pretty simple for us,” said Shanahan. “I’m just glad we took care of business. We have our second playoff game next week.”