SANTA CLARA — Don’t be fooled by anyone who claims to know how Trey Lance’s rookie season has gone or where it’s going.
It is a mystery, just the way the 49ers intended it to be. Well, at least up until the current point, where Jimmy Garoppolo’s thumb injury could suddenly change Lance’s job description.
Instead of quietly learning in the background about the 49ers’ verbose offense and the NFL’s diabolical defenses, Lance might be leading a frantic playoff push, resuming Sunday when the 49ers (8-7) close out Levi’s Stadium against the Houston Texans (4-11).
No one knows what is to come, from Lance or this team.
That includes coaches, who must think they’ve prepared him mentally and physically enough since his arrival as the No. 3 overall pick, a slot they mortgaged the 2021-23 drafts to obtain.
That goes for offensive starters, whose on-field work with the 21-year-old QB amounts to training camp and warm-up work at practice.
That goes for defensive starters, who’ve faced that No. 5 jersey the most in practices, but with him on the scout team mimicking quarterbacks’ different skillsets, from mobile maestros to pocket passers. (Lance has earned multiple scout-team-player-of-the-week honors.)
And that goes for the all-knowing media, many of whom haven’t stepped onto the practice field since August, nor us daily beat reporters who’ve been denied requests to interview him since his only start, an Oct. 10 loss at Arizona.
Lance is, essentially, a secret weapon. Or, at least, a secret.
The 49ers designed it that way, hoping to redshirt him while entrusting Garoppolo’s veteran knowledge of this run-dominant, motion-based offense to lead them back to the Super Bowl, after an injury-plagued gap year.
This season hasn’t been dragged down by a quarterback soap opera. There’s been no open competition nor controversy, not like the 2012 switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick, or the NFL’s ultimate QB dynamic starring Joe Montana and Steve Young 35 years ago.
“It hasn’t been awkward at all for us on our side,” linebacker Fred Warner said after the 49ers’ last home win, Dec. 19 over Atlanta. “I mean it’s probably just been awkward outside the building with guys talking about it. But inside, (Garoppolo) has been the guy all along and, Trey, he’s got a bright future ahead, right? We see it every day in practice on our side because he’s out there dicing us up.”
They see it.
You might, too, come Sunday’s home finale against the Texans (4-11), followed by the regular-season finale at the Los Angeles Rams (11-5) before the playoffs, in which the 49ers are poised to enter as the No. 6 of seven seeds.
If Garoppolo can’t play through his thumb injury again — which he did on the down-low during Thursday night’s loss at Tennessee — then here are areas what to watch from Lance:
No rookie quarterback has won a Super Bowl. No 49ers fan will settle for anything less, any year, with any quarterback.
The 49ers became a trendy pick when they won 5 of 6 before losing at Tennessee. The playoffs can be had by anyone, it appears.
The 49ers have five Pro Bowl players, none of whom is Garoppolo, and four of whom are offensive players that lead by robust example on the field and off it (Geoge Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Trent Williams, Kyle Juszczyk). They have a star-studded cast hungry to return to the postseason, and they are not neophytes needing Lance to do anything extraordinary to unite them.
Lance is two years removed from winning a national championship, doing so in his only full season as North Dakota State’s starting quarterback at the Football Championship Subdivision level.
Lance’s body language on the 49ers practice field reflects a comfortableness with veterans and rookies, stars and scrubs. He oozes confidence but not overconfidence. He’s deferred to Garoppolo’s lead, whether it’s as they jog to begin stretching or rotate in the backfield on warmup throws to receivers.
Asked about Lance’s scout-team work, defensive end Samson Ebukam finished his answer with a keen note on Lance’s leadership ability: “He’s got a good connection with his teammates and he’s turned into a leader, for sure.”
The 49ers look for players who show that no stage is too big for them. Well, this ain’t the preseason, nor is it an October start at Arizona.
Earlier this month to open warmups on the practice field, Lance whizzed a ball way off target at Deebo Samuel, who looked back with curiousity at his quarterback. Two more erratic passes ensued to other receivers. Whether this was miscommunication or a rusty (or tired) arm, it was odd to see so many warm-up throws hit the ground in succession.
But then the media got ushered out, before full-team drills, as is the case every practice after training camp, as has been the case the past decade since Jim Harbaugh limited media access (which is now the NFL’s unfortunate standard.)
So we must take others’ word if Lance is hitting his targets. Shanahan said Monday that Lance is “throwing the ball better, making the right decisions better.”
Lance has not thrown a pass in a game since his only start in place of an injured Garoppolo. That 17-10 loss at Arizona on Oct. 10 saw Lance go 15-of-29 (51.7 percent) for 192 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. He completed only 50 percent of his throws the previous game (9-of-18, 157 yards, two touchdowns) after Garoppolo exited at halftime of a loss to Seattle.
Lance attempted only 318 passes in college. He completed 66.9 percent (192-of-287) his 2019 national-title season, which included 28 touchdown passes and no interceptions. He was 15-of-30 in his only 2020 start against Central Arkansas.
Garoppolo’s veteran presence and Shanahan’s desire for play-calling rhythm are the biggest factors in keeping Lance on the bench most of this season. Injuries have played a role, too, however.
Lance chipped a bone in his right index finger in the preseason finale against the Raiders on Aug. 29. Asked if that injury lingered, Shanahan said: “Anytime you have a broken bone in your finger, it’s always going to affect how you throw. So it doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but it definitely is a challenge. And I think as the year has gone and it’s healed up more, I think it’s helped him.”
Lance emerged from his Oct. 10 starting with a sprained knee, which came to light a day after he ran 16 times (89 yards).
He was activated for the Halloween win at Chicago, but only as an emergency option if Garoppolo got hurt, which explained why Lance wore a beanie and coat instead of a helmet as he observed from the Soldier Field sideline.
Thursday night, Lance had his helmet on, kept his hands in the pocket warmer around his waist and waited for a bullpen call that never came.
Shanahan sounds ready to make that call, if necessary.
“This last month of Trey has been his best consecutive four weeks of practice since we had him,” Shanahan said. “He’s had a number of good days, and he’s had some bad days, like most guys do. As far as consistency, this last month has been his best.”
What does Lance say about that? Hopefully we/you hear from him this week for the first time since Oct. 10.
The 49ers blocked subsequent interview requests for him. Earlier this month, Lance was promoting his partnership with Jerry Rice’s G.O.A.T. Fuel energy drink, and the marketing firm handling interviews said the team intervened to not allow any questions about his rookie season.
Why so secretive?
“When you guys are requesting him a bunch, I just asked how many times does the number two quarterback talks to the media during the week, and I was told none,” Shanahan said. “So then I just said, ‘Well, just keep it that way.’ We don’t need to make stuff up.
“I think it’s hard when you get guys out there, especially a young guy, and you’re asking him questions. And I get that you guys are asking him questions, but he’s just working, going through practice. If you ask him what he is doing good, what he is doing bad, guys are just making up stuff now just trying to be polite and answer questions.”
Lance, to his credit, was indeed polite and thoughtful while sharing insight during his media sessions through camp, and his media boycott is not at his urging.
“… I wouldn’t want a backup in the future doing that stuff because that’s just not how you do it,” said Shanahan, even though past years’ backups indeed spoke when locker rooms were open to the media. “You just set guys up for no reason. I don’t think that’s necessarily right for them to put them through that.
“They need to get ready for an NFL game, an NFL week. And when stuff in the media happens, like it does when they normally play, I’m all for that. I just don’t think it’s right to do just because of the draft status, if he’s not playing.”
He could be playing Sunday, and beyond.