The 49ers tried to play it both ways with Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance.
Lance is the quarterback of the future. He is the person the 49ers went to great lengths to acquire to replace Garoppolo.
In moving up nine spots in the 2021 NFL Draft, the 49ers surrendered their first-round draft picks in 2022 and ’23, as well as a third-round pick next year, to select Lance.
But the 49ers have a veteran roster with 34 players on their contract years. Veterans George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk, Trent Williams, Arik Armstead and Fred Warner are all among the highest-paid players in the league at their positions.
This is not a rebuilding project in which they felt they could justify living and dying through the usual mistakes of a rookie quarterback.
The belief was that Garoppolo gave the team the best chance to win at the beginning of the season. And we don’t disagree with that decision.
But, now, coach Kyle Shanahan’s thinking has to take a dramatic shift.
Garoppolo said he is hopeful that he misses only “a few weeks” after sustaining a calf injury in the 49ers’ 28-21 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
The 49ers fell to 2-2. It would be a surprise at this point if Lance is not on the field when the 49ers return to action against the unbeaten Arizona Cardinals.
Shanahan likely has no decision to make at quarterback. He must play the healthy quarterback. The circumstances have taken an uneasy and difficult decision out of his hands — for now.
Shanahan does not have to sell to the locker room that he is giving up something on the front end that will ultimately serve the best interest of the organization in the future.
Lance needed experience before he could slide into the role as the 49ers’ long-term starter.
In the first four games of the regular season, Shanahan tried to balance laying the groundwork for Lance’s development with the priority of winning the most games possible during the 2021 season.
His plan was to create a package of plays each week for Lance to be used as an offensive accessory. Shanahan wanted to create opportunities for Lance to experience success and gain confidence while being developed at a manageable pace.
The plan seemed to work OK.
Lance got on the field for seven snaps in the first three games. Included in his brief playing time were a touchdown pass and a touchdown run.
During the week of practices, of course, the starting quarterback takes all of the practice snaps. The 49ers’ game plans were centered around Garoppolo.
Lance stayed ready by handling all of the scout-team snaps against the first-team defense. The 49ers tried to find overlap with their own game plan and the plays Lance ran as he played the role of the opposition’s quarterbacks — Jared Goff, Jalen Hurts, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson.
The 49ers’ season is not lost, but it is certainly teetering on a cliff at this point.
A loss on Sunday would open a three-game disadvantage behind the Cardinals for the lead in the NFC West. It would be an uphill climb to win the division, but a wild-card spot would still be in play.
But this 49ers team has issues. The season-long losses of cornerback Jason Verrett and running back Raheem Mostert forced an immediate change of course. Verrett was the team’s best cornerback. Mostert was a game-breaking runner whose presence made the play-action passing game more effective.
Garoppolo was not as productive through 3 1/2 games as could have been expected from him at this stage in his career. He was not having a bad season. He was not having a good season.
Lance now will likely get a full week to prepare as the starter. The game plan against the Cardinals will be tailored specifically to his strengths and weaknesses.
Lance will make mistakes. We know that. But he also has the physical talent to overcome his lack of experience by using his arm and legs to generate plays Garoppolo simply cannot.
All players being healthy, it is understandable to think why Shanahan believes Garoppolo gives the 49ers the best chance of beating the Cardinals. But all players are not healthy.
And after Lance plays a full game, learns from his ups-and-downs, the answer could be different when the 49ers return from the bye week to face the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 24 at Levi’s Stadium.
The top objective this season for the 49ers is to maximize their win total and make a push for the playoffs.
But, maybe as important, is to set up Lance and the organization for success in the years to come.
Lance’s performance against the Cardinals could prove that his remaining as the starter is the solution for both of those goals.
At this point, what's best for Trey Lance is also what's best for the 49ers.