Through the first two weeks of training camp, Trey Lance has looked just like the quarterback that led North Dakota State to the NCAA FCS championship as a freshman in 2019. He’s shredding the defense on a regular basis with his arm and running ability. While at first glance that may not sound impressive, it shows the growth Lance has been able to make in spite of playing only one game last season. Don’t forget, he is now doing this against NFL players.
One of the reasons that are consistently used to justify keeping Lance on the bench is that no rookie quarterback has ever reached the Super Bowl. While this statement is true, how many quarterbacks have been able to make it back to a Super Bowl after losing their first start in the big game?
The answer to that question is six: Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Fran Tarkenton, Craig Morton, Jim Kelly and John Elway.
Out of that group, only Dawson, Griese and Elway have been able to win the Lombardi Trophy.
One thing to note about the names on that list is that all of them, with the exception of Morton, have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Is there anyone who truly expects Jimmy Garoppolo to eventually reach that level?
As Lance continues to stack good days of practice, it is becoming clear that there isn’t anything that Garoppolo can do currently that Lance is not already capable of doing himself. When you add in the mobility that Lance brings to the position, the choice for Kyle Shanahan should become clear sooner rather than later.
Watching Lance during practice and looking at the strength of the 49ers roster, is reminiscent of a young Ben Roethlisberger.
There are a number of similarities between the two. Both come from small colleges, Roethlisberger played collegiately at Miami (OH) and Lance at North Dakota State. Not exactly two schools that show up on television that often.
The two also share similar athletic traits. Roethlisberger and Lance both have strong arms and the ability to beat the defense with their feet.
The similarities don’t stop there.
When Roethlisberger was drafted by Pittsburgh in 2004, the Steelers were coming off a disappointing season in 2003 that saw them finish 6-10 with a strong roster that had won 23 games combined over the previous two seasons. Sound familiar?
As a rookie, Roethlisberger would go undefeated in 13 regular-season starts and lead the Steelers to the AFC Championship game. The following season, Roethlisberger would lead Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl victory.
One big reason for Roethlisberger’s early success was the strength of the Pittsburgh running game. Over the course of those first two seasons, Roethlisberger would be asked to throw only 22 pass attempts per game on average.
Like those Steelers teams that Roethlisberger played on early in his career, Lance joins a 49ers team that has a roster that is talented enough to play deep into January or early February.
The 49ers’ offense is also now built to be very similar to those Steelers teams. They invested heavily in upgrading the offensive line, signing center Alex Mack in free agency and drafting right guard Aaron Banks in the second round of the draft. San Francisco also bulked up the running back room this offseason, adding Wayne Gallman through free agency along with Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell in the draft.
Lance has shown the ability to lead a run-heavy offense to a championship. He did it in college as a freshman.
Kyle Shanahan has been asked a number of times what it would take for Lance to become the starter, and his response so far has been, “when Trey shows that he gives the team the best chance to win, he will be in there.”
Only nine practices into his NFL career, it is safe to say that Lance is running stride for stride with Jimmy Garoppolo who is entering the eighth NFL season of his career. As Lance continues to improve throughout camp, there will become a point in which Shanahan can no longer hold him back without stunting Lance’s growth.
That time is coming soon.