Just two years earlier, they had given up three picks, including two first-rounders, for the opportunity to trade up nine spots in the 2021 draft and draft him. Now, after just two seasons and four starts, they cut their losses and showed him the door.
As for the team that was only too happy to take Lance off the 49ers’ hands, the Dallas Cowboys, there is little to second-guess. Owner/president/general manager Jerry Jones stopped by the Dollar Store and picked up a bargain. He added a first-round talent for next to nothing and will see whether his coaching staff can develop Lance over the next year or two.
“If I was still coaching, this is a guy I would love to coach and develop,’’ said Marc Trestman, an analyst for The 33rd Team who has been an offensive coordinator and/or quarterbacks coach with nine NFL teams during his career. “When you watch the tape, he’s shown that he can do it better than any of the [quarterbacks] that were drafted this year, in my opinion. I saw examples of everything physically and mechanically and intangibly that you’re looking for in a quarterback.’’
Lance is only 23. He started just 17 games at North Dakota State thanks to COVID and started just four games in his two seasons with the 49ers. He was named the season-opening starter last season but broke his ankle in Week 2, eventually opening the door for Mr. Irrelevant, Brock Purdy.
“I think, from the Cowboys’ standpoint, they were thinking, ‘hey, we can get this guy for a fourth-round pick;’ worst-case scenario is he’s a backup here for 4-5 years,’’ said former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, who is an analyst for The 33rd Team. “Why not take a chance on a kid who maybe can be a real good player in this league? That’s my sense of what they did.’’
“He’s not going to be asked to do anything this year except learn,’’ Gannon said.
But Prescott is coming off a disappointing season in which he led the league in interceptions, and the Cowboys have suffered back-to-back playoff losses to the 49ers the last two years. Prescott and the offense scored 29 points in those two defeats.
“I learned a long time ago that the minute you think you’ve finally arrived in this profession, they’re already looking for somebody cheaper and younger,’’ said Gannon, who spent 17 years in the league and was the NFL MVP in 2002 at 37.
“So, in a way, it could be a good thing for Dak. Not that he needs to be motivated, or anybody has to light a fire under his ass. But they’re saying, ‘You know what, this train is going to keep on moving down the tracks. Whether you’re on it or not, it ain’t going to be slowing down.’
“I think it sends a message to him that the owner isn’t getting any younger and is growing impatient. This is a team that’s won 12 games each of the last two seasons and the head coach is on the hot seat.
“I think everyone in Dallas knows what the expectations are, and that’s postseason success. Dak understands that and understands what the expectations are for him and everybody else.’’
Trestman has likened the Cowboys’ trade for Lance to the 49ers’ acquisition of Steve Young in 1987 when they still had Joe Montana. Young, who, like Montana, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had played in the USFL and made 19 starts in two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before he was traded to the 49ers for second- and fourth-round picks. He spent the better part of four seasons backing up Montana in San Francisco before finally getting an opportunity to play regularly.
Some critics of the trade have suggested that bringing in Lance will rattle Prescott and have him looking over his shoulder. Three years ago, despite signing a $128 million contract extension just 10 months earlier, Carson Wentz folded like a tent after the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Jalen Hurts. His touchdowns-to-interceptions differential plummeted from plus-20 the year before to plus-1, and he was eventually benched. But Prescott isn’t Wentz.
“I don’t think Dak and Wentz are similar in that respect,’’ Gannon said. “I think Dak is a tough dude mentally. He didn’t come into the league with a silver spoon in his mouth like Wentz. He was a fourth-round pick. So, he had to fight and claw for his opportunity. This isn’t a guy who is going to fold or worry about a new quarterback they traded for.’’
“It’ll be interesting to see,’’ NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “Jalen clearly was an immediate threat to Wentz. I don’t think Dak is wired like Carson. But it’ll be interesting to watch. Like, if Trey is running the scout team, and the defense is saying we can’t stop this guy. I don’t think Dak will let it bother him. But you never know.’’
Prescott has two years left on the four-year, $160 million contract extension he signed with the Cowboys in 2021. The deal includes no-trade and no-franchise tag clauses. This year, he has a $26 million salary cap hit that jumps to $59.4 million next year.
Prescott likely won’t be interested in a restructuring to lower his 2024 cap number next year if he believes his days in Dallas are numbered. Which brings us back to Lance.
At this point, the Cowboys have no expectations for him. He’s a blank canvas. They know what they thought he was three years ago when he came out of North Dakota State. Now, they’re going to coach him up away from the pressure and spotlight of Sunday afternoon and NFL prime time and see what happens. See what he can become.
Maybe, at some point down the line, they’ll reach the same conclusion that the 49ers came to. Maybe not.
“It’s clear that he’s had bad luck,’’ Trestman said. “He never got the reps. The situational and physical reps. Everything you hear about him character-wise and as a person is that this is a guy who can evolve into being the face of a program eventually. But he needs the opportunity.’’
“He clearly got over-drafted, which wasn’t his fault,’’ Gannon said. “He sat behind [Jimmy] Garoppolo his first year and then got hurt his second year. So, his career really hasn’t had a chance to take off.”
“[When], I was out at the scrimmages between the 49ers and Raiders this summer. I watched him really closely. I talked to people in the [49ers] organization about him. The big challenge that he’s had has been processing and anticipating and his accuracy. It just seemed that the game was going a bit too fast for him. Sometimes, you can develop bad habits.”
“So much of that [49ers] offense is about catch and run. It’s short and intermediate throws. You’ve got to be really accurate. That’s the thing that really hurt Trey Lance. He made the easy throws look difficult sometimes. And you just can’t do that in that offense.’’
Former NFL executive Joe Banner applauded the Cowboys for picking up Lance.
“It’s a great acquisition for virtually nothing,’’ said The 33rd Team co-founder. “They gave up a late-fourth-round pick, which historically has a less than 10 percent chance of producing a starter. For that, they’ve got a chance to take a look at a guy who’s got major-league attributes that so far haven’t translated into great performances.”
“But two years in with very little playing time, it’s not that unusual. He’s unproven but with all of the ingredients that you would love to have to work with.’’
Banner said he was surprised that there weren’t more teams interested in Lance given the low price the Cowboys paid for him.
“I was stunned that there weren’t more teams interested,’’ he said. “Nobody else thought it was worth taking a flyer on this guy for a late-fourth-round pick? A guy with his raw talent? That was bizarre to me.’’
Gannon knows a little something about being a late bloomer. He was drafted by a team – the New England Patriots – who wanted to move him to defensive back. It was only after he threatened to go to law school rather than play for them that they agreed to trade him to a team that would give him a chance to play quarterback (the Minnesota Vikings).
His career didn’t really take off until his ninth year and third team – the Kansas City Chiefs. Guess who his quarterbacks coach was in KC? The same guy who is Trey Lance’s new head coach – Mike McCarthy.
“I think this could be the best thing that could have happened to Trey,’’ Gannon said. “Mike took the time to work with me on my footwork and work with me on protections and concepts. My accuracy, my anticipation, all of those things got better when I started working with Mike.”
“I think what they’ll do with Trey is hit the reset button. They’ll just go back to the very beginning and train him. On how to take a snap from center. How to push off. How to do a three-step drop. All that stuff.”
“Mike is one of my dear friends. If I were Trey Lance’s parents, I’d be thrilled. Because I think he’s going to a great place. I think he’s going to a great quarterback room. I think he’s going to a place where he’s going to get coached. (Offensive coordinator) Brian Schottenheimer and Mike speak the same language. This kid is going to be schooled. They’re going to rep him to death. He’s going to get trained the right way.’’
McCarthy has coached some of the best quarterbacks in history – Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Gannon, Alex Smith and Prescott.
“He doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s done,’’ Gannon said. “He doesn’t get enough credit for the job he did developing Aaron. He’s really good at coaching that position.’’
How long McCarthy will have to coach up Lance remains to be seen. This is his fourth year as the Cowboys’ head coach. But the two playoff losses to the 49ers have put him on the hot seat. If Dallas doesn’t make a deep playoff run in 2023, McCarthy could find himself out of a job.
Paul Domowitch covered the Eagles and the NFL for the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer for four decades. You can follow him on Twitter at @pdomo.