Kurtenbach: Don’t blame S.F. head coach Kyle Shanahan for Trey Lance’s ankle injury
You can’t blame the 49ers' Lance for a freak injury, and you can’t blame Shanahan for calling plays that he believed would keep Niners’ offense on the field.
SANTA CLARA — Trey Lance faked the first-quarter handoff and carried the ball up the middle of the field.
It was his third up-the-middle run of the game. It was his final run of the game. It will probably be his final run of the season.
Lance injured his right ankle on the zone-read run. When he tried to get up, the ankle was pointing 90 degrees to the right — a byproduct of a late slide attempt and a collision with Seattle linebacker Cody Barton.
Quarterbacks are destiny in the NFL, so when a team’s starter goes down with a terrible, likely season-ending injury like the one Lance suffered Sunday, the natural reaction is to find someone or something to blame.
The first person who will be blamed is Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers’ head coach and play caller.
Shanahan had called for 29 designed runs for Lance — more than half of his overall rushing attempts — in the second-year quarterback’s first four NFL starts. The vast majority of those designed runs had come up the middle.
It’s easy to say that Lance was bound to be injured when he was used like a fullback.
The issue, as Lance explained earlier this week, is that if he was going to run the ball, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback had to go up the middle.
“I’m not bigger, faster, and stronger than pretty much everyone else,” Lance said. “Guys catch up a lot quicker, space is filled, guys close a lot faster.
“I have to learn to protect myself, just being in a different situation knowing how important it is for me to stay healthy … For the most part, when I’m running between the tackles or running on third down, I’m not ever going to slide and go fourth-and-two and just give up on the play.”
The comments turned out to be prescient.
We had seen on Lance’s 53 proceeding runs before his fateful one Sunday that he was not kidding about defenders closing much faster. Lamar Jackson, he is not.
Last season, in Lance’s first career start against the Arizona Cardinals, the rookie quarterback was chased down by opposing defensive ends with stunning ease. It was a harsh welcome-to-the-NFL moment.
“Guys coming downhill, guys don’t hesitate,” Lance said Wednesday.
Lance has a lot of talent, but in three-plus games as a starter, he had not shown the ability to effectively move the ball down the field with just his arm. His challenge completing short and medium passes could be countered by his ability to run the ball up the middle. It was an effective part of moving the chains, and necessary at this early stage of Lance’s career.
The Niners coaches hoped that the more snaps Lance took and the more practices he had, the more effective he would become as a thrower, diminishing the need to run the ball.
Shanahan was doing the most he could with the quarterback he drafted for the sake of the team that surrounded him.
Was there risk in that plan? Of course. But every play in football is a risk — it’s impossible to try to avoid that risk and still win games. Especially when you have a quarterback who needs reps on the field.
You can’t protect a quarterback — and limit your offense — when the passer has not yet proven he can win games by himself.
You can’t blame Lance for a freak injury, and you can’t blame Shanahan for calling plays that he believed would keep Niners’ offense on the field.
The only knock on Shanahan that would be fair is that he had played a quarterback who was not ready.
But Lance was never going to become ready sitting on the sideline. When he returns — most likely next season — the same truth will apply.
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