February 26, 2024
Going from the 49ers to the Cowboys, Trey Lance will face the same problem -- a lack of opportunity to develop as a quarterback.

Having been around a team that pushed all its chips into the middle of the table for JaMarcus Russell and come up empty, it’s clear the damage that can be done to a franchise that whiffs with a premium draft pick on its quarterback of the future.

The 49ers aren’t the Raiders, though, and Trey Lance is the farthest thing from Russell in terms of commitment and dedication. I was covering an Andre Ward fight at Oracle Arena in 2010 when Russell, who had been released the previous year, came in fashionably late. The booing was so fierce Ward appeared confused while he wailed away at an overmatched opponent against the ropes.

The last time Lance played for the 49ers, in the second preseason game, he was greeted by cheers from the home crowd at Levi’s Stadium.

The Lance gamble was a regrettable mistake — coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch admitted as much in postgame press conferences late Friday night — but it’s hardly the ruination of the franchise.

The effect in future years will be debated, but the deal has zero impact on 2023.

What happened to the 49ers in the 2021 draft (trading the No.12 pick plus two future firsts and a third-rounder to move up to No. 3 and take Lance) and the 2022 draft (selecting Brock Purdy at No. 262) was like blowing all your winnings at the tables one year and then winning the lottery the next.

The losses were painful, but mitigated a great deal by the surprising win, which came out of nowhere.

The 49ers traded their No. 3 quarterback Friday to the Dallas Cowboys, where he’ll also be the No. 3 quarterback for the foreseeable future.

Lance isn’t going to make a move on starter Dak Prescott. Cooper Rush was 4-1 as a starter last season when Prescott was out with a broken thumb.

Like the 49ers, the Cowboys are thinking Super Bowl. They’re coming off a 12-5 season. Prescott is going to get all the work with the first team and he’ll be backed up by Rush.

As for Lance, the new start he coveted also means starting over in terms of an offensive system. Unless Prescott and Rush get injured, Lance isn’t going to see the field any more than he would have with the 49ers.

That’s why back on Aug. 5 I made the argument Lance would be better off staying with the 49ers even if he lost out to Sam Darnold for the backup job.

Some other thoughts on one of the most publicized backup quarterback battles in NFL history:

— Besides playing for a coach in Shanahan who always seemed to be hedging his bets regarding the pecking order, Lance needs to rectify his problem of starting slowly in preseason games and when given practice reps.

The few times when Lance got to play and actually looked good, it was usually after a shaky start.

— The 49ers’ drafts under Shanahan and Lynch are often like a golfer who misses the fairway only to save the round with difficult shots to the green to save par or even better.

Like taking Reuben Foster in the first round in 2017 and getting Fred Warner a year later in the third round. The third overall pick that year by the 49ers was Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. They later got tight end George Kittle in the fifth.

Or taking Ohio State running back Trey Sermon in the third round in 2021, who was beaten out by Elijah Mitchell in the sixth.

The draft is a crap shoot. Always has been.

San Darnold (14), like Trey Lance (5), was a No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group

— The 49ers at least had the good sense to take Nick Bosa at No. 2 overall in 2019, then got Deebo Samuel in the second round and Dre Greenlaw in the fifth, so it’s not as if they’re incapable of landing the occasional winner.

— The draft isn’t the only way to add star players: Trades that brought in left tackle Trent Williams from Washington in 2020 to replace Joe Staley and do-everything running back Christian McCaffrey last year landed standard bearers at their respective positions.

— In the hyper-critical world of judging NFL quarterback play, Darnold is looked at with scorn in many quarters. But let’s not forget he was a No. 3 overall pick, just like Lance, in 2018 and is still only 26 years old.

Lance never got a chance to develop because he couldn’t seize the opportunity during the small window when he wasn’t injured. Darnold was the reverse, his formative years basically sabotaged by two awful organizations in the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers with four head coaches and five offensive coordinators.

Five years from now, who’s to say Darnold won’t be the better quarterback after he gets a year with the 49ers under his belt and puts the scars of his first two stops behind him?

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— The Cowboys’ situation isn’t exactly stable and Lance will be more under a microscope in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex than he ever was with the 49ers.

Owner Jerry Jones, who was long an admirer of Al Davis, pulled off a classic Al move when he picked up Lance for a fourth-round draft pick without ever letting Prescott or head coach Mike McCarthy know about it beforehand.

As Lynch said, the ending of the Lance story is unwritten. But it’s hard to see the ending being much different in Dallas than it was with the 49ers.

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