Trey Lance’s season-ending injury gives Jimmy Garoppolo a chance to prove the 49ers pulled the plug too soon

Reality can sometimes only be conveyed through what sounds callous.

So let’s start with some “too soon” honesty: Trey Lance is probably still the future of San Francisco 49ers at the quarterback. His immense ability hasn’t waned and he can still develop into a central starter in the NFL. And not even his worst critics, if they have any humanity at all, should rejoice Lance’s broken ankle at the end of the season on Sunday.

But if we’re being honest on a relatively small time frame – just the 2022 season – that’s the reality Jimmy Garoppolo got a rare opportunity to prove the San Francisco Braintrust wrong in their bid to replace him. And the team’s Super Bowl path might even have become a little more consistent.

That sounds harsh after Lance was lost for the rest of the season, especially after he didn’t have a fair time to show what progress he was capable of this year. But there’s also a longer view that can’t be ignored, and it includes three facts that need to be considered now that Lance is lost for the season.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) is carted off the field during the first half of an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, September 18, 2022 in Santa Clara, California.  (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) is carried off the field in the first half after a broken ankle. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

First, Lance failed to win the 49ers’ starting job as a rookie in 2021, despite head coach Kyle Shanahan bad want him to run away with it. Second, he had uneven development in the offseason and preseason, showing enough inconsistency to open the door to Garoppolo remaining with the team. Third, when healthy, this veteran 49ers roster is good enough to get out of a relatively weak NFC, especially if they can put up consistent, above-average quarterback play.

These three things provide context for what a post-Lance roster will look like for the remainder of 2022. There’s a chance we’ll get into February and look back and sink in some things that weren’t readily apparent on Sunday when Garoppolo got back into the grid.

Perhaps we’ll reach the end of this season and realize that a healthy post-op Garoppolo is now a better player than the limited version we saw in 2021. Maybe we look at the roster and how they react to a known leader and realize that Lance wasn’t ready and neither was the guy he replaced. And perhaps more than anything, we realize that Garoppolo was able to get a burr in his saddle when the team tried to drop him during the offseason.

At the very least, there’s no denying that Garoppolo has a chance to take on Shanahan here. Not necessarily in an embarrassed, “fuck you” sort of way. More in the sense of a professional attempt to make Shanahan and General Manager John Lynch suffer from doubt. Or maybe even feel a slight regret for putting so much capital on Lance when he still had so much development ahead of him, especially given the status of the roster and the positioning of the Super Bowl window.

That kind of opportunity doesn’t come along often for veteran quarterbacks, especially those who took a team to a Super Bowl and rarely missed a second trip before losing their starting offseason job. That’s not to say the 49ers didn’t make the sensible choice by going over to Lance. From a team building standpoint and leaning towards future quarterback spot, giving Lance his shot was the right long-term move.

But we would be lying to ourselves if we didn’t also admit that making the right long-term move comes with short-term sacrifices. The 2022 season had greater odds with the start of Lance as he was an unknown and developing player who had played little football of note for two years. You only had to see him in the offseason or preseason to understand that. Or to also understand that he probably didn’t win the starting job out of sheer meritocracy.

Given how far Lance had to go — and all other things being equal in terms of salary and invested capital — Garoppolo would have been given a chance to fight for his job this preseason. And given Lance’s inconsistency in practices, Garoppolo might have won the job.

But that’s not always how the NFL works. Just look at the top of the quarterback record books and remember that Drew Brees, who retired on a dirty winning streak, would have played his entire career with the Chargers if the team that drafted Philip Rivers didn’t have him would have replaced . Playing at the Pro Bowl level, Brees fought Rivers for two years, then suffered a shoulder injury that eased the decision to switch from a 26-year-old just beginning his Hall of Famer résumé.

Garoppolo’s situation is different, but the reality of NFL brutality is not. The 49ers tried to drop him, failed in that attempt and are now lucky enough to have him waiting in the starting blocks. Now he has a chance to show the organization he might have been a better choice in 2022. Maybe even beyond.

It might feel too early and too brutal to say that after Lance’s injury. But that’s definitely how the NFL is always is working. The 49ers have another game Sunday and a difficult schedule ahead of them. They also have an opportunity in a wide-open NFC to end a Super Bowl trek that ended a step short of last season.

You might be surprised what Garoppolo gives you with his second chance. And they might also regret not giving him the right to earn it last offseason.

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