Lance can easily rattle off the names and styles of the quarterbacks he’s emulated in practice this season. There are mobile signal-callers like Justin Fields, stationary types such as Kirk Cousins and those in between a la Aaron Rodgers.
As the backup to incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo, Lance hasn’t had many opportunities to develop on game day. Lance’s lessons have happened behind the scenes.
None have been more important than the one that linebacker Fred Warner impressed upon Lance multiple times. Early in the season, Lance tended to play it safe. Afraid to make mistakes or throw interceptions, Lance would take off running if he didn’t see something he liked in practice.
Warner wasn’t OK with that, pulling Lance aside and telling him that running the scout team offered an opportunity to not only help the defense prepare for the upcoming opponent but also afford Lance chances to get better. For that to happen, Warner told him, Lance would have to start taking some risks.
“I think after that conversation was had, he started to really just grow and you started seeing these crazy plays where he’s just getting it right over guys’ fingertips and just tossing the ball downfield and making these great plays,” Warner said. “It’s just a confidence thing. You grow every year, especially as a rookie, every single day doing things a little more, more, and pushing the limits and I think that’s what I’ve seen out of him.”
To call it a turning point for Lance’s young career would be, much like any other sweeping declarations about the No. 3 pick at this point, premature. But those conversations with Warner were also instrumental in charting the course for how Lance’s rookie season has played out.
While the Niners were and are committed to Garoppolo as the starter for this season, the cloud of a potential Garoppolo injury always loomed, which meant Lance had to stay ready.
All of which brings us to the Niners’ latest quarterback crossroads.
With Garoppolo still nursing a torn ligament in his right thumb, the neat and tidy job descriptions are gone. Lance’s time is now until he’s told that it’s not. And now he could be in line to start a potential do-or-die Week 18 game (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox) against a Los Angeles Rams team Garoppolo has beaten five straight times.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan has already said Garoppolo will start if he’s capable of protecting and throwing the ball without issue. That’s no sure thing, though, which is why Lance’s performance against the Houston Texans last week offered some comfort for San Francisco.
After a couple of early miscues, Lance finished strong in his first start since Oct. 10, completing 16 of 23 passes for 249 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for a passer rating of 116.0.
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“I thought Trey did some really good things,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He was thrown into a real tough situation in terms of just where our team was at, how big of a game that was, basically being a playoff game. I thought he went in there, handled the pressure really well.”
It wasn’t the type of showing that made the job Lance’s permanently, but it undoubtedly left many wanting to see what he can do on a big stage with big stakes. Heavy lies the helmet for the Niners’ handpicked franchise quarterback.
From the moment the Niners traded up to No. 3 to select Lance in April’s draft, the chatter around the position has not stopped. Would Garoppolo be traded? Would Lance overtake Garoppolo? Would the Niners follow the 2017 Chiefs model with Garoppolo in Alex Smith’s role and Lance in Patrick Mahomes‘ shoes?
Shanahan has mostly avoided big statements about the position but it became increasingly clear as the season went on that the Chiefs’ approach has been his preferred method. That’s been interrupted twice now by injuries to Garoppolo but also by a pair of health problems for Lance.
In training camp, Lance suffered a chipped bone in his right index finger, leaving him with inflammation that has forced him to continue working to straighten out the finger even now. Then, in his first start against Arizona in October, Lance sprained his left knee, which offered another setback that cost him a couple of weeks.
Now that Lance is through all of that, he says he’s feeling as healthy as he has all year and Shanahan said he believed Lance has even been able to shorten his throwing motion, which seemed a bit long in preseason.
With Lance under center, the Niners had a much different look against the Texans in Week 17. According to Pro Football Focus, Lance’s average depth of target against Houston was 12 yards, the highest of any 49ers quarterback since Garoppolo’s second start (also against Houston) as a Niner in 2017.
Lance was likewise unafraid to cut it loose, throwing deep and outside the numbers regularly as 205 of his passing yards came on throws traveling 10-plus yards in the air, the most by a San Francisco quarterback in the past three seasons, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel credits Lance’s “deliberate” practice habits for diving into the specifics of each coaching point and working to iron out the details.
“It’s just really day-in, day-out saying, ‘OK, we want you to play with the base better, improve that,'” McDaniel said. “And so, he diligently does it and applies it every time possible. And then it’s a matter of time with every player, every single player, it doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re Trent Williams or a rookie, you’re going to have lapses in technique. And that’s our job as coaches is to always be aware of it, always be present and never miss an opportunity to help a young player get better.”
Before last week’s start against the Texans, Shanahan said Lance had enjoyed his best four consecutive weeks of practice. It’s no coincidence that came after a little straight talk with Warner.
“It’s kind of finding a way to make myself better while giving those guys the looks,” Lance said. “And even if it’s throwing a ball that I necessarily don’t want to throw, it’s important for those guys and obviously I can get something out of it, too.”
And if Lance starts again Sunday, he’ll have a chance to turn the future into the present sooner than expected.
Source : ESPN