February 26, 2024
The Niners never quite made up their minds on Lance.

SANTA CLARA — The 49ers botched the Trey Lance project from start to finish.

But thank goodness it’s over.

Lance was supposed to be the Niners’ “franchise” quarterback — the future of the team, the foundation of the roster.

And yet, the Niners could never quite decide on him.

This isn’t to say that the 49ers didn’t have a plan for Lance. They did. The issue is that their plans consistently changed for three seasons.

On Friday, the Niners decided on a new plan: him to the Cowboys. The former No. 3 overall pick — who cost three first-round picks to select — was cashed in for a future Day 3 draft pick.

One can’t imply that Lance had fallen because he never actually rose.

And while Lance is in no way exonerated for his failure of a Niners tenure and all that unrealized potential, the fact is that this pairing of quarterback and team was doomed from the start.

And worse yet, if the pairing of Lance and his new team is charmed, one of the Niners’ top rivals will benefit.

We won’t know for a while yet how Lance fares with his second team, but we can look back on his Niners’ tenure and see how it all went wrong:

Pre-draft, 2021

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The 49ers traded three first-round picks to the Dolphins for the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, allowing San Francisco to select the third quarterback in the player pool. The trade was big, but it was still a not-quite-all-in measure that was supposedly justified by the fact that the Niners had not targeted a specific prospect when they finalized the deal. They wanted to move up and then make a decision.

With No. 1 (Trevor Lawrence) and No. 2 (Zach Wilson) settled, the Niners could choose between Lance, Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, or Ohio State product Justin Fields.

My pick would have been Fields. Strong voices in the 49ers’ front office backed Fields and his Ohio State pedigree, too.

Multiple reports said Shanahan’s guy was Jones, the national champion.

The Niners selected Lance, perhaps as a hybrid between Fields’ athleticism and Jones’ smarts. The issue, of course, is that Lance had played only one season of college football, at a lesser division, no less, and was more of a runner than a passer at that level.

A half-measure trade resulted in a quarterback that felt like a compromise. Great start.

Preseason 2021

Shanahan was adamant coming into training camp that the Niners would have a competition for the top quarterback job between Jimmy Garoppolo and Lance.

And during the early portion of that camp, Lance looked like the better quarterback. Yes, the rookie faded as camp continued, but Shanahan had ample reason to start the rookie over Garoppolo, who knew his days in Santa Clara were numbered when Lance was selected.

But in the final weeks of camp, Shanahan declared that — just kidding — it was never actually a competition — Garoppolo was always going to be the starter.

There was a bit of concession to the kid — Shanahan created sub-package plays with Lance at quarterback to use in the regular season.

2021 regular season: Those sub-package plays showed up early and then faded away, as complaints from the first-string offense (including Garoppolo) over changing quarterbacks mid-drive paired with a Garoppolo injury in Week 4, forcing Lance into action.

The rookie was uninspiring in Weeks 4 and 5 — the latter game brought a knee sprain that relegated him back to the bench.

Lance was called back into action in Week 17, and played well in a must-win game over the Texans. But back to the bench, he went.

Preseason 2022

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After a run to the NFC Championship Game with Garoppolo at the helm, the Niners decided to hand the top quarterback job to Lance. Beyond that, they were keen to trade Garoppolo, as to prevent any drama for the top job.

With Garoppolo marooned to a side field, Lance had an up-and-down preseason. There were moments of excitement in preseason games, but they only masked some of the clear deficiencies Lance showed as a passer.

Still, the top job was his — unopposed. The lack of serious competition for Lance stood in stark contrast to the previous season and the following campaign.

2022 regular season

An abysmal performance in a monsoon in Chicago was followed by Lance breaking his leg in Game 2. There was little reason to be excited by his 2022 performance, but at the same time, it was hard not to give Lance the benefit of the doubt given the limited action.

Garoppolo took over and played admirably (following his massive blunder against the Broncos). Brock Purdy eventually took over when Garoppolo was injured, again, and the only game he lost as the Niners’ quarterback was the NFC Championship Game, where he tore the UCL in his throwing arm.

Preseason 2023

The Niners did not give Lance the benefit of the doubt going into 2023.

Instead of a competition between Lance and Purdy for the top quarterback job — Purdy had only started eight games — Niners instead brought in former No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold to compete with Lance for the backup quarterback job.

Darnold overtook him in that race after the Niners’ first preseason game, where Darnold (and quarterback Brandon Allen) outperformed a woeful Lance.

“Starting about 10 days ago, Sam really separated himself,” Shanahan told KNBR this past week, roughly 10 days after that preseason game against the Raiders.

The Niners formalized Darnold’s status as the No. 2 quarterback on Wednesday. Lance was traded by Friday, with the Cowboys coming in with a take-it-or-leave-it offer amid a market with only one other (unserious) bidder.

The Niners started the Lance era by talking themselves into the quarterback, and three years later, it’s clear they never quite made up their minds about him. The Niners yo-yo’d between faith and doubt by the week.

That lack of confidence had to be part of Lance’s struggles to find consistent performance.

At the same time, Lance didn’t do enough to override those beliefs. His hot-and-cold play was bewildering. Injuries were the only consistent of his career.

It was a failed marriage and a trade was the best move for him and the team.

And it was good that the Niners could land a draft pick for him. San Francisco didn’t fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy.

At the same time, even that trade — the final chapter of Lance’s cursed tenure with the 49ers — seems botched.

San Francisco took the best offer for Lance. But a fourth-round pick doesn’t recoup much of anything. Certainly not any of the first-round picks lost in the initial Lance deal.

Lance has the physical talent. I’ve seen it on the practice field. By all accounts, he is a smart enough guy to handle the cognitive rigors of being an NFL quarterback.

Just because it didn’t work in San Francisco doesn’t mean it won’t work elsewhere. And that somewhere else is another NFC team the Niners have played in back-to-back playoffs.

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