49ers QB Trey Lance's haters and doubters are very real

2 weeks ago 1061

No one has been less believed in — if you believe them — than the Bay Area's glittering champions of the last few years. 

The Warriors spent their spring playoff romp unconvincingly crowing about how no one believed they could win a title again. Never mind that the same core had dominated the NBA for much of the last decade, or that the most persistent criticism of the franchise by Finals time was that it was actually unfair how loaded their $400 million roster was.

The 2021 Giants had to get slightly more creative, reminding everyone after each of their 107 wins that they were massively outperforming every projection system in the injury. (We've heard less about PECOTA and Fangraphs this year, as the algorithms were generally dead-on in predicting a regression to the mean.)

Athletes, even (and especially) proven winners, make up guys to get mad at. That's nothing new, even if it's a little annoying. Trey Lance, though, will not have to weave an elaborate narrative about the doubters. Because there's no shortage of people comfortable predicting the 49ers QB will fail. 

Let's start with the people feeding inputs into prediction systems. The most optimistic, Pro Football Focus, has Lance as the 20th-best starter in the league, somewhere between Baker Mayfield and Carson Wentz. The other major projections are much more dour. Football Outsiders has San Francisco with the 19th-best offensive DVOA in the NFL, implying that Lance will weigh down a unit that is otherwise stacked with playmakers. (Football Outsiders is also bucking the trend and predicting a middling defense for the Niners, ranking them 13th in DVOA. It adds up to them having better odds at landing the first pick than winning the Super Bowl.) FiveThirtyEight, our old friend, has Lance as the second-best quarterback on the 49ers and the 36th-best in the league, not only behind Garoppolo but behind retreads like Brian Hoyer, Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard. (Nate Silver's site is so high on the rest of the Niners' roster that it still gives them the fifth-best Super Bowl odds.) 

Doubting Lance is not just a pastime for analytics nerds, either. The high priests of NFL insider media clearly do not believe Kyle Shanahan when he insists he is riding with Lance over Jimmy Garoppolo, no matter what. In his season preview, Peter King predicted that Lance would not make it two months before getting supplanted by Garoppolo as the starter. On Thursday, Mike Florio wrote that Lance is on "thin ice" and that "Shanahan won’t hesitate to bench him." He also helpfully pointed out that Shanahan's excuse for not naming Lance a captain was nonsense. According to Shanahan, Lance finished seventh in voting among his teammates, and the coach didn't want seven captains. But as Florio notes, the Niners had seven captains each of the last two years.

The franchise has not exactly circled the wagons around Lance, bizarre for a team with Super Bowl aspirations and a strong roster outside of, you know, the most important position. Instead, they've almost done the opposite, carefully managing expectations. Tight end George Kittle gave Lance the ringing endorsement that he definitely isn't terrible, and the team should be able to win anyway if he is. "If he stunk, I'd tell you guys he stunk. He doesn't," Kittle said in July. "We need to do our best to make it as easy as we can for Trey," he added. "While there's going to be ups and downs, we need to play at a high enough level where if Trey has a game where he throws a couple picks, it is what it is and we're going to be playing well enough to win those games."

Shanahan himself, after the final preseason game (in which he gave Lance more reps than planned), sounded like a politician giving a perfunctory endorsement through gritted teeth. "We’ve run out of those games," he said of exhibitions, "and he’s just ready to go as he can be.” 

Shanahan, at least, deserves credit for tacitly admitting — by bringing back Garoppolo — that he's ready to be wrong about Lance. For someone so otherwise invested in burnishing his reputation as one of the NFL's boy geniuses, benching Lance after blowing up a draft to acquire him would be copping to a spectacular error. If that happens, the haters and losers of NFL punditry will have earned a victory lap, maybe the only thing more annoying than an athlete on an "I told you so" tour. 

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