What has Trey Lance learned on the bench that will help him next year?
This is a question that keeps coming up with regards to the lack of game action for the 49ers’ rookie quarterback. It is rooted in the belief that a player will only improve and grow through game action, and that the player’s growth will be stunted by not participating in games.
The reality, though, is that there are several ways for quarterbacks to improve that don’t require them to play on Sundays.
In the NFL, most practice reps, if not all of them, go to the starting quarterback once the season starts. San Francisco offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel was asked recently how the 49ers can manage grooming Lance for the future while Jimmy Garoppolo is getting the bulk of the plays in practice.
“One tool we’ve used is to look at the opponent’s offense, and during scout team, when you are servicing the defense the QB coach, and the offensive coaches have to put the time in to look through those type of plays and be able to apply it to our offense so that you can steal reps in your offense while doing someone else’s offense,” said McDaniel. “The terminology, the reads, the progressions. We don’t know the opponent’s playbook, but we know what the plays are and then we can take the extra time to make sure that it’s written down on the card in the corresponding language of our offense.”
This means that during every practice, while Jimmy Garoppolo is running plays against backups and scout team players, Lance is running a wide array of 49ers plays against the starting defense.
Prior to the draft, one of the top quarterback prospects that many had going to San Francisco was former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. One of the knocks on Jones was his lack of starts during his time with the Crimson Tide, when he only had 17 total.
What many missed was that Jones practiced regularly throughout his career as the scout team quarterback. This meant that, day after day, he was forced to go against the starting defense of the best team in the country. This is just one of the reasons why he thrived from the moment he made his first start.
It’s also one of the reasons why Lance did not look like a fish out of water when he was forced to start against the Arizona Cardinals in week five with Garoppolo out due to injury.
For an example of this in the NFL, look no further than Colin Kaepernick. During his first season in the NFL, Kaepernick was limited to only mop-up duty in two games. When he finally took over for Alex Smith, following an injury midway through the 2012 season, he stepped in, and the 49ers offense didn’t miss a beat.
With the 49ers, the development of Lance isn’t limited only to his duties on scout team.
According to McDaniel, “There’s countless number of things, staying after practice. Having some of the receivers that are fresher, or tight ends and running backs stay out there to execute plays and timing. You don’t just say ‘it is what it is’ and you can’t get reps. That’s not part of our process. When there’s only a finite number of reps and our starting quarterback is getting a high percentage of those, or all of those, then we need to find workarounds.”
When it comes to developing quarterbacks, there’s no surefire method. But just because it is happening away from the view of fans and media doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.