Sometimes the reality can be expressed only through something callous.
So let’s preface this with some “too early” honesty: Trey Lance is probably still the future of the San Francisco 49ers at quarterback. His massive tools have not diminished and he can still be a central starter in the NFL. And not even his worst critics, if they have any humanity, should be happy about Lance’s season-ending broken ankle on Sunday.
But if we’re being honest about a relatively small time frame – just the 2022 season – the reality is that Jimmy Garoppolo has had a rare opportunity to prove the brain trust in San Francisco wrong in his quest to replace him. And the team’s Super Bowl path might have gotten a little more consistent, too.
That’s difficult when Lance is lost for the rest of the season, especially when he hasn’t had a fair amount of time to show what progress he’s been able to make this year. But there’s also a longer view that can’t be ignored, and it includes three facts that must be considered now that Lance is lost for the season.
First, Lance failed to win the 49ers’ starting job as a rookie in 2021 despite head coach Kyle Shanahan badly asking him to run away. Second, he had an uneven offseason and preseason development, showing enough inconsistency to keep the door ajar on Garoppolo remaining with the team. Third, this veteran 49ers roster, when healthy, is good enough to come out of a relatively weak NFC, especially if it can get some consistent, above-average quarterback play.
Those three things give context to what the post-Lance roster will look like for the rest of 2022. We might get to February and look back and see some things that weren’t clear on Sunday when Garoppolo returned. into the starting position.
Maybe we’ll get to the end of this season and realize that a healthy post-surgery Garoppolo is a better player now than the limited version we saw in 2021. Maybe we’ll look at the roster and the way he responds to a familiar leader and understands that Lance was not ready, and the man he was replacing was also not done. And more than anything, maybe we understand that Garoppolo was able to find a burr in his saddle over the team’s attempt to dump him during the season.
At the very least, it’s undeniable that Garoppolo has a chance to stick it to Shanahan here. Not necessarily in a jilted, “screw you” way. More like a professional effort that would put Shanahan and general manager John Lynch down some guesswork. Or maybe he even feels a few regrets about spending that much capital on Lance when he had so much development left, especially given the state of the roster and the location of the Super Bowl window.
These types of opportunities don’t come around often for veteran quarterbacks, especially those who took a team to a Super Bowl and barely missed a second trip before losing their starting job in the offseason. That’s not to say the 49ers didn’t make the wise choice by moving on to Lance. From his perspective of building a team and leaning into the quarterback spot of the future, firing Lance was the right long-term move.
But we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t admit that the right long-term move also comes with short-term sacrifice. The 2022 season had longer odds with Lance starting because he was an unknown and developing player who had barely played any meaningful football in two years. You just have to see him in the offseason or preseason to understand that. Or also understand that he probably didn’t get the starting job out of sheer merit.
Considering how far Lance had to go — and all else being equal in terms of salary and capital invested — Garoppolo would have a chance to fight for his job this preseason. And because of Lance’s inconsistency in practices, Garoppolo might have won the job.
But that’s not how the NFL always works. Look close to the top of the quarterback record books and remember that Drew Brees, who retired with dirty luck, would have played his entire career with the Chargers if the team hadn’t drafted Philip Rivers instead. . Brees played at a Pro Bowl level and struggled for Rivers for two years, then suffered a shoulder injury that made the decision to move on simpler than a 26-year-old who was just starting his resume in Hall of Fame.
Garoppolo’s situation is different, but the brutality of the NFL is not. The 49ers tried to dump him, failed in that attempt, and are now lucky to have him waiting in the wings. Now he has a chance to show the organization that he might be the best option in 2022. Maybe even beyond.
It might be too early and too brutal to say that after Lance’s injury. But that’s what the NFL sure is always works. The 49ers have another game on Sunday and a difficult schedule ahead of them. They also have a chance in a wide-open NFC to complete a Super Bowl trek that stopped one step short last season.
They might be surprised by what Garoppolo gives them with his second chance. And they might also regret not giving him the right to earn it last season.