Trey Lance or Sam Darnold: Who Should 49ers Lean on in 2023?

The San Francisco 49ers‘ quarterback situation is the gift that keeps giving. 

In 2022 alone, it included dismissing the mostly successful but somewhat limited Jimmy Garoppolo for highly promising but wholly unproven Trey Lance. It continued with Lance’s season-ending injury, Garoppolo’s reinsertion to the team, and then unexpectedly became the Brock Purdy experience before an injury ended his run just as the NFC Championship game began.

What do we have now?

Purdy is rehabbing a surgically repaired elbow. So two lingering questions hang over Santa Clara: When will Purdy be ready to play? And should Lance or Sam Darnold take his place in the meantime?

There’s not much worth speculating about Purdy’s return. Like all players coming off season-ending surgery, I hope he’s back sooner than expected and better than ever.

The question “Who should the 49ers lean into during Purdy’s absence?” is alluring, though. 

It’s Darnold.

Remember in math when your teacher made you show your work? Even if you had the correct answer, it was only accepted if you demonstrated all the steps to reach that verdict.  

The first step is not evaluating whether Darnold or Lance would be a better quarterback for the 49ers. It’s answering: Do you believe Purdy is good enough to be viewed as the 49ers QB1 for the foreseeable future? My answer is yes, and that feeling dictates our course. 

49ers Need a Steady Hand

If a team already has “the guy” and the starting job is his upon his return, then it doesn’t need someone who could be “the guy” keeping the seat warm. The team needs a pro’s pro in minicamps and OTA’s and during training camp and preseason games. If the backup needs to start some regular season games in September and maybe October, the team needs to believe he’ll do a respectable job. 

The backup needs to be a good driver, sliding behind the wheel of a sweet car and keeping it moving down the road. That ride could last through minicamp, part or all of training camp or even into the regular season. 

The overall team quality affords the luxury of thinking that way. And an example from seasons past comes to mind. 

The job Teddy Bridgewater did for New Orleans in 2019 when Drew Brees injured his throwing hand is the best template. Bridgewater started five games in September and October, going 5-0 in that stretch. 

He completed around 70 percent of his passes while throwing only two interceptions. Brees got healthy, Bridgewater returned to the sidelines and the Saints proceeded with the knowledge that it could function well — and win — without its All-Pro quarterback.

Now Purdy is nowhere near Brees, and his hold on the 49ers’ starting job is not — nor should it be — what Brees’ was in New Orleans. But what San Francisco needs at quarterback in Purdy’s absence is what Bridgewater provided the Saints in 2019: solid, efficient play within an excellent offensive scheme on a strong team. 

How likely is Darnold to provide that level of play if called upon? It’s on the aspirational side, but it’s not unrealistic. The 70 percent completion rate and TD:Int ratio of 9:2 are lofty goals and are better than Darnold’s norm through his five seasons.  

Yet, he has produced good stretches in his five NFL seasons in New York and Carolina: Some in his 38 games with the Jets and a handful in his 18 with the Panthers. There’s reason to believe that he would play winning football in good surroundings — San Francisco checks that box. 

Here’s how Darnold’s six starts from last season compare to Bridgewater’s five-game stretch in 2019.

Player  Record TD Passes Interceptions Completion %
Sam Darnold  4-2 7 3 58.6
Teddy Bridgewater 5-0 9 2 69.6

When comparing Darnold to Lance, it’s crucial not to overlook Darnold’s 56 games in the NFL. He isn’t who the Jets thought he was when they selected him third overall five years ago, but the 49ers know who Darnold is more than Lance. That makes a difference and could be the difference maker.

Lance Has Uncertainty

One could say San Francisco would win with Lance, too, and he has more upside than Darnold. I wouldn’t argue either point. We are only two years removed from the 49ers mortgaging their draft future to acquire him; all that talent is still in there. But unfortunately, so, too, is all the unknown. 

Garoppolo’s level of play, coupled with Lance’s injury misfortune, drastically limited his playing time in his first two seasons. Then, consider he only started one season at North Dakota State, and his experience — or lack thereof — has to be a concern. 

Lance is just as likely to struggle as he is to excel. 

Two years ago, San Francisco would have lived with that. It’s what they signed up for when they drafted him. But now, the quarterback landscape has changed, and the 49ers’ appetite for living with the ups and downs of a talented but inexperienced quarterback likely has changed with it. 

Since we’re about to hit the heart of baseball season, I’ll go there to close. 

With a runner on second with no outs in the eighth inning of a one-run game, it’s fun when a pinch hitter who might blast a 450-foot home run walks out of the dugout, but it’s nervy to know he might also strike out. 

It’s less exciting but more comforting to send a guy to the plate with a good chance to hit a line drive to center or, at the least, ground out to the right side. 

That’s why I’d put the bat, or in this case, the ball, in the hands of Darnold and trust he’d do the job until Purdy returns.

Paul Burmeister, a former starting quarterback at Iowa, is a studio host with NBC Sports and the radio voice of Notre Dame Football. For a decade, he worked as a studio host at NFL Network. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulWBurmeister.

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