Trey Lance made his debut as an NFL quarterback in the 49ers’ 17-10 loss at Arizona Sunday, which strengthened the 5-0 Cardinals’ hold on the NFC West.
Lance looked every bit the relatively inexperienced rookie at times, particularly early on. He also showed multi-skilled superstar skills.
As the 49ers head into a nicely-timed bye week, giving ailing front liners such as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and tight end George Kittle a couple of weeks to further mend, here’s what we learned Sunday:
Lance a quick study
There’s no getting around it: Lance’s first drive as a starter was a tough watch. His first play was a designed run, beautifully executed by an offensive line that quietly manhandled the Cardinals’ defensive for much of the day. The 14 yards Lance picked up looked almost casual, and he hooked up with Kyle Juszczyk for 16 yards on his first pass.
Then he threw an interception, on which he was so locked in on his intended target that he never noticed the gaping maw his line had created right in front of him. He overthrew his target by a good 10 yards into a pack of black jerseys.
The decline was rapid. The exception was a handful of chunk plays clearly designed for Lance, the success of which were more reflective of the offensive line’s fine work and head coach Kyle Shanahan’s imagination.
Lance appeared jumpy and unsure of himself, at times rattled into bad decisions. He put together a halftime passer rating of 25.9, having connected on 5-of-11 passes for 63 yards and the interception. He ran the ball nine times for 47 yards.
He also was entrusted to stay on the field for a variety of fourth-down situations. The results were mixed, but such trust goes a long way toward a healthy coach-QB relationship.
All the while, Kyler Murray was everything Lance was not, methodically marching his team up and down the field, building up a 10-0 halftime lead with poise, confidence, and decisive, sound decision-making. A former first-round pick of the Oakland A’s, Murray went 15-for-20 for 158 yards and ran only once in the first half.
Apparently Lance, who considers himself a nerdy, studious sort, was paying attention to Murray’s total command of his position, his team and the game.
Slowly but surely, Lance settled into something of a groove in the second half, appearing more sure of himself with every series, every touch. He went 10-for-18 for 129 yards in the second half and dialed back the running to seven keepers for 42 yards.
“It’s fast out there,” Lance conceded. “Really fast. But the game started to slow down in the second half. There’s no substitute for reps. Live reps like this, I mean.”
“I thought he did some things very well, indicative of why we like him so much,” added Shanahan. “He kind of just kept getting better and more comfortable.”
It’s still a bit early to declare that Lance has arrived. But when it was all over, you had the sense that he knows that, too, and the prospect of the rookie growing into a souped-up version of what he showed in the second half is officially legitimate.
Brandon Aiyuk emerges
Tom Brady had Wes Welker, then upgraded to Rob Gronkowski. Joe Montana had Dwight Clark early on, and then came Jerry Rice. Peyton Manning had Marvin Harrison.
Playing quarterback in the NFL is one of the most challenging positions in professional sports. It’s far more common than not for elite passers to identify a pass catcher or two as being particularly reliable, to serve as a safety valve of sorts.
Among the things we learned Sunday was that Lance seems to be taking a real interest in wideout Brandon Aiyuk, whose modest Sunday numbers — four targets, two grabs, 32 yards — don’t do justice to the impact of his presence.
One of his catches netted 28 yards, the other picking up just four. But it was the nature of the catches, not their statistical value, that felt like the start of something. Both required Lance to find a window the naked eye can’t see. In turn, Aiyuk had to forget the pounding he was about to absorb shortly after the ball arrived. The childlike enthusiasm of Lance and Aiyuk as they interacted seemed genuine.
“He’s gonna be a monster,” Aiyuk said of Lance. “We’ve got few.”
Speaking of which, Deebo Samuel, 6 feet tall and 215 pounds, is already one of them. He went from anonymous to national acclaim in less than a year. He’s strong, fast, fearless, tough, and possesses an almost maniacal commitment to downfield blocking when he’s not making circus catches.
Aiyuk, 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, might be this season’s Samuel.
A dynamic defense
The Niners have a dynamic defense, providing a consistent strength for the squad. As such, its first half Sunday was an anomaly because the defense typically comes out of the pregame tunnel on fire.
The script seemed flipped, as Murray carved out the 10-point halftime lead.
The second half was another unit entirely, and the wake-up call seemed to be a stoning of the Cards at the end of the first half. Nick Bosa’s sack ended Arizona’s first possession after the break, and all seemed right with the world thereafter. The Cards were mostly muted from there.
“Definitely a slow start,” Bosa said. “I don’t know. We eventually got there, but it was a little too late.”
Mychael Urban is a freelance contributor to The Examiner