Maiocco: Jimmy G-Lance decision for Week 18 has no easy answer originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
There is no guarantee Jimmy Garoppolo will be able to successfully perform the most basic of quarterback requirements at the most critical stage of the season.
The 49ers need him to grip a football firmly and throw it accurately.
The 49ers must prepare this week for a virtual win-or-go-home game against the NFC West-leading Los Angeles Rams.
If the 49ers win, they advance to the playoffs. Even if the 49ers lose, they can still make the playoffs but only if the Atlanta Falcons upset the New Orleans Saints.
Coach Kyle Shanahan said Garoppolo will start if he is healthy enough to function.
But if Garoppolo is unable to function with a torn ligament on his right thumb, Shanahan will again turn to rookie Trey Lance.
The options for the 49ers are: 1). A quarterback who is less than 100 percent physically; or, 2). A quarterback who is currently at less than 100 percent with the team’s offensive system.
Tight end George Kittle pointed out in the aftermath of the 49ers’ 23-7 victory over the Houston Texans that the 49ers went into the game with an altered game plan tailored for Lance.
“It (was) a little more basic than usual,” Kittle said.
Shanahan is well-regarded for the details of his offense, which incorporates a variety of shifts, motions, pre-snap and post-snap adjustments based on the play call and the defense.
The 49ers’ approach with Lance was, basically, call a play in the huddle and run it regardless of the defense’s alignment or coverage.
If there is any question about Garoppolo’s ability to play, the question becomes whether the 49ers want to make sacrifices with their quarterback not being 100 percent healthy or not being at 100 percent with the scheme.
That is a decision that will be made solely with the final week of the regular season in mind.
But the decision to trade two future first-round draft picks, as well as a third-rounder, to move up to No. 3 for Lance was all about future seasons.
Lance’s performance in Week 17, perhaps, demonstrated that he has been improving behind the scenes as Garoppolo’s replacement. Lance looked more comfortable and more like an NFL quarterback Sunday than he did in a disjointed Week 5 game against the Arizona Cardinals.
On Sunday, Lance completed 16 of 23 pass attempts for 249 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 116.0. He did not rely as much on his running, either, as he carried the ball only eight times for 31 yards.
He was far from perfect, of course, but Lance showed plenty of the skills that inspired Shanahan and general manager John Lynch to make the bold move they trust will benefit the 49ers for many years in the future.
Shanahan approached this season on two tracks. He wanted to maximize this season with the quarterback who gave the team the best chance of winning in 2021. And he wanted to groom Lance and build his confidence to place him in the most advantageous position for when he takes over as the starter in 2022.
Playing quarterback in the NFL as a rookie is not easy. The top two picks in the draft, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, have struggled mightily. Are they better set up for future success? That is debatable. They certainly were not ready to take over at the start of their seasons, but Jacksonville and the New York Jets did not have any other options.
With Garoppolo, the 49ers had another option. By and large, Garoppolo has played well. Lance seems to have used his time as the backup wisely. It showed when he made his first start at Levi's Stadium.
Lance experienced success against the Texans and kept the 49ers alive in the NFC playoff picture. That, in itself, should give him a boost of confidence heading into the offseason.
And if he is called upon again in Week 18 against the Rams, Lance’s learning and growing will continue. He would benefit in the future — regardless of the outcome.