The San Francisco 49ers admitted a mistake on Friday when they traded former third overall pick Trey Lance to the Dallas Cowboys for a 2024 fourth-round selection. Many in the media have given Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers a pass because of their success in spite of Lance failure. The question is, however, would the Los Angeles Rams have been given the same pass had Matthew Stafford not worked out?
With the 49ers trading Lance for a fourth-round pick, we’re looking at arguably the worst draft trade in the history of the NFL. In order to move up from 12th overall to three, the 49ers traded the 12th overall pick, a third-round pick, and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 to the Miami Dolphins. If you’re keeping track, that’s three first-round picks and a third-round pick.
In comparison, the Rams gave up Jared Goff, two first round picks, and a third round pick to acquire Stafford. It’s similar value, but in terms of pure draft capital, the 49ers gave up more.
However, despite that level of mistake, the 49ers have gotten a pass. The MMQB’s Conor Orr wrote that 49ers deserve credit. Orr wrote,
“If I wasn’t worried about being labeled a Shanahan sycophant by the end of this article I’d ask how many teams would have been able to survive that kind of mistake in real time and be no worse off, that this was organizational brilliance.”
There’s a big difference between brilliance and luck. Did the 49ers mitigate their mistake on Lance by drafting Brock Purdy two years later? Yes, but that shouldn’t give them a free pass. The Lance move was made to get them over the top after missing out on Stafford earlier in the offseason. Winning the Super Bowl is hard, but that’s why they made that move. They drafted Lance to improve at the quarterback position with Jimmy Garoppolo.
Instead they ended up with another Garoppolo who is simply more willing to make the riskier throws in Purdy. The draft is very much luck-based. The 49ers hitting on Purdy is more about being lucky than being brilliant.
The Athletic’s Jim Trotter added,
“Some have labeled the decision to trade three first-round picks and a third-rounder to move up nine spots and select Lance third overall in 2021 the worst trade in NFL Draft history...That is what the 49ers did in making the trade for Lance. Did they miss on it? Wildly so. But has it set them back? Only if you believe two straight NFC Championship Game appearances is a setback.”
I don’t think anyone is trying to protect Shanahan/Lynch. They missed on Trey. No shame in that. We know the draft is a crapshoot. But as much “blame” as they deserve for that, should they not get credit for Brock? And for building a SB contender? https://t.co/Iq1pVimPll— Jim Trotter (@JimTrotter_NFL) August 24, 2023
The issue here is that most teams don’t get this type of pass. Washington traded a haul to get Robert Griffin III, but found Kirk Cousins in that same draft. They are still getting criticized for how they handled RGIII. The Denver Broncos were questioned all of last season for trading for Russell Wilson as he struggled after making a blockbuster trade to acquire him. Most teams don’t get that pass. The New York Jets won’t get that pass if they only make the postseason with Aaron Rodgers.
We’ll get back to the main question here. Would the Rams have gotten that same pass had the Stafford trade not worked out? The answer is no. The media was questioning the trade for Stafford before he even took the field. During no-win November, the questions on whether or not Stafford could win in the postseason only grew louder.
What if Tom Brady completes the comeback in the NFC Divisional round and the Rams lose that game? Or what if Jaquiski Tartt catches the dropped interception and the 49ers win the NFC Championship game? The worst case scenario here is what if the 2022 season had happened in 2021? Undoubtedly, the Rams’ all-in, ‘F-them picks’ approach would have been heavily questioned and criticized. It would have been seen as a failure.
If Stetson Bennett were to lead the Rams to an NFC Championship game after a hypothetical scenario in which Stafford didn’t work out, it’s still hard to see LA given a pass.
As the 49ers struggled in Shanahan’s first few years, he had the excuse of injuries and quarterback play. When McVay dealt with that last season, there were questions whether or not he would or should return to coaching.
Les Snead’s draft history has come heavily into question as the Rams struggled last year. Meanwhile, the 49ers wasted two first round picks in 2017 on Solomon Thomas and Reuben Forster. Mike McGlinchy who was drafted in the first round in 2018 is no longer on the team. Javon Kinlaw is on the roster bubble and has been a bust up to this point. Now, add three first round picks for Lance who was traded away for a fourth-round pick? Their only hit in the first round since 2017 is Nick Bosa who was taken second overall.
Obviously, the trade for Stafford worked and the Rams ended up hoisting the Lombardi trophy. That’s why they made the trade. However, that’s also why the 49ers traded for Lance. The goal was to get a franchise quarterback that fit the modern mold of a Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes. Instead, the 49ers and Kyle Shanahan consistently failed their first-round pick. Now, they better hope Brock Purdy works out and isn’t a one-hit wonder.
It also shows just how important beating the 49ers to Stafford was in 2021. The 49ers were interested in Stafford and close to acquiring him. As Shanahan detailed in “The Flying Coach” Podcast,
“That was frustrating. I was actually in Cabo, I was watching it all...I was trying to get involved in it...I remember on Saturday, I was so stressed out, and finally we talked to someone and it was like 7 at night, and they were like, “No, nothing’s happening at the earliest till tomorrow. So you can finish your night.” So I’m like, “All right, I’m done.” Put my phone down, talk to Mandy, “Let’s go out to dinner, let’s have some drinks. A half an hour later, a buddy of mine calls me, he’s like, “I’m just telling you, if you want Stafford, you need to get ahold of him right now.”...And I knew it, and I turned on my phone, and it was all over. It wasn’t fun.”
Had the 49ers ended up with Stafford, would the Rams have been the team that go get Lance or would they have ridden it out with Jared Goff?
In a sense, because the Rams were willing to trade for Stafford and give up what they did, it forced the 49ers to look at plan B and trade up to the third overall pick which ended up not working out.