Michael Silver: It's time to accept Trey Lance is no longer 49ers' QB of future
S.F. head coach Kyle Shanahan: 'Trey's a great person. He's also smart and knows what he saw. He knows the level Brock (Purdy) played at, so he understands that.'
PHOENIX, Arizona — When we said it in January, it was hard for some people to hear: Brock Purdy is the San Francisco 49ers' franchise quarterback, no matter how the powers that be might portray the situation.
Things have changed since then. Purdy suffered a severe injury to his throwing arm in the Niners' NFC Championship Game defeat, had surgery and may not be back until October. But the overarching mindset remains the same. Despite their respective draft positions, it's Purdy's show, and Trey Lance has been lapped.
On Tuesday morning at the NFL owners meetings at the Arizona Biltmore, head coach Kyle Shanahan said it in plain English, echoing what general manager John Lynch had told reporters the previous day.
"Brock played eight games and won all of them (before the NFC title game) and played at an extremely high level," Shanahan said. "We're very excited to have that level of a player as our quarterback. Trey's a great person. He's also smart and knows what he saw. He knows the level Brock played at, so he understands that.
"The draft's how you enter this league, but that's all that is. After (that) is building your team and playing the best players."
A lot of coaches and GMs say things like this — everything's a competition, we'll play the guys who give us the best chance to win, yada yada yada — but their conviction is a bit lacking. The draft is viewed as so transformative, by the viewing public and by the people picking the players, that it can be very hard to get past the perception of pedigree. It affects depth charts, playing time and organizational patience, among other things.
This is an extreme case. In a half-season Lance, the third overall pick in the 2021 draft, has been surpassed by Purdy, the following year's 262nd and final pick. Adding to the sting is remembering what the Niners gave up to position themselves to use that third overall selection on Lance: Three first-round picks and a third-rounder. That's a lot of sunk cost for a player who, because of injuries and inconsistency, has yet to show his coaches he's capable of piloting a team with annual Super Bowl aspirations.
Because of Purdy's injury Lance, for a second consecutive offseason, will get a chance to prove himself as the de facto starting quarterback. Depending on Purdy's recovery timeline, he may even get to start the season's first few games. However, as Shanahan affirmed Tuesday, Lance will be competing for first-team reps with recently signed free agent Sam Darnold.
It's worth a reminder that Darnold, formerly of the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers, has something in common with Lance: He was the third overall pick of the 2018 draft.
Again, it's hard for many of you to wrap your head around the notion that Purdy has already ascended to top-dog status. And part of that is because of what the acquisition of Lance was supposed to signify.
Frustrated by incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo's inability to stay healthy and tantalized by the idea of building a well-compensated, star-studded roster around a salary-cap-friendly rookie-quarterback's contract, Shanahan and Lynch went for broke and chose Lance as the crowning touch.
Lance couldn't win the job from Garoppolo as a rookie, serving as his backup on a team that lost the 2021 NFC Championship Game to the Rams. A year ago, with Garoppolo's time with the team presumed over, Lance had a choppy offseason and uneven preseason before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2. Garoppolo, brought back as a hedge, performed at a Pro Bowl level before breaking his foot in early December.
In came Purdy, and the Niners' entire world changed.
Conventional wisdom dictates that a coach and general manager who trade three first-round selections, position themselves to draft a quarterback third overall and potentially whiff on the pick will soon have the word "former" preceding their titles. It further dictates that the franchise in question will be set back several years as it searches for a new answer at the sport's pivotal position.
How can a coach and GM defy conventional wisdom and completely get away with such a perceived calamity?
It's simple, really: Find a revelatory rookie with the last pick of the draft, and build a team around his even cap-friendlier rookie deal. No big deal.
Of course, the adjusted plan could be derailed if Purdy's elbow doesn't heal the way it's supposed to, one of the many risks that team-builders must live with in a violent sport. Yet even if Purdy doesn't become what Shanahan and Lynch believe he will — and I think it's likely he'll heal and become an even better quarterback in the years that follow — let's take a step back and refrain from castigating the coach and GM for taking the swing they did on Lance.
Don't just take it from me. Take it from one of the Niners' chief rivals. On Tuesday at the Biltmore, I had an illuminating conversation with Rams COO Kevin Demoff, who I believe views the overall situation from a healthy perspective.
"The better we get as a league about not treating one bad decision as some sort of irredeemable mistake, the better our league will be," Demoff said. "We have a new wave of general managers who are willing to be more aggressive. If we penalize them for their aggressiveness when a decision doesn't work out, our league will suffer as a whole.
"We need to stop thinking in terms of two- and three- year cycles. That doesn't allow you to build something long-term. When you have a team with as many good players as the 49ers, you made a lot more right decisions than wrong."
On Tuesday, Shanahan decided to say out loud what he's been thinking since the first couple of times Purdy played last December: Lance is no longer the quarterback of the future, because a seventh-round afterthought surpassed him.
And that's OK. Things change. Teams adapt. And if Purdy's elbow heals the way it's supposed to, the Niners should have a legitimate chance to contend for championships for the next couple of seasons or more, sunk costs be damned.
Some of us have gotten over it. Trust me, it's liberating.
(c)2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.