Media, fans, Kyle Shanahan, and even Trey Lance himself — we’re all learning who and what the 49ers’ rookie is is and is not as an NFL quarterback on the fly.
We’re finding out if the things that he was able to do in his limited time at a second-division college translate to the league.
We’re seeing the limitations of his talent and where tutelage will be best served.
We’re seeing how fast the game is for him in his early career.
We’re seeing how a young man, with little to no practical experience, handles big moments on the biggest stage.
It’s a lot. And Lance has delivered an admirable performance to date, with the biggest tests and hardest questions to answer yet looming in the weeks to come.
Lance is nowhere near a finished product. Even in this era of immediate feedback, you’d need at least eight games — half a season — to establish some reputable thoughts on a quarterback. Lance has played eight quarters as a starting quarterback in this league.
But one thing we can say with certainty at this early juncture is that the 49ers’ starting quarterback throughout the entire season, Jimmy Garoppolo, and his backup who will likely carry the Niners the rest of the way, Lance, could not be more different.
In fact, it’s downright jarring how disparate these two quarterbacks are.
The tape tells one story, and it’s nearly comical. These two might be playing the same sport, but they’re not playing the same game.
The Niners went from this, this, and this… to this. pic.twitter.com/XC0NubiJ2q
— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dieter) January 3, 2022
Better? Worse? You can just be the judge of that.
But there’s no arguing that these two are quite different. And with that in mind, can you blame the 49ers’ offense for sputtering a bit in Week 5 and in the first half Sunday?
Two stats contextualize this stark difference between signal-callers.
The first is time to throw. Garoppolo has one of the fastest trigger fingers in the west, as he has thrown, on average this season, 2.7 seconds after the ball has been snapped, per the NFL.
That works for him and his skillset, and frankly, it’s hard to argue that it didn’t work for the 49ers’ offense. It makes life easier on the Niners’ offensive line and Garoppolo, as he was, statistically, the NFL’s least-pressured quarterbacks this season, per Pro Football Focus. Garoppolo’s catch and release game puts the ball in the hands of the Niners’ skill players as soon as possible, and that’s a good thing.
Lance, meanwhile, couldn’t be more different. Amongst all the quarterbacks who have started multiple games this COVID-ravaged season, no one takes longer to throw the ball than Lance, who is clocked at 3.37 seconds per drop back this season.
Given the differences in time, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Garoppolo and Lance throw the ball to different parts of the field.
This brings us to stat No. 2.
We all know that Garoppolo works over the middle, but he also works short. He averaged 7.4 intended air yards per attempt this season. Those air yards don’t take into account the width of the field.
But Lance, as hinted at against Arizona in Week 5 and fully shown on Sunday, is going to push the ball to the sidelines and downfield.
It’s only one week, against a bad opponent to boot, but no one in the NFL pushed the ball downfield as often in Week 17 as Lance. His 11.5 intended air yards per attempt beat out Tom Brady and Josh Allen on Sunday.
Lance’s average of 9.6 completed air yards also topped the league this past week.
Shanahan can be an ideologue when it comes to his offense. His way wins — when it’s executed right, that is. (Shanahan’s desire for an offensive coordinator on the field is the basis of his longstanding crush on Kirk Cousins.)
But an offense is only as good as the players on the field and, in particular, the quarterback.
Which player better represents the true version of Shanahan’s attack? If it wasn’t Garoppolo, why would he have been at the helm for years — how could he have driven them to the Super Bowl?
Then again, how could it not be Lance — the quarterback Shanahan and his front office spent three first-round picks to select?
In past years, Shanahan has tried to back up Garoppolo with a player who played like Garoppolo (perhaps another point for Jimmy G, there). Nick Mullens started 16 games for the Niners over three seasons, winning five.
Whether it made life easy for his players or himself, there’s little question now that it was the right decision to diverge from that model.
A lesser version of Garoppolo wouldn’t fly as the Niners head into their season finale with a berth in the playoffs still on the line.
Whether Lance is currently better or worse than Garoppolo doesn’t matter. He’s starkly different, and on Sunday, the Niners showed they can win with that kind of quarterbacking, too.