Trey Lance isn’t ready, and the 49ers have painted themselves into a corner

Trey Lance finished his remarkable preseason campaign in a 17-0 loss to the Houston Texans. Lance went 7-for-11 for 49 yards, but didn’t look fully comfortable in the pocket — missing several open passes and failing to lead a single scoring drive.

Lance’s performance over the past three weeks hasn’t been terrible, but it’s also been extremely unconvincing. Especially considering the 49ers still have Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster, and he led the team to the NFC Championship a year ago. We’re left with a weird quandary on what San Francisco’s priorities should be this season: Winning football games and competing, or setting themselves up for the future.

What has Trey Lance done this preseason?

Lance has been an incredibly accurate quarterback who hasn’t made mistakes across his two games. He’s gone 11-for-16 for 141 yards, 1 TD and no interceptions. That represents a passer rating of 116.9, which should be cause for excitement — but it’s why we judge performance off games and not box scores.

The truth is, Lance hasn’t made one impactful play outside of a 76-yard touchdown to Danny Gray in the first preseason game. When 54 percent of your passing yards come on a single play, and the rest of the reps have been unremarkable, it’s a bit of a worry.

At its core, the issue is why the 49ers decided they needed to trade up and draft Lance with the No. 3 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft. The team was looking for more playmaking and dynamism at the position, and thus far we haven’t seen it. The most raw metric for quarterback playmaking is YPA (yards-per-attempt). It simply measures how much offense a passer generates every time they drop back to pass, and it’s normally a great indicator of how good a quarterback is. Anything over 7.0 is good, with 8.0 or better being indicative of an elite season.

In preseason Lance’s total YPA is 8.8, which is stellar — but without that one 76-yard pass it plummets to an abysmal YPA of 4.33. For comparison, in the worst game Zach Wilson played in 2021 he finished with a YPA of 4.35, and that was the worst game in one of the worst rookie seasons by a passer in recent memory.

It’s not fair to completely remove that touchdown from the equation, but it underscores the wildly inconsistent nature of Lance’s play. He’s not moving chains, he’s not putting the 49ers in scoring positions, and as it stands it’s impossible to see him as an upgrade for Jimmy G.

What’s the status of Jimmy Garoppolo?

It’s been a very strange few months for Jimmy Garoppolo. While the 49ers quarterback was highly criticized following the playoffs that saw him finish with a passer rating of 72.7, he remained largely quiet and let the talk swirl around him.

Despite rumors around the draft that teams would try to trade for Jimmy G, those deals never materialized. While other quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield and Matt Ryan found new homes, it seemed the 49ers QB was always destined to be kept as a fallback play for Trey Lance. As it stands Garoppolo is still on the 49ers roster, and a lock to make the 53 man roster.

The question is: Is it time now to pull the ripcord and re-name Jimmy G the starter?

Should the 49ers make a change at quarterback?

That really depends on the team’s goals, and why this whole situation has become so difficult. The ideal was that Garoppolo could lead the team to success in 2021, and with a year under his belt Lance could take over in 2022 — sustaining the team’s winning ways.

It appears the team won’t reach those heights. Instead the front office is now facing down a situation where they need to choose between winning right now and competing for a Super Bowl, or playing out the year and ensuring Lance has time to develop. There’s no doubt the young quarterback has shown enough flashes which are indicative of starter level play, but in order to match Garoppolo’s production these flashes need to come with regularity.

It’s also fair to say that the 49ers offensive line has been a mess so far. The retirement of center Alex Mack, paired with losing Laken Tomlinson to free agency led to the team rotating through several young players on the OL. But, regardless of their personnel switches, the unit is still playing turnstile football that lets through pass rushers like a subway at rush hour. It’s unclear if Garoppolo could have success behind this same line as constructed, although it’s safe to say he has more experience dealing with NFL pressure than Lance.

Despite the frustration, it would be a mammoth mistake to make another quarterback switch now. San Francisco opens its 2022 campaign against the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks, with their first real test coming in Week 3 against the Broncos. That gradual transition into the season would give the 49ers two more weeks to look at Lance, then if things are looking bad they can make the switch. Still, in the long run, the goal should be sustained success — and that’s best achieved by building up Lance’s confidence as a passer and forcing him to play without a looming threat of losing his job. The tools are there; he just needs to put it together.

The reality is that the 49ers might not meet the lofty expectations fans had for them to return to being a force in the NFC and make a deep playoff run, but in the long term it’s the best course of action. This is a team that soul win a Super Bowl, but not until Trey Lance is ready — and he’s not there yet.

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