Sunday’s preseason finale presented the 49ers one last chance to tinker with their quarterbacks before the quarters start counting.
Kyle Shanahan made the most of it. With usual starter Jimmy Garoppolo on the field to begin San Francisco’s eventual 34-10 win over the Las Vegas Raiders, Shanahan didn’t take long to insert the player he and general manager John Lynch were incredibly eager to trade up to select in April. The results justified their excitement.
Trey Lance entered the game on San Francisco’s fourth play from scrimmage, a handoff to Raheem Mostert on an inverted read option that created a wide lane off the right tackle. Mostert took the handoff 17 yards for a first down and a roar of approval from the Levi’s Stadium crowd.
Six plays later, it was Garoppolo, not Lance, who finished in the end zone with a rushing touchdown. Regardless of the identity of the ballcarrier, the quarterback rotation had already found success — and it would only continue to be effective throughout the remainder of their time spent sharing reps.
Garoppolo told reporters afterward the unpredictability caused by the frequent changes under center left the Raiders on their heels.
“You could tell it was tough on them,” Garoppolo explained, via The Athletic’s Matt Barrows, telling media members the Las Vegas defenders spent the final seconds before the snap still sorting out their assignments on a couple of occasions. “And that’s what we were trying to do.”
That they did, energizing San Francisco’s offense with a new kind of fuel previously unseen in the Shanahan era. A team built on effective blocking and running became exponentially more dangerous when involving Lance, who is fully capable of ripping off a big run, but also must be respected through the air. As he proved later in the half, the passing game is still a work in progress, but armed with a cannon, Lance’s presence makes for persistent unpredictability.
That uncertainty stands to transform San Francisco into an offensive machine that could make game-planning for the 49ers a weekly nightmare for opposing defenses.
“That in and of itself benefits the team,” Garoppolo said, via The Athletic’s David Lombardi. “We had two successful drives with it, scored on both of them. That’s tough for defenses to handle.
“Whatever is best for the team, I’m here for it.”
This realization arrived shortly after Lance trotted into the end zone on a zone read option in the second quarter.
The design itself was creative, if not brash. In a portion of the year when most coaches keep things vanilla, hiding their fresh schemes from nosy future opponents, Shanahan bucked convention, sending a receiver in a pre-snap jet motion to which Lance faked a handoff after receiving the snap. Lance then executed the zone read option, following the reaction of his read man to keep the ball and trot into the end zone.
Misdirection in droves. Potential to attack a defense from virtually any angle. These aren’t last decade’s 49ers.
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Is this the future of football in San Francisco? Or was it just a small sample of the 49ers’ offensive capabilities, significantly magnified by the few drives in which both Garoppolo and Lance participated?
Shanahan quelled the hype when interviewed at halftime, saying it’s not quite an example of how the 49ers will operate. But Sunday offered a perfect chance to test out his ideas in a game that won’t end up counting toward their final record.
Once Garoppolo’s day ended, 49ers fans received a better preview of what the post-Garoppolo future might look like. Lance ripped a few mid-range passes to open receivers for completions, but also had a wounded duck of a throw dropped by Jalen Hurd, who was affected by a nearby defender’s play on the ball. Passing at the NFL level remains a work in progress for the rookie.
By the time he handed the duties to Nate Sudfeld, Lance had compiled a pedestrian outing through the air, finishing 6-of-13 passing for 46 yards and a passer rating of 55.3. Garoppolo finished with a similar line on fewer attempts, going 4 for 7 for 64 yards and an 87.8 passer rating.
But the 49ers have the luxury of not needing to depend solely on Lance this season. With Garoppolo in the presumed starting role, Shanahan can deploy Lance however he sees fit. And if Sunday was a legitimate preview, that ability could become a dangerous, if not downright lethal luxury.
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