Why the 49ers had to trade Trey Lance: Their timelines just never lined up

How the Cowboys-49ers Trey Lance trade came to be (0:47)

Jeremy Fowler details the trade that sends former No. 3 pick Trey Lance from the 49ers to the Cowboys. (0:47)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the weeks after the San Francisco 49ers again fell short in the NFC Championship Game -- this time because they ran out of healthy quarterbacks -- Trey Lance met with coach Kyle Shanahan in his office.

In that meeting, Shanahan informed Lance that Brock Purdy, if fully recovered from the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow suffered in the NFC title game loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, would be the team's starting quarterback entering the 2023 season. According to a team source, Lance didn't blink, informing Shanahan he would find a way to convince Shanahan he should reclaim the job he lost because of the broken right ankle he suffered in Week 2 last season.

Fast forward to Wednesday and Lance and Shanahan had two more meetings. In the first, Shanahan informed Lance that not only had he not surpassed Purdy -- the final pick of the 2022 NFL draft -- on the depth chart but had fallen behind free agent pickup Sam Darnold for the No. 2 job. In the second, Lance told Shanahan that he would prefer to be traded.

The 49ers granted that request early Friday evening, agreeing to send Lance to the Dallas Cowboys in exchange for a fourth-round pick in 2024. Just 848 days after the Niners used the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 draft on Lance in hopes he could provide stability to a position that has had little for more than two decades, he has gone to Dallas, where perhaps he can get the playing time needed to tap into his unrealized potential.

"That's what he needs to do," general manager John Lynch said. "He needs to play to get better. I think that's going to be his opportunity to play. Ideally games, but play is running scout team, play is doing all those things. We weren't going to have that. And so how do you, how do you allow a player to grow?"

In this case, allowing the player to grow means allowing him to go. As Lynch and Shanahan stood before assembled media at Levi's Stadium on Friday night answering a barrage of questions about how and why they could part so quickly with their handpicked future at the game's most important position, they repeatedly pointed the fingers at themselves for whiffing on one of the biggest trades and draft picks in franchise history.

But assigning blame for what went wrong between the Niners and Lance is a difficult proposition. Yes, the Niners must wear the missed pick and the trade that led to that selection. But Lance and the Niners not working out largely comes down to his unfortunate injury luck, which led to one overriding truth: The 49ers' timeline to win a Super Bowl and Lance's development timeline no longer align.

It's a feeling to which many Bay Area fans are accustomed. Those who follow the NBA's Golden State Warriors recall the Warriors using the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft on raw but talented center James Wiseman. They soon realized that they didn't have time to wait for him to develop while supernova guard Stephen Curry was in the middle of his prime, trading Wiseman to the Detroit Pistons at last season's trade deadline.

Of course, the most notable difference is the Warriors had already won three recent championships. The 49ers don't have any and the clock is ticking to get it done with their current nucleus. That reality only increased their need to swap whatever Lance's ceiling might be for the floor they believe they have with Purdy and Darnold.

Therefore, they're parting with a 23-year old quarterback for whom they had traded three first-round and one third-round pick to select. Since, Lance played in the second-fewest games (eight) and had the third-fewest pass attempts (102) and fourth-fewest passing yards (797) among quarterbacks taken in the top five during the common draft era (since 1967) through their first two seasons.

In most cases, the careers of those making such decisions are found in the rubble of such colossal mistakes. But that's not the case in San Francisco, where Shanahan and Lynch oversee a team that has managed to thrive in the absence of so much missing draft capital. That's what winning a lot of games, going to two straight NFC title games and uncovering a potential gem with the last pick in the draft will do for your job security.

"This thing's not an exact science, but when you put that much into a player, it usually is really tough to rebound from," Lynch said. "Fortunately we've been able to continue to grow this team too, to make this team better. And we were very fortunate that for Brock to become what he's become, now, he's got to continue to do it, but the early returns are good."

Perhaps Lance could have already evolved into the quarterback the Niners hoped they were getting if it hadn't been for the broken right index finger he suffered late in the preseason his rookie year. Or maybe it would have come last season had it not been for the broken ankle.

Two years ago, the Niners were ready to endure whatever growing pains Lance might have endured if it meant coming out on the other side with a quarterback who looked something like the Josh Allen 2.0-type they thought he could be. But those were the early days of a championship window that had only opened a couple years before and had no visible expiration date.

As it always does with the 49ers and their quarterbacks, things have changed dramatically in those 868 days, but the organization is still trying to jump through that window before it slams shut. And waiting is no longer an option.

"We thought we were aligned as a team to win right away when we did it with him," Shanahan said. "We knew it would take him time, but we also had to make a decision where we were going to go with our team over a two-year window. ... We took a shot with Trey because we believed he could. We knew it would take some time but in the meantime we're gonna have a pretty good team. And the time that we did give him when he had his ops, he missed those.

"And those weren't his fault. They weren't our fault. Those are just what happens in football, and when you take a risk on someone who does need to develop and does need some of that time and then he misses that time and we are where we're at right now."