By the Numbers: Breaking Down Lance vs. Jimmy
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After months of clamoring by the fans. Trey Lance returned to the starting lineup in Week 17 to spell an injured Jimmy Garoppolo. Lance delivered a crucial win against the Houston Texans to keep the 49ers playoff hopes alive. Week 18 presents the most important game of the season to date. For the 49ers, the mission is simple: Win at all costs.
The rookie quarterback played well in just the second start of his career. Lance’s development is trending upward. Meanwhile, the status of Garoppolo’s injured thumb is uncertain. Kyle Shanahan and Co. are almost assuredly crafting a plan behind closed doors. Will the 49ers start the veteran quarterback with a 6-0 record against the Rams? Or will they rely on the dynamic rookie who seems to get better with each snap? The numbers for each quarterback could provide some much-needed context.
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The good news and the bad news for Jimmy is that we have a much larger dataset on his play. The eight-year veteran shines in areas where a rookie quarterback tends to struggle. On the other hand, Garoppolo has had more than his share of bad days over his career. Factor in the countless injuries over his five years in San Francisco and the numbers can be skewed to his detriment.
The fairest place to begin may be early in Garoppolo’s career. As a rookie, Garoppolo appeared in six games with zero starts. As Tom Brady’s backup, Garoppolo completed 19 of 27 passes for 182 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions. Again, a very small sample size for a quarterback coming off the bench in mop-up duty.
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Garoppolo’s first legitimate game experience came in 2016. With Tom Brady suspended for the start of the year, Garoppolo led New England to a 2-0 start. In those games, he went 42 of 59 for 496 yards, with four touchdowns and zero interceptions, compiling an average quarterback rating of 120.7 and completion percentage of 70.98.
In 2021, Garoppolo has started 14 games. He has completed 278 of 409 passes for 3,494 yards, with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He ranks fourth in NFL in completion percentage and ninth in passer rating with a season average of 99.6. The remainder of Garoppolo’s stats place him in the middle of pack. Garoppolo’s 19 passing touchdowns leave him tied for 17th in the league with Matt Ryan. Coincidentally, his 10 interceptions also place him tied for 17th with six other quarterbacks.
Perhaps the most important numbers are 5 and 46. Jimmy Garoppolo is a perfect 5-0 as a starter against the Rams. He also has 46 games as a starting quarterback in the NFL. That experience, especially against a divisional opponent, could result in Kyle Shanahan re-inserting Garoppolo into the starting lineup.
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Two starts and change. That’s all we’ve seen of Trey Lance in meaningful NFL games. On the surface, there’s not a whole lot to unravel. His stats can’t tell us a story, but can they show us a trend?
Lance’s first extended playing time came in relief of an injured Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 4 against the Seahawks. Lance finished 9 of 18 for 157 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He got the start in a Week 5 loss to the Cardinals and his play was less impressive. The rookie finished 15 of 29 for 192 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. Much of the blame goes to Kyle Shanahan for a suspect game plan that involved running the No. 3 overall pick 16 times.
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Flash forward to Week 17. Coming off a Thursday night loss to the Tennessee Titans, Kyle Shanahan had 10 days to prepare his quarterback of the future. Shanahan rolled out a vanilla first half scheme that left the 49ers down 7-0 just before halftime. With 38 seconds left in the first half, the 49ers finally unleashed their rookie quarterback. A 17-yard completion to Deebo Samuel got the drive started. Lance followed up with a 27-yard bullet to Brandon Aiyuk, leading the 49ers into field goal territory.
Lance again found Aiyuk to open the third quarter on a 43-yard catch-and-run. After a mundane first half, Lance turned things up. He finished the second half 6-of-10 for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns. Perhaps most impressively, the rookie led the 49ers on a 20-0 second half run without surrendering a turnover. Lance finished the game 16 of 23 for 249 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. His quarterback rating was a solid 116.0 and he averaged an impressive 10.6 yards per attempt.
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Numbers can be a fantastic way of eliminating bias and presenting factual analysis. They can also be manipulated under whichever lens the presenter desires to prove their case. The bottom line is this: the 49ers may need both quarterbacks to beat the Rams and earn their spot in the playoffs. Even if Garoppolo is healthy enough to start, there is no guarantee that his thumb holds up for four quarters. Similarly, the odds of the 49ers having a repeat performance of 44 rushing attempts and over 39 minutes of time of possession is unlikely. The Rams have seen plenty of Jimmy Garoppolo. They know his tendency to target the middle of the field and his limitations outside the numbers. His quick release and ability to run the entire playbook are part of the reason he has been so successful against Los Angeles. Trey Lance is as much an unknown to the Rams as he is to 49ers fans. We’ve seen glimpses of the big arm and mobility. He flashed previews of his accuracy and willingness to push the ball into tight windows. We’ve also seen him lock into one read or be slow in his progressions. The rookie has seemed limited defensive looks and has never faced Aaron Donald, Von Miller, or Jalen Ramsey. Starting Lance with the season on the line could be a big ask. Or it could be just what the 49ers need.
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