SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Kyle Juszczyk distinctly remembers a moment of achievement for 49ers quarterback Trey Lance last season.
Lance replaced the injured Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 17 against the Texans. He and the 49ers offense had spat for half the game — “You could feel the nerves,” Juszczyk said Tuesday — but the pace finally clicked in the third quarter. Lance’s 8-yard touchdown throw to running back Elijah Mitchell did the trick.
“I just needed to get that first one off my back,” Lance shouted in the end zone, according to Juszczyk. “Now I’m fine!” Now I’m ready to roll!”
Juszczyk said, “That’s when you could feel the weight coming off his shoulders. It gave me extreme confidence that he was ready at that point, that he was going to continue this season once it was time to be No. 1.”
That QB1 moment is now. The 49ers continue to seek a trade for Garoppolo, who spent the offseason recovering from shoulder surgery, as they openly move to Lance as their starter. The spring offseason program was the first, larger step in a process that will reach cruising speed Wednesday when the 49ers hold their first training camp practice.
For the first time since that victory over Houston seven months ago, Lance will have the chance to operate with all of the 49ers’ first-team players. Garoppolo took over the reins of the 49ers the week after that Texans game, leaving a tantalizing finish from Lance – he threw a deep 45-yard touchdown strike to receiver Deebo Samuel and a laser bolt in the middle of tight end George Kittle – as a suspenseful off-season.
Now, at last, the 49ers can begin to implement the versatile skill set that attracted coach Kyle Shanahan to Lance in the first place. It’s the one they believe can add a new dimension of mobility to their offense.
“I’m looking forward to a lot of games that aren’t planned,” Kittle said Tuesday. “You see a lot of moving quarterbacks, guys who can get out of the pocket and make this game last. Instead of a five-second game, it lasts 10 seconds. It’s hard to cover someone for 10 seconds and I feel like I can open up to someone in 10 seconds.
“I think Trey will be able to do that a lot, and it’s just that type of style of football. You see him in the highlights every week on ‘SportsCenter’ Top 10 for other quarterbacks in the league, and I think Trey will be able to do a lot.
There is exaggeration in Kittle’s words, of course. Lance will rarely, if ever, hold the ball for a full 10 seconds. But Kittle’s point still stands: The 49ers offense is working with a physical skill set that Shanahan didn’t have with previous QBs on the team, and that opens up new stylistic possibilities.
Take the fact that Garoppolo, who has one of the fastest exits in football, averaged 2.58 seconds from snap to release last season. Only three NFL quarterbacks — Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Tua Tagovailoa — have dropped the ball faster, on average. Lance, in his 10 quarters, has finished on the opposite end of the spectrum. According to Pro Football Focus, the rookie averaged 3.37 seconds from snap to release, by far the longest qualifying quarterback time.
The 49ers are no doubt expecting a shorter separation from Lance this season as he develops handling abilities within Shanahan’s offense, but Kittle’s words make it clear that the stylistic interpretation of this stat is more relevant: Lance has a unique escape ability, and the 49ers fully plan to introduce it. .
“I agree with George on this great moment,” Juszczyk said. “I think that’s where Trey can really be dynamic, that’s where the game really breaks down, he’s got the athleticism to really make the defense pay.”
Shanahan would certainly prefer games to never crash. But a perpetually pristine pocket is a pipe dream, especially in a league that has seen a proliferation of top talent over the past decade. And that was a key consideration for Shanahan when he decided to trade massive draft capital for the chance to draft Lance in 2021.
The 49ers have choreographed a productive passing offense with a healthy Garoppolo for the past few seasons — they’ve actually led the league in explosive passing rate and yards after receiving catches in 2019 and 2021 — but they’ve also saw opposing defensive fronts blast their lighter, focused O-line run on key passing plays.
The 49ers believe Lance will be able to get out of at least some of the liaisons that have trapped Garoppolo in an expensive sack or turnover.
“You want to find Drew Brees who can move like Lamar Jackson,” Shanahan said days before the 49ers picked Lance.
Shanahan’s father, Mike Shanahan, enjoyed this pairing and led him to Super Bowl success with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks. He was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator from 1992 to 1994, when Steve Young was under center, and Denver’s head coach thereafter, when John Elway was in charge. Both Young and Elway combined passing accuracy with an athleticism that could demoralize defenses at pivotal moments.
Obviously Lance cannot be expected to deliver at the level of these legends, at least at the start of his career. But therein lies perhaps the 49ers’ greatest source of optimism surrounding this QB takeover: They shouldn’t need a transcendent game from the get-go. The team is armed with a deep and talented formation, and their attack will remain schematically rooted in Shanahan’s running game.
Whatever extra value Lance can bring to the table in terms of evasion represents potential added value here, at least to begin this journey.
“We’re still the Niners,” Kittle said. “We are still going to run a lot of the outside zone. We’re going to run a lot of gap patterns. We will be launching a lot of counterfeit action game stuff. I believe we are going to perform what we are really good at.
Says Juszczyk: “I don’t think we need to change anything or do anything out of the ordinary to help Trey. Just being the players we are will help Trey.
Over time, of course, the 49ers will naturally want more Lance. Their investment in acquiring him was huge, and the longer-term expectations of him certainly seem to reflect that. But right now, at this early stage in the process on the eve of the first practice of the 2022 training camp, only the plan exists.
The task of performing it begins now.
“I’m also excited about his big-play ability,” Juszczyk said. “In practice, the games are scripted, so it’s not always exactly indicative of what you’re going to do in the game. Your readings are predetermined. But I just felt like Trey was hitting a lot of deep shots during the OTA, and I’m glad it’s continuing.
“We all see the potential and we all see that he can reach that potential.”
(Photo: Cary Edmondson/USA Today)