It’s hard to believe, but for the first time since Jim Harbaugh was the 49ers’ head coach, it’s not hard to watch.
The 49ers are finally appointment television again, and it’s all thanks to the man under center. Partial credit, of course, should go to Bill Belichick, but we’ll get to that later.
For the third consecutive Sunday, Jimmy Garoppolo led the 49ers to a victory, improving his career record as a starter to 5-0 and his record in red and gold to a jaw-dropping 3-0. And yes, even for those of you who say you knew Garoppolo would be this good (you didn’t), it’s almost impossible to grasp the magnitude of the moment.
On their fourth coach in four years, the 49ers began the 2017 season expecting to land a top-five pick in next year’s draft. It was a multi-year rebuild, the type of deep cleaning that merited a roster purge and wholesale changes that led everyone to believe San Francisco was destined to spend the next few seasons in the NFC West cellar.
There was a new general manager, John Lynch, who had never spent a day as an NFL executive, and a new coach, Kyle Shanahan, who had never run his own team before. There was a veteran quarterback, Brian Hoyer, who inspired belief in very few, and his rookie backup, C.J. Beathard, who became the punching bag for defensive linemen everywhere. There was the first 0-8 start in franchise history, and there was a legitimate threat that Levi’s Stadium might not welcome a crowd of more than 40,000 fans until the next time Bruno Mars decided to play a concert in the Bay Area.
There was no reason to think San Francisco would compete in the near future, because the 49ers’ roster looked like a combination of rookies with promise, and castaways holding spots until 2018, when the 49ers could once again stock their roster full of rookies with promise.
Names began to float. USC’s Sam Darnold. UCLA’s Josh Rosen. Wyoming’s Josh Allen. Or perhaps the Washington Redskins’ Kirk Cousins. At some point, a 49ers team that was ripped down to its core would need a foundation to build upon, and the overwhelming school of thought was that the foundation might be A) Inexperienced (a rookie) or B) Underwhelming (Cousins).
But on October 30, plans shifted. The 49ers and Patriots executed what could go down as one of the most significant trades in NFL history, as Belichick agreed to ship Tom Brady’s backup, Garoppolo, to San Francisco in exchange for a second round draft pick. It was a gamble, to be sure, for San Francisco, because so many teams have learned the hard way what trading with New England really means. It’s often like doing a deal with the devil, because you never know if your soul has been ripped out of you.
But this trade felt different.
It had all the makings to load San Francisco up for the future, provided Shanahan could give Garoppolo a chance to take the field. The truth of the matter is that Garoppolo didn’t have to play in 2017, because asking him to take snaps behind this 49ers’ offensive line was a health and safety hazard. Just ask Mr. Beathard.
But alas, three Sundays ago, Garoppolo finally received his chance. Though he never found the end zone, he led a game-winning comeback drive that resulted in a last-second field goal by Robbie Gould that netted San Francisco its second win of the season. The 49ers haven’t lost since.
Last weekend, Garoppolo shredded the Houston Texans, completing 20-of-33 attempts for 334 yards in a resounding 26-16 win. So what the Texans didn’t have J.J. Watt on the field? In two starts, Garoppolo was 2-0, a far cry from the 1-10 record Hoyer and Beathard combined to post this season.
This Sunday, though, Garoppolo outdid himself, and turned a budding local story into a national headline-grabber. Thanks to another game-winning drive that set up another last-second Gould field goal –his sixth make of the day– the 49ers took down the Tennessee Titans and earned their first victory over a team with a winning record. In the process, Garoppolo became the first 49ers’ quarterback since Jeff Garcia to throw for 300 yards in back-to-back games, as his 381 passing yards set a new season-high for San Francisco’s signal-callers this year.
With Garoppolo at the helm, suddenly anything is possible. Those multi-year rebuild blueprints can be thrown in the trash, and those plans to draft a quarterback can be replaced by a long-term contract padded up with guaranteed money. It’s Jimmy G’s world, and the 49ers are just living in it.
Within his first three starts in a 49ers’ uniform, Garoppolo has already established he’s among the top-third of passers in the league. There’s a very good chance he has the skill set to prove himself as a top-five passer in 2018, but to do so, the 49ers will need more weapons. Garoppolo is 3-0 with a wide receiver unit featuring Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor and Kendrick Bourne as his best threats, and he’s playing behind a makeshift offensive line that’s missing stud right tackle Trent Brown.
There’s no question Garoppolo has earned the keys to the car, but now, it’s up to Lynch and Shanahan to make sure the vehicle looks more like a Ferrari and less like a minivan.
With the 49ers’ future set at the quarterback position, it’s on the team’s management to provide Garoppolo with the reinforcements to contend right away. San Francisco is in a tough NFC West division that’s led by a remarkably efficient Rams team, but suddenly, the Cardinals and Seahawks look as if they’ll be within striking distance come 2018. If the 49ers draft well and use their seemingly endless cap space to configure a more competitive roster, Garoppolo has all the talent needed to push this team into contention near the top of the division, or at the very least, a wildcard spot.
Within a span of three weeks, Garoppolo has turned the 49ers from a team saddled by uncertainty to a franchise with a clear direction. San Francisco is on the way up, and with a young passer to build around, the team should have no problem luring top free agents to the Bay Area.
Surrounded by a weak supporting cast and a roster with clear and obvious deficiencies, Garoppolo is 3-0. He’s already reinvigorated the fan base, and inspired the teammates around him. Next year, the 49ers have every reason to believe they’ll be better, and with more experience under his belt, Garoppolo should be too.
The future is finally bright for the 49ers, and Garoppolo appears poised to help the franchise contend.