This San Francisco 49ers season that is at the doorstep of a championship began, improbably, with the fundamental thought that the starting quarterback had to be replaced.
It seems harsh to put it that way now that Jimmy Garoppolo has helped his team make the playoffs and just might be a starting Super Bowl quarterback for the second time in three years, if the 49ers can get past the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, but those are the facts.
The 49ers not only drafted Trey Lance in the first round last April to eventually ease Garoppolo aside and insert Lance, but were aggressive in doing so — trading away three first-round draft picks to Miami in exchange for the Dolphins’ No. 3 overall selection in the 2021 draft, which was used to select Lance.
So as awesome Super Bowl quarterback stories go, Garoppolo’s has a strange opening chapter.
And the current chapter is kind of being written right to left instead of the other way around.
Because Garoppolo this week, and in other portions of this season, has been seen as something less than a player setting the tone for his team. He’s been seen as something less than worthy of great praise. Or any praise.
Because at best, the guy’s been kind of just OK.
Kind of middling.
ESPN’s Mina Kimes upset some folks by saying Garoppolo is like that kid who gets an A on a group project without doing any of the work.
Since the 49ers made their final push toward the playoffs and began postseason play, Garoppolo’s been, well, judge for yourself:
He’s thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in four consecutive games. He has not thrown a touchdown in either of the 49ers’ two playoff victories. And last week against Green Bay, the 49ers’ offense didn’t get in the end zone at all. The team’s only touchdown came on a blocked punt.
Despite this, the Niners have advanced. They’ve reached the NFC Championship Game because other players have done more than expected. Kicker Robbie Gould punted in Week 18, defensive lineman Jordan Willis blocked that punt against the Packers, receiver Deebo Samuel played running back, and left tackle Trent Williams blocked out of the fullback spot as though he were a runaway locomotive.
San Francisco has succeeded because it’s gotten unexpected performances from unexpected players at unexpected times.
And so here’s a suggestion for Jimmy G: It’s your turn, bro.
Show something. Do something no one expects.
Garoppolo is on a team with players who do more than expected, as if by habit. Even he admits he’s never seen anything like it before.
“On a consistent basis like this? Not really, to be honest,” Garoppolo said this week. “Every postseason that I’ve been paying close attention to over the past years, there’s always somebody who you won’t expect to make the play.
“And whether it’s our team, another team, it’s just something that I’ve noticed over the years. And when guys can do that — because you already have your A-players, and they need to play like A-players — but when someone else can step up in those key moments and do something like Jordan this past week … that’s what makes for a good team, man.
“That’s what makes you tough to beat.”
The 49ers have been tough to beat with their quarterback playing below NFL quarterback standards in recent weeks. Imagine if they had him step up?
If the A-player — to follow a theme from the last few paragraphs — earned his grade?
The 49ers believe Garoppolo is capable of this. They’re convinced he is, regardless of what pundits or social media say.
“Jimmy is one of the main reasons we’re here,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He’s done an unbelievable job. People don’t give him enough credit.
“Yeah, we win as a team and that’s why he doesn’t always have the same stats that some of these MVP candidates have, but Jimmy’s a very good quarterback and he doesn’t worry about any of that stuff. He doesn’t worry about social media.”
Yeah, um, let’s recall that social media didn’t draft Lance to be their new starting QB. That was Shanahan and the San Francisco personnel department.
But it’s nonetheless clear the locker room believes in Garoppolo and so do the assistant coaches on the staff.
“As I’ve said multiple times, when you’re the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, you kind of have the spotlight on you based on the players that have played the position before you,” tight end George Kittle said. “And there’s a lot of people that consistently try to bring you out of that spotlight. All Jimmy had done is stand firm and continue to throw darts left and right to all of us, so I just appreciate that from him.”
So what has to happen for Garoppolo to perform as though he’s part of the solution rather than part of the problem? Well, confidence would help.
“He’s his most confident when he has ownership,” offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said. “He’s been in big situations before.
“I know on game day he has a fire about him, that as he’s more confident and expects more of himself, guys feed off that and it’s organic. It’s not, ‘Hey, come on, guys.’ It’s ‘Let’s go!’ And guys respond to that, and it’s been awesome to watch him through that process.”
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