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The 49ers’ master plan may be a bet on Jimmy Garoppolo



© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Emmanuel Sanders is heading to New Orleans, DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis and Jimmy Garoppolo remains the 49ers’ starting quarterback.

However you feel about Garoppolo, there’s not a valid argument to be made that he’s a bad quarterback. The debate on him revolves around the question of whether his above-averageness can eventually evolve. Could he grasp hold of those upper rungs of quarterbacking nobility?

The answer to that question remains nebulous. The extremes of talking heads on either side of the great Garoppolo debate versus the middle-of-the-road opinions tend to revert to the mean answer which is: maybe.

There was a line uttered by Kyle Shanahan twice — once in his end-of-season availability and once at the NFL Combine — that stood out: his comparison of Garoppolo to Baker Mayfield. It was not an attribute-related comparison, but one based on experience.

“I think Jimmy is one of the main reasons we got to the Super Bowl. I think he overcame a lot,” Shanahan said three days after the Super Bowl. “This was his first year in his career going through an entire NFL season. He still doesn’t have as many starts and stuff as [Cleveland Browns QB] Baker Mayfield.

“I think he had a hell of a first year truly playing the position, especially coming off an ACL where you have to fight through that a ton as a quarterback, where your rhythm and everything is not there at the beginning of the year. For him to be like that and to not let the pressure get to him, and to improve as the year went, I think says a ton about Jimmy. I can’t tell you how much I loved coaching the guy as a player and as a person this year.”

And again, at the Combine:

“Yeah, I think Jimmy deserves a ton of credit for what he did this year,” Shanahan said. “I think people talk a little bit about how he was coming off an ACL, but I also think that people don’t realize that was his first year playing quarterback in this league. I think he got three games in New England and he got five games with us. This was his first time going through a full season. He had less games than [Cleveland Browns QB] Baker Mayfield going into his second year.

“To do that, with the pressure of, to me, everyone thinking you’ve already arrived and coming off an ACL, I thought there was much pressure on him at the beginning of the year as anyone I’ve been around. He just took it, handled it all year and got better throughout the year. I was very impressed with him.”

Effectively the same quote, separated by about three weeks. Now, Shanahan acknowledged he’d just returned from Cabo and was far from locked in to the mess of media and prospects at the Combine, but his Mayfield comparison is telling in that he clearly believes Garoppolo can both achieve more and wasn’t wholly satisfied with what he saw in 2019.

That’s not to say Shanahan was totally disappointed, but the decision-making from the franchise quarterback in 2020 will clearly need to amount to more than above average if the 49ers are going to have a legitimate chance of making the Super Bowl again. Losing your best defensive player and a reliable, veteran target who brought the best out of your young wide receivers (as well as Sheldon Day, a reliable D.J. Jones backup) is not replaceable for a team holding onto its remaining cap space for a massive tight end extension and bargain deals.

The 49ers’ run game could improve if they draft a bulldozing guard, but there’s no clear path for improvement on defense. Emmanuel Moseley or Ahkello Witherspoon could become more consistent, the linebacker corps can, and should grow together, but what allowed the passing defense to be so dominant was the defensive line. It’s hard to see how they’ll recoup the value lost from Buckner.

That’s why they need a spike in value to come from Garoppolo: a sense of ease in knowing he’ll be able to shoulder the load if/when needed. He showed he has that capacity in the second half of the regular season, but not throughout the full duration of the year or the playoffs.

It’s been well-documented that Kyle Shanahan wanted Kirk Cousins, a guy who, for the most part, throws the ball where you tell him to, on time. For an elite schemer like Shanahan, that’s a dream. But Cousins will never be elite because he lacks any sense of off-schedule ability. He’s robotic, generally accurate, and dull.

There was a report by Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer that Garoppolo was “on the clock” for when Cousins became a free agent in 2021. And in the most conspicuous of fashions, Cousins was quickly handed a two-year extension. Sorry, Kyle.

Garoppolo’s situation is unique in that he was stuck behind the greatest quarterback of all time in Tom Brady, in a much-abbreviated Steve Young situation. He played half a season, then lost what was supposed to be his first full year as a starter immediately, so his first full run as a starter came in his sixth season. 2019 should have been billed as something of a redemption year, but because there was less than half a season to go off, there was nothing to redeem.

Here are some statistics of quarterbacks in their first full seasons as an NFL starter. Brady’s 14-start season is the only non-16-game slate. His numbers declined slightly in the following season. Romo had 10 starts the year prior, and Kurt Warner had three outstanding years in the Arena Football League and one year in Amsterdam before becoming an NFL backup, and then starter.

Stats via Football Reference, graphic by Jake Hutchinson

Keep in mind that every single one of these quarterbacks improved after that first full year, with the exception of Warner, who had another fantastic year, then fell off a production cliff, followed by an unprecedented resurgence to win another Super Bowl late in his career in Arizona.

In many ways, Garoppolo actually exceeded what should have been expected of him. He looked every bit a man who lacked game experience and was coming off a serious knee injury through the first six games, when he was averaging 219 yards per game, and had a 7:6 touchdown-to-interception split with dozens of poor decisions that could have easily turned into interceptions.

He took a step forward against the Carolina Panthers (18-of-22, 175 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) aside from a poor decision-turned-Luke Kuechly pick, in a game when Tevin Coleman ran rampant (105 rushing yards, 3 rushing TD, 1 receiving TD).

Garoppolo followed that with a 4 TD coming out game against the Arizona Cardinals (28-for-37, 317 yards, no INTs), and finished the season with a 68.64 completion percentage, 276.6 yards per game and an 18:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. There are of course, fair questions about what happened in the playoffs.

In his first-ever playoff start, he looked noticeably jittery after an excellent, scripted first drive (5-for-6, 57 yards, TD) following an interception resulting from his failure to look off linebacker Eric Kendricks, playing as a hook/curl linebacker. He finished 11-for-19 with 1 TD and 1 INT after that 5-for-6 start.

He wasn’t required to do much in that conference championship game, and was set to be the rightful Super Bowl MVP before that fourth-quarter collapse and defining overthrow of Sanders. So of course, there is still cause for concern over whether he can carry a team in the playoffs. That is something he’s yet to prove.

But unless you believe Nick Mullens is being groomed for the starting job (not an outrageous proposition, especially given his Cousins-like qualities), Garoppolo is the guy in Santa Clara. And it’s not worth nothing that he’s extraordinarily low-maintenance as well as well-liked and respected by teammates for his personality and work ethic. As PR-ey as that statement is, it’s an evident truth within the locker room.

The one caveat to all this is the 49ers’ discernible resistance to restructuring his deal. Rather than touch his money, they kept the ability to cut him intact for the the final two seasons of his deal (just a $1.6 million dead cap hit each year if cut) and shipped Buckner off to the Colts and didn’t make a convincing enough offer to Emmanuel Sanders, in order to acquire a first-round pick, keep Arik Armstead, Jimmie Ward and extend George Kittle.

All signs point to the 49ers drafting a wide receiver with that 13th pick, or trading down and drafting one in the first two rounds. Anything less would be a failure given the talent there, unless they believe they can find better value in later rounds, like in Deebo Samuel’s former South Carolina teammate Bryan Edwards.

Leaving that money as is, though, gives San Francisco more options in the future. If they leave Garoppolo’s contract with copious amounts of non-guaranteed dollars, they can extend him or restructure him with advantageous terms, and avoid a dead cap nightmare.

Of course, they traded a second-round pick and gave him that five-year, $137.5 million deal because they saw something worth being optimistic about in that five-game winning streak as a starter to close out the 2017 season. Clearly, they haven’t lost that cause for optimism.

You have to take everything that front office people say with a grain of salt. You’re never going to hear Lynch badmouth Garoppolo considering he traded for him, but when the 49ers are looking for something more out of a player, he and Shanahan will leave breadcrumbs, often subtly pointing to a player’s flaws, while finishing their answer with a vote of confidence.

Here’s what Lynch said about Garoppolo at the end of the season.

“We’re extremely proud of Jimmy and committed to Jimmy moving forward. He’s our guy. As I said, from the day he walked into our building, he made us better and we continue to feel that’s the case,” Lynch said. “That’s the most exciting thing about him is the room for growth. He’s not come close to hitting his ceiling. I think the room for growth, the more experience he gets in this system, the more experience he gets playing in general, we think the arrow’s up, and that’s a good thing.”

That’s the bet the 49ers are making: Garoppolo’s arrow is up. Given the difficulty of finding a better quarterback through free agency, or causing disruption by drafting one, combined with the mountain of empirical evidence to prove that quarterbacks can peak in their mid-to-late 30s (Steve Young, Warren Moon, Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, etc.), that’s not a bad bet to make.