Was Trey Lance’s injury the result of Niners’ run-first approach?

By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports NFC West Writer

San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan appeared genuinely upset announcing that starting quarterback Trey Lance suffered a fractured right ankle in the team’s win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, potentially ending the QB’s 2022 season before it really got started. 

“It’s tough,” Shanahan told reporters. “You feel for someone so bad. It’s a sad moment. But you don’t have time to sit there and think about it. You have to get right back to the game. And I thought the guys did a real good job of that.”

Lance suffered the injury with 2:33 left in the opening quarter on a zone read-option play where he chose to keep the ball and ran into the teeth of the Seahawks’ defense on second-and-8 from Seattle’s 21-yard line.

Seahawks linebacker Cody Barton crumpled Lance on the play. He tried to get up but fell back down after he couldn’t put any weight on the injured ankle.

Dr. Matt Provencher on Trey Lance’s injury

Dr. Matt Provencher provides his prognosis on 49ers QB Trey Lance’s ankle injury. “He’ll likely need plates and screws to stabilize the ankle joint … but he’ll potentially be available for an end-of-season run with the 49ers.”

Lance was carted off the field and would not return.

Fortunately for the Niners, they had the foresight to restructure the contract of former starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after not finding a good enough deal on the trade market. Garoppolo has won 70% of his games as a starter for the Niners and provided insurance for San Francisco in case Lance got injured or struggled.

Lance has struggled to stay healthy during his time with the team. He suffered a broken finger during exhibition play as a rookie last year, which altered his throwing motion. Lance also suffered a sprained left knee in a start against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 5. 

Because of Lance’s lack of playing time and ability as a runner, Shanahan leaned on the second-year QB’s legs. He ran the ball 13 times for 54 yards in San Francisco’s season-opening loss to the Chicago Bears, and another three times on designed runs against the Seahawks before suffering the ankle injury.

Last season in two starts, Lance ran the ball 38 times for 168 yards. In all, he ran the ball 54 times and threw it just 104 times in five games played with San Francisco. And on many of those running plays, Lance lowered his shoulder and invited contact instead of sliding to protect himself from big hits.

“Any time a guy gets hurt, I wish I didn’t call that,” Shanahan said when asked about the designed run calls. “But no, that’s something we were going to do, and something we would continue to do. It’s a football play we believe in, and something that gives him a chance to be real successful in this league.” 

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Asked about this approach for his young quarterback, Shanahan compared Lance to another physical runner in Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who’s listed at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Lance is 6-foot-4 and 223. 

“You guys watch other teams in this league?” Shanahan bristled when questioned by reporters about his use of his quarterback as a running back. “Buffalo does this all the time. It’s a pretty normal play. It’s part of football, and it’s unfortunate that he hurt his ankle on it.” 

While serving as the offensive coordinator in Washington when his father, Mike Shanahan, was the head coach, Kyle Shanahan took a similar approach with rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. 

Griffin ran for 850 rushing yards on 120 attempts during his rookie season in 2012, earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. RG3, however, suffered torn LCL and ACL ligaments in his right knee in an AFC wild-card playoff loss to the Seahawks. 

Griffin’s knee was already compromised heading into the game, and he wore a bulky brace to protect it while playing on the unstable turf at Washington’s home stadium. He was never the same player after that injury and subsequent surgery.

The Niners spent three first-round selections to acquire Lance in the 2021 draft as the No. 3 overall pick and quarterback of the future. But through two seasons, San Francisco does not have any more clarity on whether he is the guy moving forward, because he hasn’t been able to stay healthy.

Lance has two years left after this one on a rookie contract that guarantees him $34.1 million through the 2024 season. The Niners still don’t have any clarity on if they should extend him beyond his rookie deal.

Like Griffin in Washington, Lance has never seemed to consistently learn how to slide before contact on running plays to protect himself. 

Shanahan acknowledged the conundrum during his postgame press conference. Three times over the past six years, San Francisco has lost its quarterback to season-ending injuries. 

“We feel very fortunate to have Jimmy here as our No. 2 quarterback, especially when your starter gets hurt,” Shanahan said. “It’s good to know his experience and how good of a player he is. … We have been in this before, and I do feel we’re a little more prepared with our backup right now. So, I’m happy about that.” 

Even with all of Garoppolo’s success with San Francisco, he has made it through only one full season healthy, back in 2019.

“I feel bad for Trey,” Garoppolo said. “I’ve been on that side of it. This league is tough. Every team has their share of injuries. That sucks for him. I feel bad for him, but he’s our brother and we’ll pick him up.” 

The Niners have a roster built to win now, and the quarterback most equipped to lead them on a deep playoff run is Garoppolo, who will earn $7 million plus incentives on a reworked one-year deal. 

However, Lance’s physical tools and deep-ball passing may have given San Francisco the best chance to succeed late in the year. 

It’s too bad the Niners will most likely not be afforded the opportunity to see that play out. 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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