Cam Newton's return shows why Trey Lance needs to play for 49ers

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Cam's two-TD return shows why 49ers need to play Lance originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Matt Rhule and the Carolina Panthers needed all of three days to see what Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers haven't been able to all season long. It's simple as that. 

When the Panthers gave their fans a "Superman" sequel by signing Cam Newton to a one-year contract on Thursday, much of it felt like a struggling team looking to inject life into a fanbase. Mission accomplished. Everyone was excited about the mere chance the former NFL MVP would take a single snap Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals

And then came Cam, entering the game on second-and-goal at the 2-yard line. It was the Panthers' fifth play of the game, and nearly everyone in the stadium knew what was going to happen next. They likely knew it would work, too. 

The NFL's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns by a QB took a low snap out of shotgun, tossed tacklers to the side and found his way into the end zone, giving the Panthers an early lead over the Arizona Cardinals. 

Here's what the Panthers showed that Shanahan has shied away from for some reason: Get your best athletes on the field and find your mismatches the closer you get to the goal line. It's a simple concept that you'd think an offensive genius would have at the front of his mind. It's also one that has worked the few times the 49ers have implored it. 

Remember the season opener when Shanahan threw Lance in there on first-and-goal against the Detroit Lions in the first quarter? The result was just an absolute dart from the rookie to receiver Trent Sherfield, ending in a 5-yard touchdown, giving the 49ers their first TD of the season on Lance's first ever pass attempt as a pro. 

As Lance faked a handoff to running back Elijah Mitchell, Lions linebackers had to step up at the thought of either rookie tucking the ball and running. That gave Sherfield a one-on-one matchup on the outside and Lance a much easier pass. The Panthers did the same with Newton the second time he entered the game in Arizona. 

On first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Newton came in for P.J. Walker, rolled to his right as linebackers chased him and hit receiver Robby Anderson in stride in a one-on-one matchup. Two plays, two TDs for perhaps the greatest athlete and size mismatch that has ever played the position. 

Now let's go back to Week 3 in the 49ers' last-second loss to the Green Bay Packers. With two seconds left in the first half and the 49ers trailing the Packers 17-0, in came Lance on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Shanahan spread the defense out with an empty backfield and Lance in shotgun. After motioning running back Trey Sermon to his right, Lance called for the snap, tucked the ball in his left hand and followed a bulldozing Trent Williams into the end zone. 

Energy, life and hope was immediately felt throughout Levi's Stadium. The 49ers' previous four drives ended by punt, punt, interception and another punt. It was the fifth time that Lance had either thrown or ran the ball on the season, and already his second touchdown. 

While questions continue to grow as to why Lance isn't starting for the stagnant Jimmy Garoppolo, the real question should be, why isn't the 49ers' prized draft pick playing at all?

Lance did have an injury setback after spraining his knee in Week 5 when he started for an injured Garoppolo. That game, a 17-10 loss to the Cardinals, gave us flashes of what Lance can bring to the 49ers in the present and in the future. He wasn't perfect, far from it, but he sure was exciting at times.

On the day, he threw for 192 yards and led the 49ers in rushing with 89 yards on 16 carries. 

He hasn't played a single snap since. 

"You don't just sit here and treat it like, 'Hey, let's make sure we get him a series sometime in the second quarter so he can get that experience and continue to develop,' " Shanahan said this past week on KNBR. "That's just not how you make decisions. I want Trey to get ready. Trey's going to be the guy of our future and I think Trey is going to be a very good quarterback here for a long time. 

"That's why we drafted him, that's why we made those moves."

Shanahan can truly believe that starting Garoppolo gives the 49ers the best chance to win games right now. The truth is, it sure hasn't been this year and there's no reason why Lance can't be part of the offense with Garoppolo running out on the field first. It doesn't have to be a second down in the middle of the field per se. But Shanahan has seen what the athleticism of a Justin Fields can do. As he prepared for a Monday night matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, he saw how the fear factor of Newton can keep a defense on its heels, and he has seen the same game plan work for his own raw but extremely athletic rookie QB. 

RELATED: Mac's ascent ratchets up pressure on Shanahan, Lance and 49ers

The 49ers' season to date has been unenthused and without any juice at this point. They're running out of time at 3-5 and have a weapon at their disposal who can instantly help the issues listed above. Don't leave it locked up.

Lance is the future, we know that. There's also no reason parts of him can't be part of the present at the same time.

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