49ers

Schrock's observations: Honestly assessing Lance's first action

49ers
Trey Lance

Week 4 of the NFL season gave us the most-anticipated regular-season game in NFL history, a statement by the Arizona Cardinals and the first extended action from Trey Lance. 

Some early-season contenders were exposed -- looking at you, Denver -- and the Chiefs still look bored.

Before we get to Tom Brady's return to New England, we start, of course, with Lance and the 49ers and what to make of a jittery true debut for the No. 3 overall pick.

RELATED: Grades for 49ers' loss to Seahawks

 

Temper expectations

When the third quarter started Sunday at Levi's Stadium, and Trey Lance took the field with the 49ers' offense, the anticipation everywhere, not just in the Bay, was palpable.

Fans had been itching to see the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft get extended work for the 49ers, especially with Jimmy Garoppolo getting off to slow starts in each of the last two weeks.

But coach Kyle Shanahan had been clear that Lance was the backup quarterback, and there was no QB competition in Santa Clara. Lance's performance Sunday in the 49ers' 28-21 loss to the Seahawks showed why.

As you would expect, Lance was jittery getting his first real NFL run. His first few throws were way off target, and he struggled running a game plan tailored for Garoppolo, who left the game with a calf injury.

While Lance's talent was evident in his huge arm and elite athleticism, the North Dakota State product needs to improve his accuracy, field vision, release time, and touch. Lance is very raw. He needs time to develop, which is why the 49ers were a good landing spot with Garoppolo entrenched in front of him for this season.

 

Lance can do things Garoppolo can't. The rookie's 10-yard scramble on fourth-and-10 late in the game Sunday was evidence of that. But Lance was just 9-for-18 for 157 yards and two touchdowns, with one score coming on a 76-yard pass to Deebo Samuel that resulted from a busted coverage from the Seahawks. Take that out, and Lance was 8-for-17 for 81 yards. He also rushed for 41 yards.

If you want to say that it's time to take the Garoppolo game plan and throw it in the trash because the offense's upside with Lance is too tantalizing to ignore, I won't disagree. But I would just say to expect growing pains and that doing so might put a cap on what the 49ers can be this season unless the defense elevates its game.

It's also not entirely fair to judge Lance off his inability to run a plan designed for Garoppolo to pilot. 

If Lance starts in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers will have to tailor the game plan to Lance's strengths and pared-down for him. That's not to say Shanahan and the 49ers' staff can't cook up a successful plan for Lance against the Cardinals. But everyone should temper the 2021 expectations for Lance. He has a ton of talent but is a work in progress.

There's a reason Shanahan has been adamant that Lance is the backup. He sees him every day and is well aware of what the rookie is capable of. He wasn't keeping Lance on the bench to prove a point. He knew he wasn't ready.

Lance will undoubtedly make several plays that make you point at your TV and scream, "See! Jimmy can't do that." But there are bound to be many head-scratching rookie moments that leave you staring into the abyss. Can the 49ers, now 2-2, afford a lot of those?

There is reason to be excited about Lance's future. He has a world of talent. With a week to prepare, there's no reason the 49ers can't beat the Cardinals, who will have limited tape on Lance to prepare for the rookie QB.

From what we saw Sunday vs. the Seahawks, it will take time for Lance to become the QB many expect him to.

Herbert the exception, not the rule

After last week, many were wondering why the 2021 rookie QBs were struggling. Weren't we told this could be the greatest class of QBs since 1983? So why then were Mac Jones, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Trevor Lawrence a combined 1-9?

After watching Justin Herbert enter the league last year and take a flamethrower to almost every defense he faced, many seemed to expect Jones, Lawrence, Fields, Wilson, and, perhaps Lance, to do the same.

 

But what Herbert did is not normal and has unfairly altered what is expected of rookie quarterbacks. Rookie quarterbacks almost always struggle during Year 1. That's what is supposed to happen. The NFL game is faster, and it takes time for even the most talented signal-callers to adjust to the speed of the game and to understand that a "college open" throw doesn't exist in the NFL.

Per The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia, only seven of the 31 rookie quarterbacks who have seen significant snaps in the last 10 years have performed as above-average starters. The names? Herbert, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, and Jameis Winston. That means 77.4 percent of the rookies performed as below-average quarterbacks per the Expected Points Added metric.

Burrow, Mayfield, Allen, Carr, Murray, and Watson are all names that didn't make the list. Six of the top 14 quarterbacks in the NFL, all of whom made their debuts in the last seven years, didn't cut it during their rookie season. That doesn't mean there weren't good moments. Burrow was electric, Mayfield set records, and Murray dazzled. However, all below-average starters per EPA.

It's easy to expect a rookie to come in and set the world on fire. The unknown is romantic and tantalizing. Reality is often disappointing. At least, in Year 1.

A return for the ages

Hello, it's Tom.

After a week's worth of hype, Tom Brady finally returned to the House That Brady Built for the first time as a visitor Sunday night. It was a surreal experience to watch No. 12 trot out of the visitor's locker room at Gillette Stadium and enter a stadium packed with 65,000 drunk New Englanders who wanted to both celebrate him and watch him get thrown to the turf for three straight hours. 

There was no doubt Bill Belichick knew how to bother the quarterback he spent 20 years building the greatest dynasty in NFL history with. So sure enough, the Patriots threw the kitchen sink at Brady, and the 44-year-old played less than stellar football in the pouring Foxboro rain. 

For 20 years, Brady and Belichick defied gravity together. They won three titles, endured a decade-long drought, and won three more. Six titles and 17 AFC East championships. They took the Patriots from a franchise threatening to move to Hartford and built them into the premier franchise in the NFL. 

They did it together. As with all great players and coaches, they pushed each other to new heights and relied on the other's strengths to win the day when they could not. Belichick's defenses have carried Brady, and No. 12 has bailed out Hoodie. It was a symbiotic relationship. One of respect. One that ran its course and, like most relationships, had reached its expiration date. 

Brady knew it would be a monumental task to walk into his old home and leave with a win. So he poured over countless hours of tape to try and decipher what Belichick would throw at him. 

 

So it was fitting that when winning time rolled around, Belichick got to experience what so many NFL head coaches had for the past 20 years. Brady had the ball with five minutes remaining trailing by one point. Two decades of watching Brady deliver for him with everything on the line, and now it was time for Belichick to face the inevitable. 

Brady got the Bucs into field goal range and could have bled the rest of the clock out with a first down. But in un-Brady fashion, the 44-year-old took two shots at the end zone instead of trying to get one more first down, leaving Belichick and his new quarterback, Mac Jones, time for one last drive. 

As much as the night revolved around the two men who defined the NFL for the past 20 years, Jones, the No. 15 overall pick making his fourth career start, played a starring role. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a masterful game, and Jones was precise, efficient, and did not shrink from the moment. 

At one point, the Alabama product completed 19 straight passes in the second half. Fair or unfair (definitely unfair), the Brady comps started flowing as Jones diced up a depleted Bucs secondary. So, of course, Jones would have a chance to do what Brady had done so many times for Belichick. Win the football game. 

It had passing of the torch potential. But there is one thing that Jones, with his 16 quarters of NFL experience, doesn't have. Something that took Brady years to earn. 

Belichick's trust. 

After Jones' pass on third-and-3 was batted down at the line, Belichick had a decision to make. Would he trot out Nick Folk for a 56-yard field goal in the pouring rain or put the ball in Jones' red-hot hands to get 3 yards? The legendary head coach chose the former, and when Folk's kick doinked off the left upright, Brady screamed "Let's go!" on the sideline and trotted out to take a knee and leave Gillette Stadium with a win for the last time. 

The two men met a midfield briefly and then talked in the Bucs' locker room for 24 minutes after the game. They never got the chance to say their piece when Brady decided to leave for Tampa Bay. 

Two decades of triumphs, defeats, and banners shared by two giants who both were ready to move on finally got its likely final chapter. 

Belichick bet on Brady not being able to sustain an elite level of play well into his 40s. It's impossible to blame him. But Belichick also had a 20-year front-row seat to watch the 199th pick in the draft transform himself into the greatest team sports athlete in history through sheer force of will. It's no surprise Brady continues to be an immovable object even against the unstoppable force of time. 

 

So, the two men talked in the bowels of the stadium they helped build after Brady led one final game-winning drive in front of a crowd that still would defend him to the death against any detractors. 

A night that began with Brady running to his "LFG!" corner like he had done countless times before ended with perhaps the one thing that might have been able to salvage the most successful partnership in NFL history. 

A conversation. One that was long past due.

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