SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As the San Francisco 49ers watched quarterback Trey Lance drive off on a cart with his right leg in an air cast, the unmistakable feeling of “here we go again” swept the sideline.
It didn’t take long to realize that Lance’s injury was serious. Shortly after Sunday’s 27-7 win over the Seattle Seahawks, coach Kyle Shanahan announced that Lance had a broken right ankle that would require season-ending surgery. It’s the third time in six seasons under Shanahan that the Niners have lost their starting quarterback to a season-ending injury. It happened to Jimmy Garoppolo in week 3 of 2018 (torn left ACL), Garoppolo in week 8 of 2020 (sprained ankle) and now Lance.
The previous two times, an injury to Garoppolo spelled the end of the Niners’ season. He missed 23 games combined in those two seasons and the Niners reached a combined 10-22 final. But the Niners believe things will be different this time around as Garoppolo will replace the injured quarterback.
“We feel very lucky to have Jimmy here as the No. 2 quarterback, and especially when your starter is injured, it’s good to know the experience and what a good player he is,” said Shanahan. “We’ve been in there before, and I think we’re a bit better prepared with our back-up right now.”
On Sunday, the mood in the locker room after a decisive victory against a division rival was understandably gloomy as the Niners worried about their young franchise quarterback.
While the quarterback’s potential for controversy this season has faded, Lance’s injury raises a whole new set of questions.
What is the quarterback’s plan?
For 2022, the plan is simple: Garoppolo will leave in place of Lance. It’s the job he knows best after making 45 regular season starts for San Francisco since being acquired in 2017. The 49ers have had great success with Garoppolo under center, going 31-14 in season games regular, 4-2 in the playoffs and making a trip to the Super Bowl.
Rookie Brock Purdy will be the No. 2 quarterback behind Garoppolo. Purdy was”mister irrelevantin the 2022 NFL Draft, as the 49ers used the last pick (No. 262 overall) on him. He’s now a moment away from gaining a lot of relevance.
“My mindset hasn’t changed,” Purdy said. “I was ready. I studied as if I was a starter for the week, so my role is now different in terms of dress and being ready to come in in case something happens.”
The Niners aren’t expected to add another quarterback to the roster, but will likely need to find another arm for the practice squad.
What does this mean for Lance?
Lance’s injury has significant short and long term implications. The Niners spent the offseason and training camp with Lance as their starter. That meant some tweaks to San Francisco’s approach, with more designed quarterback runs and built-in deep passing on offense. They will have to give back what they did well with Garoppolo which could take some time considering Garoppolo will be training with the starting attack for the first time since January.
What this means for Lance’s future is more important. He played sparingly as a rookie and didn’t even have five full quarters in the season before the injury, meaning the Niners still don’t really know what’s in him. That’s not even taking into account how Lance will recover or what he’ll look like when he returns.
The Niners knew Lance would take a few chunks this season as he learned on the fly, but the hope was that he would progress and the defensive and running game could keep the Niners competitive. Now he no longer has the chance. Assuming Lance returns in time to start the 2023 season, he will have had five starts since 2019, his redshirt freshman season at North Dakota State.
There is also a financial aspect. Part of the appeal of handing over the keys to Lance was that the Niners would have him on a reasonable rookie contract that would allow them to allocate resources elsewhere. Lance will be $7.75 million against the cap this year, but will be another year closer to free agency when he returns from injury.
“It’s unfortunate for him,” Shanahan said. “We really feel bad for him, and we were really hoping to see him a lot this year.”
What does this mean for Garoppolo’s future?
When the Niners brought Garoppolo back, they thought he was the ultimate insurance policy. A quarterback who had been under center for two trips to the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LIV for a guaranteed $6.5 million was a no-brainer despite any potential awkwardness that might come with it.
Sunday offered a sobering reminder of why, after Lance – who suffered knee and finger injuries in a limited sample last year – suffered his ankle injury. The Niners hoped such a scenario would never happen, but at least found comfort that Garoppolo was there to intervene.
The irony is that the Niners have to rely on Garoppolo to stay healthy to stay in contention. The #1 reason the Niners wanted to move from Garoppolo to Lance was because of Garoppolo’s inability to stay healthy. The fact that Lance’s injury happened so soon means Garoppolo must try to stay on the pitch for at least the next 15 games.
Ross Dwelley won’t be denied as he crosses the goal line to score a touchdown for the 49ers in the second quarter.
It could also mean big things for Garoppolo’s bank account. As part of his reworked contract, Garoppolo has more than $8 million in incentives based on playing time and performance. For example, he receives $250,000 for each game in which he takes at least 25% of the offensive snaps, $100,000 for each victory in these games.
And although Garoppolo has a no-trade clause, there’s no chance he’ll be dealt with now. The other notable addition to Garoppolo’s contract was a no-tag clause, meaning he can become an unrestricted free agent after the season and the Niners can’t stop him from testing the market.
It could turn out to be more significant than anyone imagined when the deal was announced.
What if Garoppolo has a good year and the Niners go into the playoffs? Would the Niners feel comfortable handing him over to Lance? Is it possible the Niners want to pay a bounty to bring Garoppolo back?
These are questions that will be answered in time, but the fact that they may already be asked tells you everything you need to know about this unique situation.
“It’s never about you,” Garoppolo said. “It’s about winning football matches. I’m a big believer in that. People can say what they want, talk about statistics, whatever, but when you win football matches, that’s what we are here to do. And that’s all I’m trying to do.”