© Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA — All of the anticipation from a five-game winning streak to close the 2017 season, followed with a productive free agency period, dissipated when Jerick McKinnon and Jimmy Garoppolo suffered torn ACLs about three weeks from each other to start the 2018 season. The team expectations were effectively pushed back one season.
The silver lining: they had each other other to lean on throughout the recovery process.
McKinnon sustained a torn ACL about one week before Week 1. Garoppolo suffered the same injury in the fourth quarter of Week 3. Both players said the initial weeks are the toughest, from both a physical and emotional standpoint. The recovery period is long and arduous, which have made the 49ers backfield partners enjoy the “small victories” — their first cut, their first throw or route, their first flatline sprint — throughout the past half-year. Establishing the trust in their knees to reach those milestones is just as important.
As the 49ers checked in for the official offseason program this week, Garoppolo and McKinnon have nothing but positive updates. Their rapport seems to be building.
“I get to see how hard he works and vice versa,” McKinnon said. “It’s a lot of time spent together talking through stuff, plays, picking his brain, him picking mine. Just get on that same page for the upcoming season.”
“It’s feeling good, coming along good,” Garoppolo said Wednesday. “Me and Jet going through the process together, it’s been a good offseason. Very productive.”
Garoppolo repeated “very productive” three different times when describing his offseason during his 10-minute media interview Wednesday. McKinnon reiterated the same answers. Neither player would give concrete return dates, though it would be surprising if they are not set to go by the start of training camp in late July. Garoppolo will likely participate in some 7-on-7 work during organized team activities next month.
“I don’t have a timetable, but when that time comes, I’ll be ready,” McKinnon said.
“The medical staff, combined with the coaches, talking to one another, will kind of try to come up with a game plan,” Garoppolo said. “I think we’ll try to be a little cautious, but I’d love to be out there.”
Neither player was shy to voice his excitement to return to playing full speed — even via practice. That’s what Garoppolo says he looks forward to most.
“I was out there at practices last year and everything and on the sideline for the games, but it’s different when you’re not in there, in the huddle, talking to the guys,” Garoppolo said. “You still interact with guys, but there’s just a different feel to it. So, I think just that interaction between me and the o-linemen or the skill guys, whatever it is, or talking trash to the defense. It’s different. I’m excited to get back to it.”
In reality, neither player has played consistently in quite some time.
McKinnon served a third-down role in Minnesota, starting in just 14 games in four years there. Garoppolo has started 10 games in his five-year career, and each string of starts came with unique circumstances. With New England, he filled in for Tom Brady during his suspension, took over the final give games of the 2017 season with the 49ers, and started the first three games of 2018. Neither McKinnon nor Garoppolo has truly established a rhythm over the course of a full season.
That’s why they can’t wait for Week 1.
“I haven’t played in so long; you want to get to that first game so bad just to get back out there,” McKinnon said. “Every day is a work in progress, and you got to win today, especially in the rehab process like this.”