The 49ers tried to create a sense of mystery as to the identity of their starting quarterback on Sunday against the Texans. The mystery is now conclusively resolved.
Rookie Trey Lance gets the start. Oft-injured Jimmy Garoppolo won’t play, due to a ligament issue in his thumb. Multiple reports point to Lance getting an opportunity to finally show what he can do, after weeks of not doing anything.
Lance starts once, in Week Five. He served as the injury replacement for Garoppolo. Lance suffered a knee injury in the game, a 17-10 home loss. He last played in Week 11, running the ball three times for four yards in a 30-10 win over the Jaguars.
The 49ers reportedly are holding out hope that Garoppolo will return for Week 18 against the Rams. However, Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Garoppolo eventually will need surgery to repair the thumb that was injured against the Titans during a Week 16 loss on the Thursday night before Christmas.
Although Garoppolo is expected to make a complete recovery (indeed, all surgical procedures performed on NFL players are deemed to be a complete success, until they aren’t), his health complicates the team’s plans for 2022. At times, he and the team performed well enough to spark talk of Garoppolo returning as the starter for the final year of his current contract, despite the huge draft-pick investment made to secure his inevitable replacement.
Garoppolo has a base salary of $24.2 million in 2022. None of the money is guaranteed for injury or otherwise, and there’s no trigger that converts any of the payments to guarantees — other than his presence on the active roster at the start of the regular season. It gives the team maximum flexibility to decide whether to keep, trade, or cut Garoppolo.
The final decision surely will be influenced by the manner in which Lance plays on Sunday. Indeed, that will become a factor in whether Garoppolo plays in Week 18. And both games will influence whether Lance or Garoppolo get the nod in the postseason, if the 49ers hold their current spot in the pecking order.
It’s similar, but not identical, to the situation the 49ers faced in 2012. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith, who suffered a concussion during a game in November. Kaepernick instantly played well, seized the job, carried the 49ers to the brink of a Super Bowl victory, and supplanted Smith.
Lance arrived as the clear heir to Garoppolo. The move that the 49ers made from No. 12 to No. 3 signaled that they wanted a Jimmy G replacement, sooner than later. The decision flowed in large part from the fact that Garoppolo gets injured too often.
And now he’s injured again, with the playoffs on the line. That’s why they wanted someone else. Now, their hand-picked someone else gets a chance to show that, when the 49ers chose between Lance and Justin Fields and Mac Jones, they made the right choice.