Jimmy Garoppolo is the NFL’s most photogenic quarterback this side of Tom Brady. But for at least the past couple of seasons, when they looked at Garoppolo, the San Francisco 49ers only saw the photo negative.
Their focus wasn’t what Garoppolo could do, but what he couldn’t.
He doesn’t have a Juggs machine for a right arm, and his passes don’t leave vapor trails. He’d prefer to blend into the background as opposed to being a commanding voice. His running ability doesn’t scare defenses. In Super Bowl LIV against Kansas City, as Patrick Mahomes began to take control, Garoppolo seemed to shrink.
The 49ers responded in 2021 by trading three first-round draft picks to move up and take North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance third overall. The team was determined to move on from Garoppolo, but was unsuccessful in attempts to trade him this offseason.
Situations can flip quickly in football, though, and there has been a dramatic reversal with the 49ers. After Lance suffered a season-ending broken ankle in the first quarter of last Sunday’s game against Seattle, Garoppolo — with almost no preparation — stepped in and helped guide San Francisco to a 27-7 victory.
Instead of relying on Brock Purdy, a rookie seventh-round pick, the 49ers have a quarterback who is 31-14 as a starter for them and helped them reach the Super Bowl following the 2019 season and NFC Championship game last season.
Considering he had shoulder surgery in March, didn’t have spring ball, and threw on his own on a side field apart from the rest of the team in training camp, it’s remarkable that Garoppolo could make such a seamless transition back onto the field.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan downplayed the notion that the playbook was dramatically changed for the more mobile Lance, even though it looked strange to many to see Garoppolo hanging onto the ball on those read-option runs.
“We put all the same stuff in last year too, so it’s not as big of a difference as people think,” the coach said this week. “You’re running really the exact same runs. Just do you want to get in pistol and read someone, or do you want to hand it off and not read them? It doesn’t change as much as people think.”
It’s early, but the pieces are in place for Garoppolo to salvage the season for the 49ers, who have prime-time games the next two weeks. They are at Denver on Sunday night and play host to the Rams on Monday night in Week 4.
Only a few weeks ago, Garoppolo signed a reduced deal to stay with the team as the backup. His old contract would have paid him $24.2 million this season. His new one pays him a guaranteed $6.5 million with a chance to earn up to $16 million depending on playing time. With his performance Sunday, he earned an extra $350,000 for playing at least 25% of the snaps in a 49ers victory.
“You couldn’t ask for a better situation right now if you’re Jimmy Garoppolo,” said former 49ers quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan, who now hosts a digital platform, the QB School, where he analyzes the quarterback position and performances.
“Just the chance to play on that type of roster, with those type of expectations for that organization .… But it’s worth acknowledging that the problems remain. Whatever the 49ers thought the reasons they needed to move on from him were, those issues are still there.”
Shanahan’s decision to transition from Garoppolo is somewhat reminiscent of the Rams’ Sean McVay moving on from Jared Goff. Those offensive-minded coaches saw the missing yards and explosive plays that weren’t happening, and those voids began to overshadow the good things those quarterbacks could do.
Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the perception of Garoppolo began to change, the 2019 playoffs are a good place to start. He made some bad throws in a 27-10 win over Minnesota in the divisional round and was essentially handcuffed the following week in the NFC title game against Green Bay. He threw the ball just eight times in that 37-20 victory over the Packers. Then came the Super Bowl, a showcase for Mahomes.
Not too long after that, the 49ers were entertaining the notion of signing Tom Brady. (Garoppolo began his NFL career as Brady’s backup in New England.) It set the stage for San Francisco’s big move in the 2021 draft to trade up for Lance.
Garoppolo got the rock star treatment when he joined the 49ers through a trade during the 2017 season and closed the year by winning his first five starts. He suffered a knee injury in Week 3 of the following season, however, and was sidelined for the rest of the year. The pendulum swung one way and then the other.
Now, he has a chance to redefine himself yet again.