Trey Lance’s season-ending injury gives Jimmy Garoppolo chance to prove 49ers were wrong in pulling plug too soon on him

Reality can sometimes be conveyed through only something that sounds callous.

So let’s preface some “too soon” honesty with this: Trey Lance is likely still the future of the San Francisco 49ers at quarterback. His immense tools haven’t diminished and he can still develop into a centerpiece starter in the NFL. And not even his worst critics, if they have any humanity, should take joy in Lance’s season-ending broken ankle on Sunday.

But if we’re being honest about one relatively small timeframe — just the 2022 season — the reality is Jimmy Garoppolo has gotten a rare opportunity to prove the San Francisco braintrust wrong in its quest to replace him. And the team’s Super Bowl path might have even gotten a little more consistent, too.

That sounds harsh in the wake of Lance being lost for the remainder of the season, especially after he didn’t have fair time to show what kinds of strides he was capable of making this year. But there is also a longer view that can’t be ignored, and it includes three facts that have to be considered now that Lance has been 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 in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) is carted off the field during the first half after suffering 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 badly wanting him to run away with it. Second, he had an uneven offseason and preseason developmentally, showing enough inconsistency to keep the door cracked on Garoppolo remaining with the team. Third, this 49ers veteran roster, when healthy, is good enough to come out of a relatively weak NFC, especially if it can get some consistent, above average quarterback play.

Those three things provide context on what a post-Lance roster will look like for the rest of 2022. There’s a chance that we get to February and look back and some things sink in that weren’t readily obvious on the Sunday when Garoppolo got back into the starting spot.

Maybe we get to the end of this season and we realize that a healthy, post-surgery Garoppolo is a better player now than the limited version we saw in 2021. Maybe we look at the roster and the way it responds to a familiar leader and realize that Lance wasn’t ready, and the guy he was replacing also wasn’t done. And more than anything, maybe we realize that Garoppolo was capable of getting a burr in his saddle over the team’s attempt to dump him during the offseason.

At the very least, there’s no denying that Garoppolo has a chance to stick it to Shanahan here. Not necessarily in a jilted, “screw you” kind of way. More along the lines of a professional attempt to make Shanahan and general manager John Lynch suffer under some second-guessing. Or perhaps even feel a twinge of regret for wagering such an immense amount of capital on Lance when he had so much development left ahead of him, especially given the state of the roster and positioning of the Super Bowl window.

This kind of opportunity doesn’t come along often for veteran quarterbacks, particularly ones who took a team to a Super Bowl and barely missed a second trip before losing their starting job in the offseason. That’s not to say the 49ers didn’t make the sensible choice by moving on to Lance. From the vantage of building a team and leaning into the future quarterback spot, giving Lance his shot was the right long-term move.

But we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t also admit that the right long-term move also comes with short-term sacrifice. The 2022 season faced longer odds with Lance starting because he was an unknown and developing player who had barely played any meaningful football for two years. You only needed to see him in the offseason or preseason to understand that. Or to also understand he probably didn’t win the starting job out of sheer meritocracy.

Given how far Lance had to go — and if all other things were equal in terms of salary and capital invested — 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 how the NFL always works. Just look near the top of the quarterback record books and remember that Drew Brees, who retired with a filthy run of success, would have played out his entire career with the Chargers if it hadn’t been for the team drafting Philip Rivers to replace him. Brees played at a Pro Bowl level and fought off Rivers for two years, then suffered a shoulder injury that made the decision simpler to move on from a 26-year-old who was just getting started on his Hall of Fame resume.

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

It might feel too soon and too brutal to say that in the wake of Lance’s injury. But that’s definitely how the NFL always works. The 49ers have another game Sunday and a difficult schedule ahead. They also have an opportunity in a wide open NFC to finish a Super Bowl trek that stopped one step short last season.

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