At the end of the season, or even a few weeks from now, we will not still be talking about the fact that the Lions made this game close against the 49ers thanks to a one-in-a-million muff from the NFL’s sturdiest tight end hands during an onside kick and a fumble by a wide receiver. Enjoy the narrative about Dan Campbell’s scrappy Detroit team now if you so choose, but there is some more important forward thinking to do.
The 49ers, a team that will end the season as one of the most efficient offenses in football, are already baking in packages for Trey Lance, which, anyone close to Kyle Shanahan will tell you, seemed to be in the cards the moment he first saw the quarterback live at North Dakota State and began drawing the outer parameters of what his widely-copied scheme could accomplish. While Shanahan had Robert Griffin III in Washington, there is not a straight line between what the 49ers will attempt with Lance and what Washington did with Griffin during his Rookie of the Year campaign. This will be different, and it will be beautiful.
Lance is an entirely different player—a stoic pocket presence with live feet, who can twirl the football halfway down the field on a dime at a moment’s notice. He is also a powerful runner, who doesn’t require designed space to gain yardage and can do so simply by virtue of his relative heft. He didn’t have to be named the starter for his small handful of snaps on Sunday to be significant. This scheme with Jimmy Garoppolo is already good enough to reach a Super Bowl. It was good enough to drub the Lions for the better part of four quarters Sunday with a platoon of backup running backs. Teams have not fully caught up to it yet, and most do not possess the defensive bulk on their roster to do so this year.
In Week 1, the No. 3 pick in April’s draft was thrown right into the fire, relieving Garoppolo on the 49ers’ first real drive, coming in to throw a touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield out of play-action on first-and-goal from the 5-yard line.
By slowly integrating Lance, the 49ers could be approaching the best of what the Patriots were during the height of the Tom Brady–Bill Belichick dynasty: an offense that is so amoebic and versatile that the only prayer an opposing team has in pinning it down includes what we saw on Sunday against Detroit. Oddities. Tipped balls. Inexplicable things that can’t be replicated in practice.
At the moment, the other quarterbacks who are running an offense from the Shanahan tree include Matt Ryan, Ryan Tannehill, Zach Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. Outside of Rodgers’s brilliantly devastating miniature scrambles, none of them are much of a threat when they leave the pocket. And they certainly wouldn’t keep a defensive coordinator awake past the evening news figuring out how to stop it. The 32 teams with stopping this scheme, though, have formulated their understanding of it based on the personnel we’ve already seen on the field. Defenses hope to create up-field pressure to stymie the running game, which in turn can negate the core play-action concepts that make up the heart of the offense. But what happens when these already-stressed defenses are now faced with a quarterback who can become a part of the running game? This is why Lance has so many people dreaming big. The 49ers, by virtue of their fullback usage and versatile tight end play, already have an advantage over defenses by routinely forcing them into their slowest and heaviest personnel. Lance changes their calculations significantly.
Back when the Jets signed Tim Tebow—big leap here, but stay with me—they felt the inherent value was not necessarily in what the quarterback would bring on a week to week basis, but what he would force opponents to plan for. Coaches are already overworked. Thanks to the evolution of film study, they not only have to contend with a team’s offense throughout the past few weeks on tape, but anything that is popular at the three major levels of football, down to high school. Add in a gadget player and it forces another body to be pulled away on a special project. It forces a segment of practice to be devoted to something the team has no idea will actually come. Taysom Hill role in a Drew Brees–led offense was, in some ways, the realization of that theory.
Lance, right now in his current role, is that school of thought at the highest level. So long as he is not an everyday player, he will simply remain a headache for defensive coordinators. The 49ers can win with Garoppolo in the near future. They can dominate by teasing Lance and tiny glimpses of the future along the way.
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