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Trey Lance and 49ers are the perfect fit to develop a superstar QB, says Steve Young.

Sacramento Bee logo Sacramento Bee 8/5/2022 Chris Biderman, The Sacramento Bee
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) warms up on the sideline minutes before the end of the first half at the NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. © Xavier Mascareñas/The Sacramento Bee/TNS San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) warms up on the sideline minutes before the end of the first half at the NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

Steve Young isn’t the type of former athlete to lament the modern generation. The 49ers legend doesn’t look at the current NFL and think the rule changes have made players soft or lowered the level of difficulty for quarterbacks.

Instead, Young appreciates what today’s signal-callers go through, the pressure put on them by teammates, entire regions and organizations who shell out nine-figure contracts for a chance at lifting a trophy in early February. He’s felt it. He was the guy who had to replace Joe Montana — and did it successfully.

Young is envious of one quarterback in particular: Trey Lance, the first-time starter for the 49ers who is taking over a team with Super Bowl aspirations despite being entirely unproven and untested. Lance has just two NFL starts to his name.

“If I could play right now — I could only dream about it — but I would love to come back and play for this team, for this coach right now,” Young said. “People can try to fight me on that, but I’ll go to my death on that. This is the most innovative, quarterback-friendly — not quarterback-friendly like taking pressure off — but catapulting, push the quarterback as much as he can handle. I think there’s nowhere better.”

Young, of course, is referencing 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, the guy who got the same job Bill Walsh had all those years ago for his offensive acumen. Shanahan isn’t on Walsh’s prestigious level when it comes to X’s and O’s (perhaps only Bill Belichick is), but he’s grouped among the elite offensive minds currently in the NFL.

The results since hiring Shanahan are mostly positive. The 49ers have become one of the league’s most stable franchises since Shanahan took the job along with general manager John Lynch in 2017. The team has gone to the NFC title game in two of the last three seasons and reached the Super Bowl after the 2019 campaign. Shanahan is entering his sixth year. Only five coaches — Belichick, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, Pete Carroll and Andy Reid — have been at their posts longer.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) runs against the Seattle Seahawks during the fourth quarter of the NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. The Seahawks beat the 49ers 28-21. © Xavier Mascareñas/The Sacramento Bee/TNS San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) runs against the Seattle Seahawks during the fourth quarter of the NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. The Seahawks beat the 49ers 28-21.

But unlike Young, these 49ers have yet to win a Super Bowl. They’ve lost their last two appearances after starting out 5-0 on the sport’s biggest stage. There’s no doubt the fan base cultivated by the dynastic eras of the 1980s and 90s views success differently than most other franchises.

Which is why Lance is in such a unique situation. It’s not often young quarterbacks are given the starter’s reigns with Super-Bowl-or-bust expectations. Most quarterbacks are given time to develop because the top prospects often join bad teams.

But the 49ers capitalized on their down year in 2020 to move up from No. 12 to No. 3 to draft Lance in 2021. They didn’t expect to have a chance to take a top QB prospect that early in the draft given how strong their roster has been. And they needed a better plan than what they had with Jimmy Garoppolo, who was good but not good or available enough to get them another championship.

San Francisco 49ers’ Trey Lance (5) waits on the sidelines in the fourth quarter during a game at the Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, November 7, 2021, in Santa Clara. © Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/TNS San Francisco 49ers’ Trey Lance (5) waits on the sidelines in the fourth quarter during a game at the Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, November 7, 2021, in Santa Clara.

“Jimmy did a hell of a job coming to camp and winning that job and taking us real close to the Super Bowl (last season), but we have moved on to Trey,” Shanahan said when the team reported to training camp July 26.

Shanahan’s announcement officially marked the shift that had been expected since the offseason began. But it raises a big question: Can the 49ers get that elusive sixth championship with a 22-year-old quarterback?

“This team wants to go, so that’s okay,” said Young. “Kyle thinks he can do that with Trey — I believe Kyle can do that. If there’s a guy in the league who can do it with a young quarterback, and figure it out, it’s Kyle.”

What Trey Lance has

There were two legitimate knocks on Lance when he was a prospect coming out of North Dakota State, in the second-tier FCS: his accuracy and his inexperience.

He had just 318 passing attempts during his college career, including just 30 in 2020 when all but one game was wiped out by the pandemic. Trevor Lawrence (1,138 attempts), Zach Wilson (837), Justin Fields (618) and Mac Jones (556) — the other first-round QBs from Lance’s draft — all had substantially more attempts at the higher level of college football.

The only way for the 49ers to solve Lance’s experience problem is to make him the starter, which they’ve done. Which leaves the concerns about his accuracy, one shared by Young.

Young said he believes Lance is good enough between the ears to process information quickly, which is half the job of being a quarterback. The other half is delivering the ball on time and accurately, which is where Lance has to improve.

“To play in the NFL, and play for a while, you gotta be really good at one of the two, right? You can be a tremendous processor, but you got to be above the line at both,” Young said. “You can’t be below the line at processing and you can’t be below the line at throwing the football. But some are Patrick Mahomes (who can do both), that’s why he’s so great, right? Josh Allen, you’d say processing he was up there but he had to grow.

“But it’s delivering it on time to the right place and space and (with) touch and the things that you have to do — and a lot of that is comfort. And that kind of grows. With Josh Allen, you could see that. But Josh had a fundamental ability to throw the football.”

Allen, the Bills’ star quarterback, is entering the season as a favorite to win MVP and get Buffalo the Super Bowl. Like Lance, Allen came from a smaller school in Wyoming, with questions about his accuracy. He had an ugly 56.2% completion rate in college before working to become a 66% passer the last two seasons, along with 73 touchdowns to 25 interceptions.

What did it take for Allen to improve his accuracy so drastically?

“Patience on my coaches’ ends,” Allen said, “working with Jordan Palmer, working with a guy named Chris Hess with Biometrek and digitally mapping my mechanics, understanding that process and just being patient and trusting it. Honestly, it took a lot of people to get to the point where I’m at, and I appreciate everybody that’s helped me along the way. Again, there’s ways that I still have to continue to improve, just dissecting those and working on those areas.”

The focus on biometrics and advanced motion capture technology is a story of its own. Lance has done his version of that at 3DQB, also in Southern California, where he’s worked on his fundamentals to help improve accuracy before he was drafted and this offseason.

Shanahan and Lance have been less than eager to break down changes in Lance’s throwing motion publicly. But it does look a touch quicker on the practice field than it was his rookie season.

“I’ll let you guys decide,” Lance quipped to reporters recently. “I threw a lot of footballs this offseason, I’ll say that.”

There’s a saying in golf: “play golf, don’t play golf swing,” which is apt for the difference between the way Shanahan coaches quarterbacks and the gurus quarterbacks go to in the offseason. They harp on fundamentals, like a golfer would at the driving range, while Shanahan tries to teach accuracy through playing in a game environment, more like an 18-hole round of golf.

“Everything comes from the ground up,” Shanahan said. “So, everything I try to do is with their feet, with their eyes, how to move in a pocket, how to have your body in position where the ball’s going to go, and how to get your body with your mind to anticipate where it might go based off coverages, and how to move that way athletically and be able to make a throw from any angle, and how to do that.

“But this is about playing the game and whatever you work out on, on your own, when it comes into the heat of battle, it’s a totally different game.”

A 49ers roster built to contend

It was true when Lance was drafted in 2021 and it was reinforced after the 49ers went to February’s NFC Championship Game against the Rams. Lance is joining a loaded roster and might not have to carry the water like other quarterbacks on contending teams.

The 49ers are hoping Lance’s supporting cast can insulate the team from any mistakes the young quarterback might make.

“I think the overall consensus would be that our best players need to play our best football,” tight end George Kittle said. “We need to do our best to make it as easy as we can for Trey. While there’s going to be ups and downs, we need to be at the level where if Trey has a game where he throws a couple picks ... we’re going to be playing well enough where we can win those games.”

Kittle, of course, has cemented himself as one of the best tight ends in the NFL. Deebo Samuel became a breakout star in 2021 and earned a contract this week akin to the league’s top receivers. Brandon Aiyuk has been one of the team’s best players in the early portion of training camp, and might be poised to have a similar rise to Samuel’s. Lance’s blind side will be protected by nine-time Pro Bowler, Trent Williams.

Defensively, San Francisco bolstered its Achilles heel at cornerback with free agent Charvarius Ward, who has been among the best players on the practice field. The defense that finished third last season will return Nick Bosa, Fred Warner and Arik Armstead who highlight one of the NFL’s best front sevens.

With Shanahan pulling the strings, there should be enough talent around Lance to keep the team in contention. Steve Young agrees. He played on some loaded teams himself.

“The truth about Trey is, and I’ll tell him, this is the greatest opportunity that you could ever have to find out how good you are,” Young said. “However good Trey Lance is, he’s going to find out right here. This is the place to find out how truly great he’ll be.”

©2022 The Sacramento Bee. Visit sacbee.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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