I have been a fan of the San Francisco 49ers since the 1960's and I have an interest in the team's history.
In the waning moments of the 2021 National Football Conference Championship (NFC) Game between the 49ers and Rams, Jimmy Garoppolo may have thrown his last pass as a San Francisco 49er. It was a desperation throw as he was being dragged to the ground by a defender that was tipped by a would-be receiver and then intercepted. It appears to have ended an approximately four-and-a-half-year stint with the 49ers, which often felt like a roller coaster ride.
He came to the 49ers toward the end of the 2017 season in a trade with the New England Patriots. The 49ers were able to acquire Garoppolo because of a feud between New England quarterback Tom Brady and their head coach, Bill Belichick. Belichick had drafted Garoppolo to be the replacement for Brady when he retired. However, Brady was not ready to retire, and since Garoppolo was about to become a free agent, New England owner Robert Kraft (likely at the urging of Brady) instructed Belichick to trade Garoppolo.
When the 49ers acquired Garoppolo late in the 2017 season, they had a 1-9 record. They would lose one more game before Garoppolo became the starting quarterback. With Jimmy G, starting the 49ers would win their last five games. Not only did they win five straight, but three of the wins were against teams that would make the playoffs. It seemed that the 49ers had found their quarterback for the future.
As the 2018 season approached, there was a lot of optimism surrounding the 49ers. They had finished the 2017 season with five straight wins, and they now had a legitimate starting quarterback. However, Jimmy G would only play three games in the season before sustaining a season-ending ACL tear. The team would finish the season with a 4-12 record.
The 2019 season began with a more of a “wait and see” approach. Garoppolo was coming off an injury from the previous season, and the memories of the fantastic ending to the 2017 season were starting to fade a bit. However, 2019 turned out to be the type of year that everyone was hoping for. The 49ers would win their first eight games and finish the season with a record of 13-3, which was the best in the NFC. They would score 30 points or more in eight games, and they only had two games where they would score less than 20 points.
Garoppolo started every game in 2019, and although the 49ers often relied on their power running game, he was an effective leader who would often come up big when called upon. The most memorable game of the regular season may have been the shootout in New Orleans with Drew Brees and the Saints. The 49ers would win the game 48-46 with Garoppolo throwing for 349 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The 49ers would win two post-season games to advance to the Super Bowl in 2019. They relied almost exclusively on their running game to win those two games. Garoppolo had a total of only 208 passing yards combined in those two games. In the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs, the 49ers would jump to a 20-10 lead only to let it slip away in the fourth quarter. Both head coach Mike Shanahan and Garoppolo received criticism for the collapse. Shanahan was called out for his conservative play calling while Garoppolo was criticized for his errant passes, particularly the overthrow to an open Immanuel Sanders late in the game.
The 2020 season began with a lot of optimism coming off of the Super Bowl appearance. Just like the 2018 season, Jimmy G would suffer injuries that would only let him play in six games in the season. The 49ers would finish with a 6-10 record. This was essentially another lost season for the team and Garoppolo.
After the season, the 49ers would make a trade to move up in the 2021 NFL Draft. This was done to get in a better position to draft a quarterback with their first-round pick. They would draft Trey Lance, who appeared to have a lot of the tools necessary to be successful as a modern-day NFL quarterback. However, Lance had limited experience at the college level. He played at Division II North Dakota State, and he only played a total of 19 games.
With the drafting of Lance, the 49ers made it clear what their long-term plans were. Garoppolo’s days as the 49ers quarterback were numbered. However, the 49ers also made it clear that they wanted Jimmy G for another year as Lance needed more time before assuming the starting role.
From the beginning of training camp in 2021, the question on everyone’s mind was how long Garoppolo would remain the starter. When would Lance take over? Those questions persisted early on as the 49ers struggled in the first half of the season with a 3-5 record. It seemed that something wasn’t right with the team. Their vaunted running game couldn’t seem to get going, and their highly touted defensive line seemed to be unable to stop the run and couldn’t get much of a pass rush.
Lance had started a week 5 game against Arizona due to an injury to Garoppolo. In that game, Lance sustained an injury which sidelined him for a few weeks. If it wasn't for this, Lance may have been installed as the starter after the 3-5 start since the season appeared to be hopelessly lost.
But the direction of the season completely changed in their ninth game against the Rams. They would beat the Rams 31-10. They would have over 150 yards rushing, and the defense would have two interceptions and two sacks. With this newfound momentum, they would win seven of their last nine games to finish 10-7. By virtue of an overtime win on the last day of the season, also against the Rams, they would qualify for the playoffs.
By the time the regular season ended, Jimmy G had sustained a sprained thumb on his throwing hand and a sprained shoulder. So as the playoffs began, he was far from 100%. Despite the injuries, he played well enough for the 49ers to beat Dallas, and then Green Bay during a snowstorm. In the NFC Championship game against the Rams, a TD pass to George Kittle toward the end of the third quarter gave the 49ers a 17-7 lead. However, like the Super Bowl two years earlier, the 49ers were not able to hold the lead. The Rams would rally in the fourth quarter and win 20-17. Part of the reason for the Rams comeback was the inability of the 49ers offense to move the ball in the fourth quarter.
In many ways, the 2021 season could be viewed as a real coming of age for Jimmy G. Given no margin for error due to the team’s slow start, he navigated the team through several close games down the stretch to qualify for the playoffs. He won overtime games against the Rams and Bengals in the regular season and marched the team on a drive that culminated in a game-winning field goal against the Packers in the playoffs.
In the playoffs, his performance could almost be described as heroic. He led the team to the brink of the Super Bowl while playing with significant injuries. However, the way that the NFC Championship game ended left plenty of room for second guessing by his many critics.
So how do you evaluate Garoppolo’s time with the 49ers? He had a 31-14 record in games that he started for the team. In comparison, over the last 45 games through 2021, Tom Brady was also 31-14. Aaron Rodgers was 34-11 and Russell Wilson was 27-18. Only Patrick Mahomes, at 37-8, was significantly better.
In the five years he was with the Niners, during the only two years that he played most of the season, the team went to the Super Bowl and the NFC Championship game. In his first year, he took a 1-10 team on a five-game winning streak at the end of the season.
I think it is also worth pointing out Jimmy G’s personality and how he seemed to be liked by virtually everyone on the team. His willingness to take a hit seemed to be a trait that endeared himself with his teammates. He always seemed to have a positive attitude and didn’t throw his teammates under the bus when he was criticized.
He also has been very restrained in his criticism of the 49ers organization during a season that was probably difficult for him. A lot of quarterbacks who had taken their team to a Super Bowl would have been outraged at their organization drafting an apparent successor. This would have certainly caused dissension within the team. Yet his attitude remained upbeat, and the team seemed to rally around him.
But despite all of his accomplishments with the 49ers, he still has many critics. His critics would point out that he is prone to injury, that he lost almost two full seasons to injuries, and that he was injured again in 2021. It is this propensity to injury that appears to be the main reason that the 49ers drafted Lance. His lofty record with the team has often been attributed more to the entire team rather than Garoppolo himself.
Has Garoppolo been an effective NFL quarterback with the 49ers? Has he won big games for the team? Has he made critical mistakes in big games with the team? Has he been injury prone? Has he played through injuries? I think the answer to all these questions is yes.
In life, we like to have things appear black and white. We don’t want to go to a bakery that has the best pastries you have ever eaten one week and something that is almost inedible the next. We don’t want to go to a dentist that performs a painless root canal one time and then a very painful one the next. We want to be able to clearly label people or things.
But life is not always black and white, and Jimmy G is a perfect example of just that. If you want to focus on his good points, there are many. But if you choose to point out his faults, you can certainly find them.
The 49ers appear to be trying to trade him now, before he becomes a free agent after the 2022 season. Trading him would also rid the 49ers of his roughly $25 million contract and free up some much-needed salary cap space. At present, the Niners have not traded him, likely because teams are concerned about his offseason shoulder surgery and how he will recover from it. It is possible that he may be with the Niners for the 2022 season, but he may still be traded.
When considering whether to trade Garoppolo, there is no doubt that if the 49ers receive a legitimate offer for him, it would be hard to turn it down. But if they don’t, there would be some good reasons to keep him.
His teammates seem to love him and will play hard for him. The Niners have won when he has played, and that can’t be said for any of his replacements during his many injuries. The dream of landing a topflight quarterback this offseason is virtually gone, and there are no guarantees that Lance will be an effective NFL quarterback. Even if he becomes an effective quarterback, how likely is it that he will be good in his first year? This team is ready to win now.
There also may be reason to believe that Garoppolo is still improving as an NFL quarterback. While he has been in the NFL for eight seasons, he has only started in 47 games, which equates to about three full years. The way he finished this past 2021 season with many late game comebacks, he could be just entering his prime. Yes, he wasn’t that effective in some of the playoff games, but remember that he was playing those games with a sprained shoulder and sprained thumb. Can you imagine throwing a football with a sprained thumb on your throwing hand in a snowstorm in Green Bay?
As for Trey Lance, another year sitting on the bench will not be a detriment to his career. Montana sat on the bench for a year and half. Steve Young sat on the bench for four years behind Montana, and Aaron Rodgers sat for three years behind Brett Favre. Another year on the sidelines would likely help Lance since the NFL is such a huge jump from playing Division II college football.
It appears that the Jimmy G soap opera may continue for a few more months until he recovers from his shoulder surgery. Will he be traded? Will the 49ers cut him? Or will he be back for another year? It seems like it is a daily point of debate. But as the time goes by without a legitimate trade offer, I can’t help but think of the famous line by the singer Jackson Browne, “Won’t you stay just a little bit longer.”