Trotter: 49ers’ Trae Lance gamble backfired, but no shame

My father was always most comfortable in three places: at work, where he loved operating cranes as a longshoreman; In a bowling alley, his late-breaking left-arm spinner made several 300s; And at the domino table, he was as loud as he was brave.

He liked to trash talk people like me who didn’t enjoy sports. He was happy to call me his “fish,” a term he used for anyone he was attracted to at the end of his line. “Don’t make money out of fear,” he bellowed as I looked at the table and hesitated to take the big bucks.

I asked myself if he was pushing me to score points so he or a teammate could get behind me, or was he playing tricks on my mind in hopes that I would pass the points?

Either way, those words came to mind Friday after the San Francisco 49ers agreed to trade quarterback Trey Lance to the Dallas Cowboys.

Some have called the decision to trade three first-round picks and a third-rounder to move up nine spots and give the Lance third overall pick in 2021 the worst trade in NFL draft history. The bottom line is that the 49ers were reeling for surrendering so much capital to a guy who played against lesser competition in North Dakota State and attempted just 318 passes in college.

I didn’t think so then, and I don’t think so now. As I said when the trade was made two years ago: If a team is convinced a player can put it up there, especially at the quarterback position, it should get him. Be aggressive. Be active. Scared money doesn’t make money.

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Regret is one of the worst things in the world. I remember asking former Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer in real time about his decision to stick with struggling quarterback Drew Brees in 2004, when Philip Rivers, the fourth pick of that year’s draft, was on the bench. Was he worried that it would cost him his job?

“If I’m going to do it,” he said, “I’m going to f— my way.”

Fortunately for him, Brees had a Pro Bowl season and led the Chargers to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. The story repeats itself as Schottenheimer believes in what he is doing and acts accordingly. He doesn’t make any decisions out of fear or what others think. He did so because his beliefs told him it was the right thing to do.

That’s what the 49ers did in trading for Lance. Did they miss it? Wildly so. But has that held them back? Only if you believe that two straight NFC Championship Game appearances are a setback.

The 49ers have one of the best rosters in the league thanks to the individual decisions of general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan. They weren’t perfect – who was? — but their hits in the draft (Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Tebow Samuel, Aric Armstead, Fred Warner, Talanoa Hufanga, Brandon Ayuk, Trey Greenlaw, Brock Purdy) had a more significant impact than their misses (Lance, Reuben Foster, Solomon). Thomas, Javon Kinlaw).

They’ve also come on the plus side in trades and free agency, with Trent Williams, Christian McCaffrey and Charvaris Ward as centerpieces expected to make another Super Bowl run this season.

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If teams are reluctant to make blockbuster draft trades, seeing how badly San Francisco missed Lance I hear, that’s their prerogative. But I see the play as blocking defense. As in being conservative. Like working with money out of fear.

Go deeper

Grading the Trey Lance trade between the 49ers and Cowboys

The truth is, there is no one way to create a winner. You can do it through the draft, as the Green Bay Packers did for years under former general manager Ted Thompson; You can do it with an all-out approach, like the Los Angeles Rams did two seasons ago; Or you can do a little by combining philosophies, as the New England Patriots did effectively during the Tom Brady era.

The 49ers built a strong roster and managed to make up for Lance’s miss by hitting Birdie on the quarterback from Iowa State, who was the final pick in last year’s draft. He got a chance to play in the second half of the season after injuries to Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo and helped lead the team to the conference finals before getting hurt.

Some like to say the 49ers didn’t know Purdy would be as good as he was last season. They call it blind luck. They say the team would have picked him earlier if they believed he would perform well. Lynch and Shanahan don’t deserve credit for the choice, they argue.

I’ll accept if someone tells me the point at which recruits stop getting credit for draft picks. Is the first round over? Second round? The third? The fourth? The fifth? Sixth?

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We all know that many factors go into where and when a player is drafted. Some of it is strategic. If teams believe they can get a player later, they tend to wait because their intel indicates that other clubs aren’t big on the guy. I’m not saying that’s what happened to Purdy, but I am saying San Francisco was the only team that used a draft pick on him instead of competing with others to get him as an unsigned rookie.

The draft is – and always has been – a dice. When employees say it’s 50-50 whether most choices will work, it speaks to the imprecise science involved. That’s why I give teams as much credit for hitting late picks (and maybe even more credit) as I do for making successful picks early in the draft. Of course, there are processes that can increase or harm your success rate, but I prefer to talk about results rather than processes.

San Francisco has been one of the league’s best teams for the past four years even after the Lance trade, and should be a top contender to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season. The 49ers are active and don’t want to settle — seeing free-agent defensive tackle Javon Hargrave sign a four-year, potential $84 million contract.

Last I checked, it wasn’t afraid of money.

Go deeper

Why Trey Lance needs a fresh start from the 49ers

(Photo: Michael Reeves/Getty Images)

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