49ers

Kittle's message to Lance after pick shows belief in rookie QB

49ers
Trey Lance, George Kittle

When the 49ers elected to draft Trey Lance with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and keep Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster for the 2021 season, a natural line of questioning arose.

How would Lance and Garoppolo co-exist? Would the 49ers' veteran locker room, which loves Garoppolo, be OK with the decision to move on from the signal-caller that led them to the Super Bowl?

The 49ers have said all the right things during the 2021 season. There have been zero signs of drama or discontent within the team as Garoppolo led the 49ers to the cusp of a playoff berth while Lance developed on scout team. But with Garoppolo suffering a Grade 3 sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament on his right thumb in Week 16, the 49ers had to turn to Lance on Sunday in a game the Niners had to have to maintain control of their postseason destiny.

The 49ers trailed the Texans 7-3 at halftime after a first half that included some shaky moments from Lance, including an interception on a ball intended for George Kittle during the second quarter.

Before the 49ers' next possession, Kittle walked up to Lance as the rookie was warming up and gave him a pep talk that shows how much the team believes in the young signal-caller. Both that he can deliver now if needed, and that he can lead them when his time comes.

“He's a professional football player," Kitte said after the 49ers' 23-7 win Sunday when asked about what he told Lance following the pick. "He's here for a reason. We drafted him third overall for a reason, he's a good player. Just go out there and play football. There's stress, there's pressure, but if you have fun, it's a lot easier. He did a good job. He flushed it and he came back and I thought he played a really good game.”

 

For Kittle, one of Garoppolo's good friends and staunchest defenders, to have Lance's back when things were going poorly in a virtual must-win game says a lot about what Lance has shown his teammates behind the scenes and about the type of culture the 49ers have created.

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The 49ers' locker room's acceptance of Lance started with Garoppolo. The 30-year-old quarterback has been as professional as possible about the 49ers' decision to more or less lame-duck him, and has, by all accounts, done whatever he can to help Lance during his first NFL season.

That continued Sunday when Lance said Garoppolo helped talk through some things with him on the sidelines during the game vs. the Texans.

“Yeah, I've said a million times, Jimmy is one of the best teammates and leaders I've ever been around," Lance said Sunday when asked how Garoppolo helped him during the start. "So for me to have him, I know he's got my back on the sideline, whether good play or bad. He's the first one that is talking to me and making sure that we're seeing things the same way. So it's a huge help to me. Huge confidence booster, just that I know that he's another guy that's got my back."

While Garoppolo set the tone for the locker room's welcoming of Lance, it's clear the rookie has impressed his teammates and shown them that he deserved to be tabbed as the face of the franchise.

Lance eventually settled in Sunday as he completed 16 of his 23 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns with the one interception. After a shaky first half, Lance led the 49ers on four second-half scoring drives to put the Texans away and set up a win-and-in Week 18 scenario for the 49ers.

No one seemed surprised by how the rookie responded after the first-half interception.

“Yeah, the two games with Trey, where he is played, started and finished the games and in the seven days of having him in that spot, going through the whole week, nothing's too big for him," coach Kyle Shanahan said of how Lance bounced back from the pick. "He's a competitor. He enjoys playing football, he enjoys working at it. I think he really enjoys the moments. I think it's been hard for him not playing a ton this year, and when he is out there, you know we got a guy who the guys can follow. Now it's up to Trey and us just to keep working with him and pushing him each week here. When the offseason starts, continuing to go even harder with it.”

 

Despite the rough start, Lance looked much sharper Sunday than he did in his disjointed first start in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. That speaks to the progress he is making on the scout team, and that growth should only continue as the 49ers turn their attention to the playoffs and, eventually, next season.

It's unclear if Garoppolo will be able to start in the season finale Sunday. The 49ers need to beat the Los Angeles Rams or have the New Orleans Saints lose to the Atlanta Falcons to punch their postseason ticket.

If Garoppolo can't go, the 49ers will ask Lance to do what Shanahan drafted him to do earlier than expected: Lead the 49ers to the playoffs.

That's something Lance's teammates believe he is more than capable of doing in what would be his third career start.

"If we’ve got to roll with Trey, I feel pretty confident in it," Deebo Samuel said.

Labeled as the future, and thrust into action in the present, Lance has made believers out of teammates who were 10 minutes away from a Super Bowl title two years ago.

That's nothing to dismiss, and their quick belief in the rookie speaks volumes about where Lance and the 49ers can go.

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