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My Team Bias On Trey Lance
In a sports context, the situation was not unfair
I’m no football expert, but here’s what I do know about Trey Lance: If I was in my 20s, and not a former sports writer, I would blame the San Francisco 49ers for his plight as a failed draft choice. I would be right there with a lot of current younger 49ers writers, bloggers and media. But I’m not in my 20s, and I was a former sports writer, so I see Trey Lance’s unproductive stint as a direct result of simply not cutting it.
As you might know, the big news in Bay Area sports is that the San Francisco 49ers traded Lance on Friday, whom they drafted number 3 in 2021, to the Dallas Cowboys. Not only did the 49ers draft Lance high, but they got to that number 3 slot by dealing three first-round picks and a third-rounder to Miami in 2021, all to move up from No. 12 . So this decision is the final admission of an organizational disaster, only it’s for a team that perennially competes for Super Bowls.
The unusual Trey Lance situation has been great local talk radio fodder. First, you have the layered incongruity of “Seemingly elite organization makes historic draft blunder that perhaps doesn’t even hold them back.” Then you can look at the situation from the perspective of fairness to the athlete. Is he getting deprived of deserved opportunities? Is it fair that he rides bench to the surprisingly effective Brock Purdy, last pick in the 2022 draft, after Lance missed most of 2022 with a broken ankle? Is it right to give up on a high draft selection with only 262 career snaps to his name?
Lance seems like a nice guy and he’s still just 23, which I think has informed a certain softness of media coverage. To be blunt about it, in his admittedly few opportunities, he’s looked terrible. You can find a highlight or two, but overall, he’s been a poor performer in his few regular season and preseason games. The situation is somewhat analogous to what happened in the same market with Number 2 pick James Wiseman and the Warriors. Sure you could quibble with the circumstances and situation, but bottom line, the team looks worse when he’s out there.
So when that’s the case, the question is who do you blame? Age and experience can factor a lot into how you might assess a player whose missteps can be chalked up to age and inexperience. When I was young and writing about the then woebegone Warriors as an outsider, my bias was to blame the team for draft choices not getting their deserved opportunities. That made some sense because the Warriors were, back in the day, historically terrible. For example, it looked like then coach Don Nelson had a phenom talent in Anthony Randolph, only Randolph’s minutes kept getting yanked around. For this I blamed Nellie and the Warriors overall. The team clearly didn’t know what it was doing, and a ruination of a quality draft choice would just be one more in their long line of disasters. But Randolph never really caught on as an NBA player after being traded, though he did have a successful European career. Nellie was likely right to bench him.
Then I started covering sports up close, at practices and on the event level of arenas. There, you gain a greater sense of just how much time and energy goes into these draft choices, and how pot committed people within the organization are to seeing them succeed. While it might be easy from the couch to assume a certain indifference to a player’s performance (It’s not like the coach ever tells the public that we care more if specific guys do better), you actually get to meet the executives who risked their reputations on these draft choices. Within that culture you learn that, if anything, the high picks get extreme deference relative to other players, who must prove themselves every step of the process in order to survive.
And “survive,” is the key word because sports is, much as we sanitize it, a darwinian crucible. You eat or get killed out there. You do it or you don’t. I can hear the voice of my old boss Tim Kawakami in my head as I write about this. He, more so than most people I’d met in the industry, understood that the game is fair in an unfair sort of way. You have an opportunity, and you will be rewarded if you come through with that opportunity. That’s the fair part. You also might not get enough opportunities to show that you can succeed. That’s the unfair part. But, succeeding when life is unfair is, as Tim loves to quote, what the money is for.
The more time you spend behind the scenes of the industry, the more you realize that guys who didn’t come through usually can’t come through. You just see it play out too often. You witness fans grousing about a young player’s lack of PT while, behind the scenes, everyone knows he’s a drunk, or a flake, or just generally unmotivated. Nobody can say it publicly, but back at the event level, everyone is operating under the hidden knowledge. Teams differ in quality, but they all pour millions of dollars and many man hours into a positive outcome on these decisions. They want it to work. They want the kid to succeed. If a chance is getting denied, it’s for a distinct reason, even and especially if that reason can’t be spoken in public.
As a general rule, if a guy is the sort of player who can eventually perform in the highest pressure games, then he’s able to look the part when his very career depends on it. Brock Purdy, the once third stringer who took over the role fit for highly feted Trey Lance, was thrown into action in a big game against the Miami Dolphins. He ended up going 8-of-12 against the blitz and winning.
That game was an unfair circumstance for a rookie quarterback. There was no warning, no expectation going in that Jimmy Garoppolo would get hurt and Purdy would have to perform on national television with players he’d barely practiced with. Had Brock failed spectacularly in that circumstance, it would have been utterly predictable and excusable. Instead he earned the next opportunity, and the next one after that, and so forth.
How was he able to do it? From what I can see, Purdy processes the game pretty quickly, which is why he was laughing off the tendency for defenses to throw blitzes at young quarterbacks. Those who doubt Purdy, possibly because he physically looks like a high school player, will mock short passes that a star 49er pass catcher takes for a 40 yard romp. Sure, Purdy’s helped by the surrounding talent, but a lot of those short passes come out quickly, allowing the guy who caught it to immediately attack.
In contrast, Trey Lance does not process the game quickly, at least not yet. This is where the James Wiseman comparison fits as well, given that Wiseman had incredible physical talent, but was too lost to leverage it.
And, if you want to extend the analogy, Wiseman’s teammates were competing for too much to have patience for this problem. Similarly, from what I hear, Lance’s 49er teammates don’t want to squander a Super Bowl chance for a guy who can’t get them the ball on time. It’s nothing personal. It’s just what sports is like. Opportunity is fleeting and it’s your responsibility to be of use to somebody. You don’t have a “timeline.” You have a job.
When I was young, back when I probably loved sports most of all, I understood this part least. I projected upon the young person who couldn’t get the right opportunity and I blamed the world for his problems. Now I am not so young and I realize that a young player is lucky to even have a chance. If he can’t capitalize on it that’s understandable. It’s also on him.