Dennis Young: 49ers' turnaround on Trey Lance is truly astonishing

Not even a year ago, the former Bison QB was the undisputed Week 1 starter for a team with Super Bowl aspirations and now he's competing for an NFL backup job with Sam Freaking Darnold.

Trey Lance - NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Chicago Bears
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) rushes the ball during a Sept. 11, 2022 game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Mike Dinovo/USA Today Sports

Not even two years ago, the San Francisco 49ers looked at Trey Lance and decided he was worth mortgaging the farm for.

Not even a year ago, Lance was the undisputed Week 1 starter for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch enthusiastically kicked Jimmy Garoppolo to the curb (before grabbing him back off the curb) in order to ride with Lance.


He's competing for an NFL backup job with Sam Freaking Darnold.

Darnold is a big-time draft bust after being picked No. 3 overall in 2018. But he got 38 games as the Jets' starter before getting exiled to the fat middle of NFL quarterback jobs. That's more games than Lance has started in college (17) and the pros (four) combined.


This is not to say that the Jets are a model organization, or that the 49ers are necessarily making a mistake here. It's just a stunning way to handle someone who was the purported franchise quarterback as of so recently.

Again: The 49ers were completely all-in on Lance when their season started on Sept. 11, 2022. Maybe Kyle Shanahan was endorsing Lance through gritted teeth, but it was his decision, and Lance was the guy. That day, Lance struggled in a monsoon in Chicago. The next Sunday, Lance led the Niners down the field for three points on the first drive of the game against the Seahawks. On the next drive, Lance broke his ankle.

And that's it. That's the entire Trey Lance Era: a season as a rookie backup, then fewer than five quarters as the starter. When Brock Purdy replaced Jimmy Garoppolo in December, he almost immediately stole Shanahan's heart, and the franchise hasn't looked back.

While it's nearly impossible to judge Lance as an NFL player based on his extremely limited playing time, it's clear the 49ers aren't impressed with what they've seen in-house. Even with Purdy currently rocking an enormous bionic brace, he's now the unquestioned starter. It's not a competition, as Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch said at the owner's meetings earlier this week.

What is competitive, though, is the job to back up Purdy. Forget about being the Niners' No. 1, Lance will have to beat out Darnold for No. 2. As Purdy recovers from elbow surgery, both Lance and Darnold will be getting time in the top spot. "I expect them both to get first-team reps," Shanahan said. "... In OTAs, I expect them both to get reps with the first team, but we'll see how that goes."

Shanahan deserves some credit, I suppose, for not throwing good money after bad with Lance, if he views it that way. But there's avoiding the sunk cost fallacy, and then there's failing to make the proper investment in a player after acquiring him. And that is unquestionably what the Niners have done every step of the way with Lance.

(c)2023 SFGate, San Francisco. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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