Quarterback Trey Lance and the San Francisco 49ers entered Week 2 of the 2022 season feeling the pressure after a sloppy loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 1 in which the franchise's young signal-caller didn't play especially well.
If San Francisco's struggles had continued at home against the Seattle Seahawks, the grumbles that perhaps the team would have been better off with Jimmy Garoppolo under center this season likely would have grown.
Well, the 49ers got the win they needed in an emphatic fashion. However, that win came at a high price.
Early in the contest, Lance suffered an ankle injury that ended his season. Now the 49ers will go the rest of the way with a quarterback the team spent most of the offseason trying to unload.
And believe it or not, San Francisco's chances of making another deep playoff run may be better for it.
After leading the 49ers in rushing attempts (13) and rushing yards (54) in Week 1, Lance told reporters that this wasn't college and he needed to be more cautious while running the ball.
"I'm not bigger, faster and stronger than pretty much everyone else," Lance said. "Guys catch up a lot quicker, space is filled, guys close a lot faster, and I have to learn to protect myself, just being in a different situation knowing how important it is for me to stay healthy."
Those words would prove to be prophetic.
While running with the ball on a zone-read keeper late in the first quarter, Lance was stood up by Seahawks linebacker Cody Barton. His right leg folded underneath him, and after attempting to get up it became clear that something was seriously wrong.
Lance was placed in an air cast and carted off the field. In his post-game presser, Kyle Shanahan confirmed the worst-case scenario: Lance fractured his ankle and will undergo season-ending surgery.
It's a brutal end to a season that began with lofty expectations. Week 1 struggles aside, there was no shortage of analysts who expected big things from Lance in 2022. Lance himself told ESPN's Nick Wagoner before the season that he was eager to show the NFL what he can do and how much he's developed as a player.
"I've had a great offseason and training camp," Lance said. "There's ups and downs to every day, every rep. So I'm learning as much as I possibly can. There's countless areas that I know I'm going to continue to improve on and countless areas that I have improved on as well."
Now, it will be 2023 before the quarterback the 49ers mortgaged their future to draft can take the reins under center. In the meantime, the team has to turn the offense over to the guy they drafted Lance to replace.
After spending much of the offseason intimating that Garoppolo's days in San Francisco were over, the team either couldn't find sufficient compensation in a trade or had reservations about not having insurance behind Lance.
But even after restructuring Garoppolo's contract to bring him back as Lance's backup, Shanahan said just this past week that the Niners might still consider dealing him.
"Just like all players, we'll listen to anybody on anything," Shanahan said to reporters. "That never changes for any player or coach. We'll always listen to anybody."
For his part, Garoppolo said just after the ink dried on his reworked deal that he didn't expect to be back with the 49ers, either.
"[Returning] really wasn't on my mind, to be completely honest," Garoppolo told reporters. "I was training out here. I had to be here, so I was here for that reason. I was just trying to get my body right. ... I felt very confident out there, and I knew that I was ready to roll. I just need to figure out where it was. And things kind of fell into place these last couple days."
Now, the move that some speculated could cause a quarterback controversy in San Francisco could instead save the team's season.
Garoppolo isn't the second coming of Joe Montana. Or Steve Young. His numbers against the Seahawks are, in some ways, a microcosm for his career.
Against Seattle, Garoppolo was good but not great—13 completions in 21 attempts for 154 yards and a touchdown. The 30-year-old added another touchdown on the ground and posted a passer rating of just over 100.
There's a reason why the 49ers traded away three first-round picks to acquire Lance. Garoppolo isn't dynamic. He doesn't have a cannon for an arm. He's not especially athletic.
He's not a Patrick Mahomes or Justin Herbert—a player who can put a team on his back and single-handedly lead them to victory. He's a good NFL quarterback, but he's not a great one.
However, the reality is that we don't know if Lance is great either. Not by a long shot. And while there are some things that Garoppolo isn't, there are also quite a few things he is.
Garoppolo may not have Lance's arm strength or mobility, but at this point in their respective careers, he's absolutely more accurate. After starting 45 games over five seasons for Shanahan, he knows the offense inside and out.
He has played in no shortage of big games, including a start in Super Bowl LIV. He's well-respected in the locker room. He is most assuredly not your typical backup quarterback.
Most importantly for a 49ers team that has aspirations of not only making the postseason but doing damage once they get there, Garoppolo is a winner.
QB wins may not be the most accurate barometer of a signal-caller's abilities, but the fact that Garoppolo has a higher winning percentage in San Francisco than Aaron Rodgers does in Green Bay matters. In two of the past three seasons, he led the 49ers at least as far as the NFC title game.
This isn't a situation where Shanahan now has to throw half the offense out the window to accommodate the limitations of a player who has rarely, you know, played.
Are there things Lance can do that Garoppolo can't? Yes. But Shanahan knows exactly what Garoppolo does (and does not) do well. He knows how to tailor the offense around him—he's been doing it for years.
This isn't to say that Lance's injury was a good thing. First, it was a brutal break for a promising young player. Second, that would just be a rotten thing to say.
But Lance was the great unknown in San Francisco. Garoppolo isn't. We know who he is and what the 49ers are with him. The team is going to run the ball. Play defense. And if the past several years are any indication, they will win more than they lose.
There's a reason why analysts like Peter King of NBC Sports predicted before the season that Garoppolo would supplant Lance as the starter at some point this year.
Lance may well be the future in San Francisco, but a compelling argument could be made even before Sunday's injury that the team's best bet for success in the present lies with Garoppolo running the offense.
Now, that argument is moot.