© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA – When Jimmy Garoppolo heads down to enjoy the swamp-like humidity in Tampa Bay, Florida and sets foot on the grass of Raymond James Stadium in the 49ers’ season opener on September 8 against the Buccaneers, it will have been nearly a full year since his ACL against the Kansas City Chiefs on September 23, 2018.
Garoppolo’s injury crushed any hopes the 49ers had for the 2018 season, and in the same vein, his return has reignited that same optimistic fire which his acquisition lit back into the second half of a dismal 2017 campaign. The 5-0 record he led the team to in his five games as a starter in 2017 set down his anchor as the franchise’s quarterback. His success will determine the 49ers’ success.
And for all the negativity which the 2018 season was weighed down by as it trudged along to its somewhat expected conclusion, it was not all for naught.
Nick Bosa and Dee Ford give teeth to a defensive line group that previously had a sole sharpened tooth down the middle in DeForest Buckner, and looks poised to assist a secondary group which struggled mightily last season.
Two receivers selected in the second (Deebo Samuel) and third rounds (Jalen Hurd) plus a Palo Alto tight end in the sixth round (Kaden Smith, Stanford) and another starting-quality running back in Tevin Coleman, give Garoppolo an arsenal to mix things up with, outside of the recently-minted Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle and reliable backfield option Kyle Juszczyk.
He’s also got most of last year’s corps back, a healthy Jerick McKinnon, and with the aging Pierre Garcon off the books, Marquise Goodwin, at 28 – who won a million-dollar 40-yard-dash competition over the summer – is by far the oldest wide out on the roster.
All this youth could, of course, backfire, but the offense is dependent much more on Garoppolo than it is on young receivers.
With that, there are two real questions, both born from the same idea; are our collective expectations for Garoppolo too high? And is Garoppolo really this franchise-altering quarterback we believe him to be?
What has Garoppolo actually accomplish thus far in his career? This:
- He backed up Tom Brady in New England for three years and looked like one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL, winning two Super Bowls
- He was traded to San Francisco in 2017 and went 5-0 in the five games he started with the 49ers in an abbreviated version of Kyle Shanahan’s offense (with one loss in his first game, in which C.J. Beathard started)
- He went 1-2 last season before tearing his ACL
That’s what Garoppolo has accomplished. He looked like a fantastic prospect, seemed to validate that assessment in the six games after he was traded, and failed to make it through three full games last season in his first at the helm of the franchise, with the full Shanahan offense in motion.
In other words, what Garoppolo is, is inconclusive. He has yet to play even a consecutive half-season as a starting quarterback. While expectations for the 49ers’ new franchise quarterback are understandably and rightfully high – especially after a season of C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens struck sadness into the hearts of many 49ers faithful – there is a chance that they are too high.
Let’s clarify that last part. Anyone who supports the San Francisco 49ers and anyone in the 49ers organization should expect nothing short of Pro Bowl or near-Pro Bowl quality from Garoppolo. That level is necessary for the 49ers to make a leap that is required this season.
Shanahan’s first year was a wash, which demonstrated what his team could be with Garoppolo, a real quarterback at the helm. The same was true last year, when Garoppolo and the 49ers’ season ended before it had a chance to get started. This year could be do or die for Shanahan.
He’s had two years to acquire young assets to fit his scheme – drafting three wide receivers and an offensive tackle in the first three rounds over the last two years – has his franchise quarterback and a defense which should be able to improve significantly from the record-settling ineptitude it displayed last season in securing turnovers (an NFL record seven turnovers, two interceptions).
This is the year the 49ers have to succeed to validate the fact that the last two seasons were indeed rebuilding. Injuries obviously dictate success to a great degree, but it’s hard to imagine any 49ers fans and executives being satisfied with anything but a legitimate playoff push.
With all that considered, it seems impossible not to expect greatness from Garoppolo. Chris Simms said on KNBR 680 that Garoppolo could be a “dark horse” MVP candidate, which is a fair and legitimate take.
But Garoppolo has to show that on the field. He needs to be healthy for a full 16 games. He needs to exploit the glut of offensive assets he now has and demonstrate to an organization which has built a team entirely around him that he was worth the investment. He needs to prove our collective expectations of him aren’t rose-tinted and based on a great third of a season.
The question is: Will Jimmy Garoppolo prove that he’s the franchise quarterback he’s supposed to be?
Note: This piece is part of a countdown to training camp feature which, each day leading up to the start of training camp on July 27, will take a look at one of the 10 biggest questions the 49ers will have to answer this season. While camp officially starts on July 26, the first practice is July 27.
To read Saturday’s piece on the questions about Nick Bosa’s health click here.