After Trey Lance's second NFL start, the San Francisco 49ers can breathe a sigh of relief. The rookie quarterback didn't look like a battle-tested veteran, but he showed clear signs of improvement between the first and second half of Sunday's contest against the Houston Texans.
With that said, head coach Kyle Shanahan should force opponents to prepare for Jimmy Garoppolo and Lance for the remainder of the campaign. While that sounds like an unorthodox plan, the coaching staff has to consider the upside and limitations of its quarterbacks.
Lance has only started in two games. He's not ready to take over the offense in a full-time role this late in the season. However, Shanahan can still use him in a potential win-or-go-home game against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 18.
Shanahan should start Garoppolo if he's healthy enough to play without hurting his team. While Lance's flashes should generate excitement within the fanbase, San Francisco doesn't have a quarterback controversy yet.
Garoppolo missed Sunday's game with a torn UCL and a fractured bone in the thumb of his throwing hand.
Remember, San Francisco has gone 8-6 with Garoppolo under center this season. He has a stronger rapport with tight end George Kittle and wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. Though the 49ers' ground attack pulls most of the weight on offense, Shanahan needs a savvy passer who can fully utilize his perimeter playmakers.
Nevertheless, Lance earned more snaps with his performance against the Texans. After a shaky first half that included an interception, he settled down and made plays on the move. The first-year signal-caller completed 16 of 23 attempts for 249 yards and threw two touchdown passes in the second half.
Lance had a clear read on his first touchdown pass thanks to Shanahan's clever play design. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk drew attention in the backfield with pre-snap motion and misdirection. Texans defenders moved to their right, and running back Elijah Mitchell leaked out in the opposite direction for an easy reception. Lance led him into open space with a touch pass.
We saw Lance's mobility and arm strength on his second touchdown throw.
Once again, give credit to Shanahan, who used play-action to open up the field. Lance has ample time to roll out to his right, set his feet, square his shoulders and deliver an accurate 45-yard deep ball to Samuel.
In the second half, Lance established a rhythm and clearly outplayed fellow rookie signal-caller Davis Mills, who's performed well in recent weeks. The latter threw for just 163 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Because of Lance's ball-carrying skills and ability to stretch the field, Shanahan can open up the playbook. Opponents would have to account for designed quarterback runs. Furthermore, with him and Samuel or Mitchell in the backfield, the 49ers could use run-pass-option plays to their advantage.
Now that Lance seems more comfortable throwing the ball, defenders cannot assume he will run while taking snaps in a two-quarterback system. The North Dakota State product can test defensive backs over the top with deep shots to Aiyuk, Samuel and Kittle.
Garoppolo isn't the most accurate passer outside the numbers. Couple that with his injury on his throwing hand, and he may struggle to hit receivers in stride. If the veteran signal-caller loses a bit of velocity and some accuracy, Lance may be a better option in certain spots.
Next week, San Francisco will probably try to replicate its physical offensive blueprint from its first meeting with Los Angeles. The 49ers throttled the Rams 31-10, rushing for 156 yards and a touchdown. With that said, Shanahan can implement another wrinkle with Lance, who can test Los Angeles' 21st-ranked pass defense.
Lance isn't polished in the pocket, but he has the physical tools to make every throw on the field. On Sunday, particularly in the final 30 minutes, he added touch when necessary and some zip on his deep throws, which likely garnered the coaching staff's trust.
After the game, Shanahan praised his young quarterback.
Take note of Shanahan talking about Lance's ability to make plays that "weren't there" and his confidence. San Francisco doesn't have to limit him to a simple package near the goal line or in short-yardage situations.
Anyone who cannot see Lance's progression should take a look at his first start in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. He completed 15 of 29 pass attempts for 192 yards and an interception but rushed for 89 yards on 16 carries.
On Sunday, Lance ran the ball just eight times for 31 yards. For the most part, he didn't prematurely leave the pocket and rely on his legs to make big plays. We saw more of his arm talent with efficiency as a passer.
To put the rookie's production into perspective, he beat the Texans, who fielded the 19th-ranked pass defense going into Sunday's games. Cornerback Desmond King II picked him off in the second quarter. The 49ers offense had a slow start and trailed 7-3 heading into the break.
Going against Los Angeles, San Francisco will need to jump off to a quicker start. So long as Garoppolo is healthy enough to play next week, his chemistry with the pass-catching group should help in that regard. Meanwhile, Lance can provide another dimension to the offense with some zone reads and downfield throws that can swing the momentum in a tight game.
Next year, Lance will take over for Garoppolo, but in the meantime, Shanahan can use both of them to spark a playoff run.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.