GLENDALE, Ariz. — San Francisco 49ers rookie quarterback Trey Lance gave his first NFL start a strikingly similar review to his performance in the second half of last week’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
“Some good, some bad again,” Lance said.
After getting a full week of working with the starters in practice, Lance entered Sunday’s 17-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals excited about the opportunity to start.
That was especially true considering it might be the only one he gets for some time, as coach Kyle Shanahan said Friday that Lance wasn’t being anointed the starter and that Jimmy Garoppolo would return to his starting role when he returns from his right calf injury.
Could Lance have done well enough to wrest the job away from Garoppolo? It was unlikely entering the game, but Shanahan made it clear afterward that Lance’s performance against the Cardinals hadn’t forced him to recalibrate his thinking.
“No, nothing has changed,” Shanahan said. “That was just one game. That was a tough loss right there and I’ll talk to our whole team tomorrow and think about how we can get our whole team better coming back from the bye.”
Shanahan also indicated he was optimistic that Garoppolo will be back in time for the Niners’ next game, which isn’t until Oct. 24 against the Indianapolis Colts. That optimism stems from how close Garoppolo was to playing Sunday against the Cardinals, according to Shanahan.
But Shanahan also acknowledged that calf injuries can be tricky, as San Francisco was reminded again Saturday when it placed tight end George Kittle on injured reserve with his own calf issue.
Without Kittle and facing the undefeated Cardinals, the Niners hoped that Lance could give them a spark. At times, he did just that, putting his ability to create yards when plays break down on display.
Lance, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, led the 49ers with 16 carries for 89 yards, the most by a 49ers quarterback since Colin Kaepernick’s 113 in Week 12 of 2016. In the process, Lance impressed teammates with his toughness, but also left some wondering if he was putting himself in harm’s way too frequently.
“It was fun to watch,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. “He definitely runs the ball hard. He might need to learn how to slide. He might need to work on his juke move a little bit, too.”
Still, Lance said he came out of the game feeling fine, noting that the only big hit he felt was from Arizona linebacker Isaiah Simmons at the goal line early in the second quarter. That play was doubly painful for Lance, who was stopped short of the touchdown on fourth down as the Niners came away with no points on a 93-yard drive.
“I have got to get in the end zone for my team,” Lance said. “That’s a big, missed opportunity.”
His running exploits aside, Lance’s aerial attack was a mixed bag. He finished 15-of-29 for 192 yards and an interception, for a passer rating of 58.4. The Cardinals batted or tipped four of his pass attempts, including one on fourth-and-4 at Arizona’s 48 with 7:53 to go. That was the most by a Niners quarterback in the past 10 seasons.
Lance also didn’t get much help from his supporting cast as he was under pressure often, struggled to connect on throws downfield and had at least three passes dropped by receivers. Lance was 2-of-8 for 32 yards with the interception when under duress and 2-of-9 for 52 yards with an interception on passes traveling 15 or more air yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The 49ers also were flagged for five offensive holding penalties, all in the second half, and were 1-of-5 on fourth down, becoming the first Niners team to not convert that many times a game since Nov. 7, 1999. All of that added up to a loss in Lance’s first start, and the 49ers’ third consecutive defeat as they fell to 2-3 on the season.
“Those things make it harder to win,” Shanahan said. “We’ve got to find a way to do better and I’ve got to find a way to get us to do better. Going into this bye week 2-3, still a lot of football left to play, but we’ve got to come back and we’ve got to play better than we have.”