49ers

NFL legends like Rodgers, Brady proof 49ers' Lance plan works

49ers
Trey Lance, Aaron Rodgers

You knew it was coming. The minute the 49ers' offense got off to a sluggish start Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers, punctuated by Jaire Alexander's incredible interception of a deep Jimmy Garoppolo pass, the calls for Trey Lance began.

The win-now, instant gratification society we live in demands the rookie QB play now and play well. There is no other option. Except for the route the 49ers are taking with Lance. The route that has produced the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, and the man who ripped their heart out Sunday night -- Aaron Rodgers.

The mentor-apprentice model is one that has produced some of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.

Rodgers, of course, famously sat behind Brett Favre for three seasons before finally taking the reins in 2008. In those three seasons, Rodgers went 35-for-59 for 329 yards with one touchdown pass and one interception.

Rodgers has been open about how sitting behind Favre helped give him perspective and develop into the QB he became while noting that today's young QBs are more pro-ready than he was in 2005.

"And the best thing to happen to me was sitting behind Favre for three years and learning the game and getting my body in the right shape and being ready to play in Year 4," Rodgers said in 2018. "But some of these guys, because the coaching's improved and the quarterback play in general I think has improved at the lower levels and you're seeing more of the spread stuff coming up from the high school and college ranks, these guys are ready to play, and they're playing well."

 

That last sentence might explain Mahomes' quick ascent to the top of the league after sitting behind Alex Smith for just one season in Kansas City. Still, Mahomes and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid have pointed to Mahomes' year spent sitting as the launching pad for the superstar.

"He was extremely important," Mahomes said of Smith's impact on his development prior to Super Bowl LIV. "The way he went about his business and being a pro's pro, a great quarterback and also a great human being. He taught me a ton of just the process and how to blueprint your week and how to game plan. And then, how to read coverages by the little things. Maybe how the defensive line lines up and I think it helped me out a lot in the early part of my career, even still to this day of being able to get those invaluable lessons from him."

"I joke about it, but it's true. Patrick couldn't pay Alex enough for what he gave him with the experience," Reid said that week.

Brady, of course, is a different test case as a sixth-round pick who Drew Bledsoe believed would be a career backup. Still, there's no doubt that the clipboard holding days helped prepare Brady to be a starter. The rest was all Brady.

Mahomes' situation might be the best parallel to what Lance and the 49ers are trying to author in Santa Clara. Like Lance, Mahomes was drafted into a well-run organization with the roster to compete for a title and the infrastructure to support a rookie quarterback should he be asked to play.

Mahomes played one game in 2017 -- a meaningless Week 17 tilt -- as Smith led the Chiefs to an AFC West title and the playoffs. Kansas City was knocked out in the AFC Wild Card Round, and the Mahomes era officially began.

Several NFL legends have learned the game from the sidelines before stepping onto the field and becoming football immortals. The truth of the matter is that no matter how talented you are, the speed of the NFL game is widely different than the college game. Quarterbacks have to learn to adjust to that speed and alter what they perceive to be the intelligent throw on a down-to-down basis.

Take Zach Wilson, for example. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft was known for his splashy, big-time throws during his final season at BYU. But Wilson made a lot of those plays after turning down the easier, safer throw. As he is learning early on in the NFL, taking the safe 4-yard or 6-yard completion is often what the NFL asks you to do, whereas continually hunting for deep plays can lead to turnovers and a stagnant offense.

 

Playing quarterback at the NFL level is all about learning lessons. Sometimes those lessons are better learned on the sideline. Garoppolo understands how vital a year on the sideline can be for a quarterback's development.

"It's tremendous for a quarterback to sit his first year," Garoppolo said of sitting behind Brady in 2018. "You get to sit there and see a guy, if you're lucky, like I got to watch Tom. You kind of try to put yourself in that situation, how to learn from it, what you would do if you were in the spot they were in. There's a ton of things that you could benefit from, and I think if you use it properly, it's good for you."

It's easy to understand the calls for Lance. He's the high-ceiling, rocket-armed rookie brought in to take a sledgehammer to the ceiling Garoppolo has placed on Kyle Shanahan's offense and usher in a new era of 49ers dominance.

Just the thought of Lance ripping 50-yard bullets to George Kittle and running over and past linebackers and safeties has The Faithful salivating.

Oh, they want it right now.

Lance has played just seven snaps in three games. He has found the end zone twice, once on a 5-yard touchdown pass and then on a 1-yard run vs. the Packers. Other than that, it has been the Garoppolo show, much to the chagrin of a whole lot of people who have no say in the matter.

Sure, it might be frustrating to see Lance spend the majority of his Sundays on the sidelines. The early success of Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Justin Herbert has created the belief that talented rookies can and should start right away and should be successful.

Historically, that's just not the case.

You might have heard that Peyton Manning went 3-13 and threw 28 interceptions during his rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts. Troy Aikman went 0-11 while throwing just nine touchdown passes and 18 interceptions. John Elway went 4-6 with seven touchdown passes and 14 interceptions. Steve Young struggled in his first two NFL seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, going 3-16 while throwing 11 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions.

So yes, Cam Newton tripled the Carolina Panthers' wins in his first season, Andrew Luck put the Colts on his back and dragged them to the playoffs, Justin Herbert lit it up last season and Russell Wilson led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl in his second season.

But those are outliers. And while quarterbacks now appear to be more ready to play right away than Brady and Rodgers were, the early struggles of the 2021 QB class show that even all the talent in the world doesn't ensure immediate success.

“The thing I have to keep reminding myself is that it’s still a game, the same game I’ve been playing since I was a kid — a game I happen to be good at,” Lawrence said, via Brian Sexton of the Jaguars’ website.

 

Before Week 1, Lawrence hadn't lost a regular-season game. Ever. Not in Pop Warner, high school or college. He was as can't-miss of an elite QB prospect as there has been in recent memory. The next Manning or Luck. He's got all the talent and tools you want in a franchise quarterback. He is 0-3 and has thrown just five touchdown passes to seven interceptions.

Of course, the situation a quarterback finds himself in is extremely important to early-career development.

We know the New York Jets are famous for taking young, talented quarterbacks and smashing their psyche into 1,000 pieces. Wilson is up against it, as is Lawrence and Justin Fields, who has a coach who is unwilling to alter the offense to suit his young quarterback.

Mac Jones is in a good situation, but the skill players around him aren't going to do him a ton of favors.

RELATED: Where Lance sits in rookie QB rankings after Week 3

Lance has the best chance for Year 1 success. I won't argue that. He's got the play-caller, the weapons and the infrastructure to succeed. As Michael Jordan famously said, the ceiling is the roof for Lance.

I have no doubt the 49ers will use him more as the season goes on. But be careful thinking that a couple of touchdowns from the Lance package means it's time to let the rookie rip full time. Pitfalls are everywhere for rookies, no matter the talent.

The path traversed by Rodgers, Brady and Mahomes shows there is nothing wrong with sitting. Sometimes, it's just the first step toward immortality.

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