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Assessing the likely end of the Jimmy Garoppolo era

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

We have now reached the point where it is possible, if not likely, that Jimmy Garoppolo has played his final down for the San Francisco 49ers.

The fact that he continued for this long — returning to the team as the starter after the 49ers drafted up to select Trey Lance third overall — was already somewhat surprising.

But given that most free agency business had already concluded by the draft, keeping Garoppolo around on a competitive roster was not an absurd decision. He was always the known commodity, whereas Lance — a 21-year-old from a non-FBS school with one real college season under his belt — was a total wild card.

As logical as the decision to stick with Garoppolo was in a vacuum, it didn’t align with reality. Keeping him while his replacement, who flashed his talent to teammates daily, was stashed on the roster, created an undercurrent of unease.

This was not a team as well-rounded as the 2019 roster, and the book has been out on Garoppolo for quite some time. He is mostly efficient, especially over the middle of the field, but can often make up his mind on throws too early and has tendency to turn the ball over at inopportune times.

The fact that the 49ers are a fringe playoff team with Jimmy G at the helm is par for the course.

Some of that lies on Garoppolo, but much of it is on inconsistency from this team, especially throughout the first half of the season. That is Kyle Shanahan’s burden to bear, and the uncertainty at quarterback may have contributed to those early-season failures.

But here we are, with the 49ers, at 8-7, two wins away from a guaranteed playoff berth and their rookie quarterback about to take the reigns during the most consequential stretch of the season. Jimmy Garoppolo is likely headed elsewhere this offseason, likely to a vaguely competitive team with cap space and quarterback uncertainty. See: Washington, Pittsburgh and Denver.

At this stage, Garoppolo is a 30-year-old, 8-year NFL veteran who spent three of those years under the still not-retired Tom Brady. When he showed up to Santa Clara, he embarked upon a furiously impressive stretch.

The fact that we’ve reached this tepid, uncertain stage of Garoppolo’s career is stunning given his thrilling entrance.

He led a 1-10 roster to five-straight wins. And despite all that flash and immediate success, there is still the question: Was that the best we saw of Garoppolo? Is it the best we’ll ever see of Garoppolo? With a limited playbook, he seemed to bring a carefree, gunslinging style to a roster in dire need of a leader. It felt, if only for a moment, that he could be San Francisco’s next franchise quarterback.

The video above felt like a product of his tutelage under Brady and Belichick. It massively encouraging sign of his confidence in leading an offense. It showed his adeptness at talking through routes with his new receivers and his understanding of how defenses would approach them before a two-minute drill. He wasn’t going to be Brady, but Brady-lite? That sounded pretty enticing.

The following year, he tore his ACL, and that progress came to a screeching halt.

Then the Super Bowl run followed, and featured some of his great moments, like the 48-46 shootout win over the Saints.

But for as close as he came to reaching the pinnacle, he will be forever defined by that overthrow of Emmanuel Sanders.

It is that part of his game — the deep ball, and stretching the field consistently towards the deeper boundaries — which seems to have evaporated entirely, and will always leave us wondering if Garoppolo lost some of himself after that injury, or if Kyle Shanahan’s compulsion for perfection, and lack of trust in Garoppolo, dented his confidence.

Even in 2019, some of the iconic deep completions, like the two to Emmanuel Sanders against the Rams and Saints, were underthrown. Maybe he was never going to be a great deep thrower to begin with, but it feels like he lost conviction in that part of his game after that first five-game stretch.

2020 was the beginning of the end, and much of it was out of Garoppolo’s hands, as injuries further derailed his season.

As cruel as the reality is, it is perhaps fitting that Garoppolo’s career with San Francisco may end with an injury. That glimpse we saw in 2017 will always linger as a thought of what could have been. If this is indeed the end for him, he’ll finish with a 30-14 record as a starting quarterback with the 49ers. Not bad for a relative disappointment.

That glimpse is what has made his tenure so frustrating. He’ll have stretches of reliability and make tough throws into tight windows, but also throw some balls that are so stunningly ill-conceived that they defy explanation. Without elite arm talent or really any elite physical traits, the Garoppolo-led 49ers have largely had to thread the needle of success. His upside is limited. The downside is substantial.

But on the whole, Garoppolo’s highs and lows revert to the mean, which state pretty clearly that he is an average quarterback. And in a league where finding competency at quarterback is difficult, especially with great offensive coaching, average can be enough to give you belief.

That’s why San Francisco kept him around despite being open about their mistrust and desire to rid themselves of his services. They knew he wasn’t bad enough to throw this season away, but also believed he wasn’t good enough to win them a Super Bowl.

That again begs the question of why this organization did not just rip the band-aid off. Perhaps they value the year of learning that Trey Lance is getting from the sidelines, despite Shanahan admitting he needs to play. Or they felt, as has been reported by Benjamin Allbright and Ian Rapoport, that they needed to recoup value for Garoppolo given the outsized cost of the Lance trade.

But for as underwhelming as Garoppolo has increasingly been, there’s no questioning that he will not leave having alienated himself from teammates or staff. He is unquestionably a frustrating quarterback, but was well-liked and trusted, for the most part, by his teammates.

When asked difficult questions by media in a press conference setting, he has always tended towards platitudes, but he’s never been brusque or rude. It counts for something to have a starting quarterback who is likable, and by most accounts, a decent, low-maintenance person.

There will be no hard feelings within the organization when he leaves, and the way he dealt with the situation of having his replacement drafted in front of his own eyes was commendable. That’s not an easy ask, and Garoppolo deserves credit for handling it well.

Where he goes next is anyone’s guess, and San Francisco may benefit from what’s believed to be a poor crop of quarterback in the 2021 draft. They may have to wait a while, however, for the potential Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson sweepstakes to play out until they move on from Garoppolo.

And you can be sure to hear reports that San Francisco actually might hold onto Garoppolo, despite the obvious cap space hell that would put them in.

But no matter when or where Garoppolo departs, he will be remembered as a key part of a resurgent era of 49ers football, reinvigorating the franchise after the doldrums of the post-Harbaugh era. He was and is a flawed quarterback whose injuries played a major part in derailing his trajectory, but he was undeniably successful in his four-and-a-half years as the 49ers’ starting quarterback.


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