No professional athlete in American pro sports has more pressure on him than the quarterback of the 49ers.
He must be elite, preferably one of the greatest of all time. If not, he’ll be replaced because 49ers fans want the next Joe Montana. You’ll settle for the next Steve Young. Anything else is unacceptable.
Now it’s Trey Lance’s turn to live up to those outrageous expectations. So let’s rank the best quarterbacks in the 49ers since 1980 and see where Lance could fit in.
The greatest quarterback of his time and in 49ers history. Montana’s heyday was perhaps the best of any quarterback of all time.
His prime could have started earlier, but he had to wait until he was 30 before replacing Montana. Young has still built a career that places him among the top 10 quarterbacks of all time.
Like Young, Garcia’s heyday began when he was 30, but it didn’t last long. Still, Garcia was a top-five quarterback in the NFL during those three seasons. He holds the franchise record for most passing yards in a season and is the only quarterback in franchise history to throw more than 30 touchdown passes in a season for two consecutive years. Garcia wasn’t a referee – he was a gunslinger who moved well and protected football.
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4. Colin Kaepernick.
Like Garcia, Kaepernick’s heyday didn’t last long. Kaepernick’s best season was his first, replacing Alex Smith midyear and leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl. In Kaepernick’s sophomore year, he led the 49ers back to the NFC Championship Game. In his heyday, he was one of football’s most explosive athletes, routinely embarrassing the Packers in particular. He never improved as a quarterback, but he was an excellent game manager who had a strong arm, rushed for yards and didn’t throw many picks.
5. Alex Smith.
Smith was just entering his prime when he was injured and lost his job to Kaepernick, and it could be argued that Smith’s true prime came in the years that followed while he was playing for the Chiefs. Still, Smith excelled from 2011-12, losing just five games during that time and throwing 30 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions. He also competed in an NFC championship and had a legendary playoff win when he threw for 299 yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, and he ran for four touchdowns in a thrilling win over Drew Brees and the Saints.
Garoppolo competed in a Super Bowl and two NFC championships in his prime, and won many regular-season games. His resume is excellent. But if you dig deeper, you’ll see that he had terrific receivers, running backs, defenses and coaches, and that he played decidedly poorly in the playoffs despite winning four postseason games. Ultimately, it was a GM who thought he was a gunslinger, but really was in for an interception. He couldn’t move, throw long, or read defenses. He had the poorest skills of any quarterback on this list. And despite all that, he still found ways to win more often than not.
In terms of raw talent, Lance is as gifted as any quarterback on this list. But right now he’s a game manager, like Kaepernick, Smith and Garoppolo. Lance didn’t pitch much in college – he made the game because he won most of the time. As a referee, he should be better than Garoppolo out of the box simply because Lance can run, pitch and defend the ball.
That doesn’t mean Lance will be a Pro Bowler like Garcia or an MVP like Young and Montana, but he certainly has a shot at greatness.