How the 49ers are developing Trey Lance

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.

This article has 25 Comments

  1. Exactly.

    Pat Mahomes sat behind Alex for all but 1 game his rookie year, a meaningless game vs the Broncos where he looked “ok” but wasn’t the guy we saw the following seasons (except this).

    He was a qb who had played 3 seasons and 32 games in div 1 college vs Lance’s 3 seasons 19 games, with that 3rd season hardly a season as no one played, it wasn’t like he was watching and practicing, the team had only one game.

    It makes sense to let dudes sit, especially a guy as young as Trey.

    If Trey is the next great QB who’s going to have a 15 year career, why rush him out his first season…you got 15 MORE! Playing rookie qbs their rookie season, on struggling or bad teams, returns poor results, not everyone is Dan Marino. Let Trey sit, let him learn and practice, have a WHOLE offseason as the #1 guy and then lets see what he does.

    I’d rather sit him and let him be extra ready than play him early and possibly cause irreparable damage (David Carr anyone?) The success rate of rookie Qbs is VERY LOW.

    1. Agreed 100%.

      After sitting all of 2002, Lance is getting the perfect amount of playing time leading up to next year.

      1.) OTA’s, Minicamp, Training camp ✔️
      2.) Four pre-season games ✔️
      3.) First NFL Start (on the road) ✔️
      4.) First NFL Sack and INT ✔️
      5.) Playing in NFL games (more to come in some capacity JAX, HOU) ✔️

    2. (1) Mahomes admitted he couldn’t read defenses in year 2 though.
      (2) Mahomes had 1349 passes in college and 913 in high school. Lance 318 in college, 113 in high school.
      So Lance is raw as just a thrower of the football. He doesn’t know what kind of touch to put on the ball. He’s still possibly in his formative years, but he’ll have played 2.5 games in 3 years by 2022.
      (3) Lance has had OTA, minicamp, training camp, 4 preseason, and 7 NFL scout team weeks and looks just as raw as he did in preseason. They basically had him running the North Dakota State offense vs Arizona.
      (4) If you’ve watched their film, all the other rookies 1st round QB’s have developed a lot more.

      Every year teams who draft rookie QB’s in the 1st round go through this same discussion and most evidence leans toward starting the rookie. Every outlier (like Mahomes) has them playing behind a Pro Bowl QB (Alex Smith 3x PB) b/c it’s hard to beat those guys out. Usually teams get rid of the marginal starter (Jags/Minshew, Jets/Darnold, Pats/Cam).

      But I understand. Do you sacrifice this year for 2022 (play Lance)? Or do you sacrifice next year for this year (play Jimmy G)?
      To me the 2 mistakes were in the offseason.
      (1) using 3 1st round picks and a 3rd to draft Lance at #3 overall. I would have sat at #12 (50% cheaper). Or at most moved to #10 (which cost Philly a 3rd rd pick w/ Dallas)
      (2) retaining Jimmy. I would have moved on. Worst case you free up $25M that you can roll to next season. And signed Trubisky at more than the $3M he got from Buffalo. Had they done this early enough they could’ve got a CB as Verrett insurance as well as got a better, younger C and a very good RG.

  2. Agreed. It makes sense to learn to learn the plays before you practice them. You could tell in his first start he didn’t know all the plays and how can you practice something you don’t know. Most training programs are like that. You first have to learn what your going to practice. It took me 4 years to get my degree before I was able to practice what I had learned.

    1. Well exactly and after OTA’s before minicamp everyone was making such a big deal about how Trey knew the playbook.

      It’s been proven in this system that it takes a QB two years to master.

  3. Dante Pettis just muffed a punt for the Giants. We sure missed on that pick but I believe we more than made up for that miss with Samuel and Aiyuk.

  4. Interesting article Jack. I know teams like the backups to run scout team for reps. Didn’t realize the 49er coaches were translating scout team plays into 49er terminology to help Lance learn the 49er offense. That may be a normal thing many teams do but I’ve never actually heard that before.

      1. Really? Fans know completion % for preseason practices. Fans know how many runs vs passes are called at practice. Fans know if a defense is practicing specific blitzes. Fans know who shows up to training camp in shape and who got lazy over the offseason. Hell, fans knew when Colin Kaepernick started dating Aldon Smith’s (ex?) girlfriend. I mean how did we find this bit of detail out about Trey Lance’s development with the Scout Team? Coaches talked about it in a press conference. That’s why fans would know it. Kind of makes your entire point moot. The question isn’t really about why fans would know certain details. The real question is how do fans know so much.

          1. Yeah, you’re probably right. I guess we should all stop reading blogs like this where the writer conveys information about scout team play calls. Who really needs to know that information? Maybe ESPN should close it’s doors. Diehard fans don’t have an unending thirst for information about their teams. Fans really know nothing even after reading blogs and watching coaches press conferences. I mean who really needs to know about Alex Mack’s butt sweat issues.

            1. And what does this “knowledge” gain you? More enjoyment for the sport, the team, than what we had, say, in the 1980s? It’s really just more noise to fill your head, making the average knuckleheaded fan thinking he’s more knowledgeable, more capable of running the team than the professionals who are.

  5. What a refreshing break from the “Throw Him In The Deep End” drum beat everywhere I look. There wasn’t as much of a platform for “fan opinion” when Walsh was taking the same approach with Montana.

    Thanks Jack.

  6. I would imagine they are also incorporating multiple plays that overlap playbooks. IE plays he will run in SF’s offense as well.
    The only problem is you also need to give the defenses that their opponents will often show… so their will be some conflict in terms of scout team play calling.

  7. Is passing on Mahomes in the draft still looking like a miss. Mahomes has looked terrible so far this year. He really struggles reading defense’s.

    1. He’s looked really good the past couple of years but fallen quite a bit this year. Are teams giving him new defensive looks?

    2. Mahomes is a chief example (see what I did there) of how the OL and health of his playmakers impacts on the QB.

      He’s looked far more tentative behind this year’s OL than in past years, and the Chiefs have resorted to a lot more quick game to compensate for the OL.

      And his two main receivers, while playing, are both banged up. Plus they are not getting much from any other receivers.

      Mahomes has his flaws, but when the players around him are decent and healthy he is still one of the best in the business.

      1. Ah, it’s the old a QB needs quality players around him to be successful. Where have I heard that before?

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