The San Francisco 49ers would always start Jimmy Garoppolo as quarterback for their Week 1 game against the Lions.
Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan did not make such a commitment public, but all the evidence pointed to this being the case.
But now the Niners have no choice but to start Garoppolo in Week 1, as Trey Lance has a chipped finger on his throwing hand, preventing him from training for at least a week.
The injury – which came when Lance hit a Raiders defender’s helmet in the first half of the Niners’ preseason final on Sunday – reminds us that, despite all the wringing of hands over the tough decisions teams have to make with the roster and on the pre-season depth chart, things usually find a way to fall into place.
But don’t doubt Shanahan or the Niners for having Lance – or any of the players taking the field on Sunday – in the game against a Raiders team that made a mockery of the exhibition by not bringing 31 players to Santa Clara.
Lance is a rookie. He just turned 21 in May. He played in a small Minnesota high school — not exactly a cradle of talent — and only played one true collegiate season, 2019, in the Division 1 second tier.
Basically, he must play football if he is ever to justify the Niners’ selection of him with a number 3 overall pick that required two additional first-round picks to acquire.
And when you play there is always the risk of getting hurt.
Lance’s talent is absolutely beyond question – his running ability and arm strength make it easy to envision him as a force in the competition. But to expect him to just go from Marshall High School to North Dakota State to become an all-round impact player in the most important position in professional sports west of the Rockies — quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers — is to ignore the facts. It’s foolish. And it’s a hilarious underestimation of NFL talent.
It’s impressive that Lance – given his lack of experience – has looked as good as he has at NFL level.
But he needs reps, not only against his own team and his formidable defense, but also against other teams out to hit him. In football they call that ‘live bullets’.
“I think Trey had a hard time not playing football last year,” Shanahan said. “So whatever happens, I always try to make sure Trey doesn’t go another year without football. We’re going to make sure we do what’s best for him. Give him reps on the practice pitch, hopefully in matches and we’ll see how this all plays out.”
We saw all preseason that as Lance got more snaps, he played better. There was still a lot to develop, but talent burst onto the field as he adjusted to the pace of the NFL game, even if the preseason pace was a little slower than he’d expect once the real season starts.
“I think he’s gotten better with every game,” Shanahan said of his rookie quarterback. “He got better throughout the process.”
In the meantime, the Niners have come up with a plan to help Lance play those much-needed reps while, for the sake of his confidence and the team as a whole, he won’t let him get on the field full-time early in the season.
The Niners debuted their quarterback rotation in Sunday’s exhibition final.
And boy, where there were a lot of moving parts. The pace at which the Niners took Lance and Garoppolo in and out of the game was mind boggling for media and fans alike, so you can only imagine how hard it was for the Raiders to process.
Or how challenging it was for the 10 other Niners on the field.
These guys are pros, but that doesn’t mean that, like Lance, they don’t need real reps in this new, weird setup to get comfortable.
Only one other team in the NFL has done something like this in recent years, and they haven’t been working nearly as fast as the Niners seem to want to go.
It’s not something a team wants to try for the first time in Week 1. So you get 12 men on the field or, worse, a bunch of players who have no idea what’s going on.
The Niners performed the quarterback rotation for two series on Sunday. It worked well – substitutions went smoothly – then Shanahan, quite pleased, handed over the reins of attack to Lance full-time for the next few quarters. The rookie quarterback didn’t leave the game after injuring his hand at the end of the second quarter, coming back for snaps to start the second half.
He brushed off the finger injury – after the game he believed it was just a jam. The photo showed that a piece of bone had broken off. Shanahan declined to say which finger was injured.
In any case, Lance won’t be able to get serious practice with the team this week – the last week where he could practically infringe on Garoppolo’s starter status. The injury puts an end to any positive momentum he had behind him.
If Lance can get back on the field next week, it will be part of a special pack to defeat the Lions.
I still believe Lance becoming the Niners’ full-time quarterback this season is inevitable. Monday’s injury, while minor, is delaying that outcome.
But don’t get it twisted: Not playing Lance for longer pre-season snaps would have caused a much bigger delay for the young 49ers quarterback who took over as QB1.