SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The look in Trey Lance’s eyes during one of the most pressure-packed situations of the young quarterback’s entire athletic career told Kyle Shanahan everything he needed to know.
The rookie’s second NFL start – a must-win Week 17 contest against visiting Houston – had not begun well. On the surface, the third overall pick of the draft, who was thrust into action due to starter Jimmy Garoppolo's thumb injury, appeared overmatched as San Francisco’s first five possessions ended with three punts, a turnover on downs and an interception. But Lance’s coach saw something he liked.
“You would watch the guy when he would come back to the sideline, and if it was a bad play, just seeing in his eyes that he was pissed and wanted to be more aggressive after that,” Shanahan said. “He didn’t want to go find some place to hide. So, you see you have a guy made of the right stuff.”
Lance rebounded to record 249 passing yards and two touchdowns, guiding the 49ers to a 23-7 win to preserve their playoff hopes. Lance returned to his backup role the following week, and a recovered Garoppolo helped lead San Francisco on a playoff run that ended in a 27-24 NFC championship game loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams.
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However, with his response to adversity, Lance made a statement that has changed the course of one of the NFL’s most storied franchises.
Seven months after that performance, and on the eve of 2022 training camp, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch announced they had turned the team over to Lance, the North Dakota State product for whom they gave up three first-round picks and a third to acquire in 2021.
They’re betting on Lance — a passer with limited experience but supreme physical gifts and tantalizing intangibles — to help a Super Bowl-caliber roster reach its full potential. Although there currently are more questions than answers about his game, the 9ers believe because of the resilience they have seen.
“We say all the time, ‘You don’t know if a guy can play in the NFL until he gets his ass kicked’,” Shanahan told USA TODAY Sports, seated behind his desk minutes before heading out to Monday morning’s practice. "You want to see how they do, if they can handle it. … So, that was cool to watch him do it — to see that, to get through the whole offseason where he’s improved at everything, it’s given us the confidence to do this.”
Shanahan admitted, “Yeah, it’s a gamble. But we didn’t think we’d be able to keep a Super Bowl roster if we didn’t make that gamble.”
So the move to Lance is two-pronged. The 49ers anticipate Lance developing into an upgrade over Garoppolo, who remains on the roster as the team seeks a trade partner. And San Francisco officials also believe operating with a quarterback on a rookie contract will help extend this window of opportunity to compete at an elite level.
After inheriting a roster that in 2016 that ranked 31st on offense and 32nd on defense, Shanahan, Lynch and Co. embarked on an aggressive overhaul that featured a bevy of smart draft picks who have developed into franchise cornerstones. Retaining that homegrown talent hasn’t been cheap, but the 49ers have committed to rewarding their own. Rolling with Lance, whose contract pays him $34 million over four years in a league where several quarterbacks make more than that in a single season, offers great financial flexibility, Shanahan explained.
“Our third year, when we exceeded everyone’s expectations and the team (started) 8-0 and we had a really young team, we built that,” Shanahan said. “You get that close to winning a Super Bowl (losing to Kansas City), I was so excited. But you start to learn things: ‘How are we going to keep all these guys? How are we going to do that and improve in a couple of other areas?’ It was going to be tough, and when you look at all that stuff, you go into a (rookie) quarterback contract like that, it’s allowed us to do some things and keep our team.
“Yeah, it’s a gamble,” he reiterated, “but I’ll gamble with keeping a good team before I say, gamble on one (exorbitantly paid) person.”
But Shanahan never would have turned the team over to Lance if he didn’t think the 22-year-old Marshall, Minnesota, native could handle it, or if he didn’t think the veterans, who all backed Garoppolo, would support the youngster.
The latter wasn’t a concern. The same day that Lance’s response to adversity cemented his future in the mind of his coach, he also impressed his veterans, who watched him morph from overwhelmed rookie to confident playmaker in a single game.
“Playing NFL quarterback is a lot on anybody’s plate, especially a rookie, and in the Houston game, one of his first starts, I’m sure he was feeling it,” Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk told USA TODAY Sports. “You could sense it, and it was after that first touchdown we scored.
"We were all celebrating together in the end zone, and he kind of said to the group, ‘All right, I got that one off my back. I feel it. I’m good now!’ And it wasn’t just words. You could feel it. You could see it going forward, you could see it in the huddle that he was settling in. And I think that’s going to carry over for him into this season because he’s seen game action, and even if it was limited, it was very valuable.”
Lance may remain a mystery to the NFL world. Some believe that he can develop into another big-armed, dual-threat quarterback capable of taking the league by storm. For now, even his coaches and teammates are still learning about his capabilities.
“He’s different than all the guys I’ve worked with,” Shanahan said. “Some of the running guys I’ve had, he’s shown with how he played in college that he’s more capable of playing in the pocket like that. But he’s not as fast as some of the running guys I’ve had, but he’s a little bit bigger.
"We’ll see how it plays out. We’ll see how his style is. But what I like about him is every part of his skill set, he’s capable of doing what all the quarterbacks I have had do. No, he’s not there in every area yet, but he’s capable of it, and that excites me.”
Meanwhile, others who have watched Lance operate behind the scenes share their coach’s belief.
As Juszczyk put it, “You’ve seen it every single day that he’s working his ass off. He has a humble confidence to him, and as veterans, we respect that a lot. It’s important to come in and have confidence, but nobody wants that rookie that’s talking all day. He says things when he needs to, but he does a good job of leading by example and with his energy.”
Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, one of the most respected members of the locker room, explained, “The way he handled the noise last year, coming into training camp and it being a quote-unquote competition that the outside kind of made up, although we had a good understanding in the locker room of how it would go. For him to ignore the noise and keep following the commands of Kyle and his higher-ups and not think, ‘Hey, I’m your guy. Let me compete.’ To me, that’s something little, but it’s something that I noticed, and it says a lot about his character and it says a lot about his maturity.”
Lance has long embraced hard work. From his seventh-grade year all the way through high school, the quarterback worked out with his father at 5 a.m. each day at the local YMCA, hoping the pre-school-day strength training would give him an edge.
And Lance remained unfazed by having to prove himself behind Garoppolo after fighting for every opportunity to this point. His experience at North Dakota State, where he started just 17 games total before jumping to the NFL, only fortified Lance’s drive.
“North Dakota State University, there was this underdog mentality,” Lance told USA TODAY Sports. “Yeah, we beat everyone in FCS, but nobody planned on being there. Nobody planned on going to North Dakota State, coming out of high school. Everyone has a chip on their shoulder, feels like they should be somewhere bigger, somewhere better.
“I’ve never lacked confidence in myself, so at this point, it’s just coming in as prepared as I possibly can,” Lance added. “Go to work and get better every single day. I have great coaches and great teammates. This roster is special, and I have a lot of guys I can get the ball to and sit back and see what they do with it.”
Lance has gone from overlooked college prospect to holding one of the most desirable starting jobs in the NFL. But will we see him follow the paths of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, who in back-to-back seasons went from former rookie reserves to league MVPs in their first year as full-time starters?
It’s far too early to know as Lance certainly remains a project on the field after attempting just 71 passes in his first year. He threw at least one interception in each of the first four days of training camp, and he still is honing his accuracy and consistency on certain throws.
But the 49ers know patience is necessary, and because of everything they see in Lance, they believe their reward is coming.
“Reality is, he’s going to make mistakes,” Williams said. “He’s young. But just like Houston, we didn’t expect him to go in, throw for 500 yards. We went in expecting him to give us a chance to win and he gave us a chance and we won the game. Every snap from then on, he’s going to progress, and he’s going to improve. He’s taken a huge step, and he’s not going to be perfect, but the way he’s approaching this game is perfect.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trey Lance is NFL's ultimate QB 'gamble,' but 49ers are embracing risk