There’s a video of Jimmy Garoppolo that the NFL’s official Twitter account posted at 4:15 Pacific time on Sunday. The 30-year-old, now wearing a ballcap instead of his helmet, looks out at the crowd and glows before starting to skip his way into the Levi’s Stadium tunnel. And as he picks up speed, Garoppolo shouts at the top of his lungs.
The Niners are Garoppolo’s team again. It’s through a cruel twist of fate—Trey Lance broke his ankle in the first quarter of San Francisco’s Week 2 win over Seattle, and that’ll almost certainly end his season—that we got here. But we’re here nonetheless. And Garoppolo is ready for all the good, all the bad and everything else that comes with it.
So you can excuse Garoppolo if, less than an hour after the Niners easily dispatched the rival Seahawks 27–7, he took a question about when he started to feel like himself and went somewhere else entirely with it. He was still riding the high of having played (almost) four quarters of football and, at least on this day, it was hard to look past that.
“I think the touchdown to [Ross] Dwelley, obviously, gave me some confidence, like, All right, now we’re rolling. We’re playing football now,” Garoppolo told me, as his day came to a close. “I don’t know, it’s really just a better appreciation for the fans and the atmosphere. I sound like an old guy saying this, but when I was young, I really didn’t appreciate that part of the game. I was so locked into football and what’s happening on the field.
“And you need to have that. But there is a sense of, you got to smell the roses a little bit and look around.”
On Sunday, inexplicably, we got to see again what Garoppolo is built for, and see it in San Francisco. We saw it less than a month after it seemed a certainty he’d taken his last real snap as a Niner, and weeks after he agreed to stay on as a backup. There was a point in August, in fact, when it seemed more likely that he’d be in Santa Clara as the visiting quarterback in Week 2.
But Garoppolo blazed his own trail in taking a curious leap of faith, hoping things would work out for him. And they did, even if it was an ugly break that made it so.
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Fourteen games down, two to go in Week 2, and we’ve got a ton to get to. And like we said last week, we’re going to keep tweaking the column in the aftermath of some wholesale changes we made to The MMQB last week. So inside The MMQB this week, you’ll find …
• Our new Three Deep post, which will dive into the Sundays of the Dolphins, Jets and Cowboys, and their quarterbacks.
• The Takeaways, which will kick off with a look at Trevor Lawrence in his second year, and one into Jared Goff in his second year in Detroit.
• We’ll wrap up with the Odds and Ends post, which will include my thoughts on the looming cast of draft quarterbacks, and why you shouldn’t speak in absolutes on them.
For now, The Lead this week will look back, and look forward, as the Niners reboot an old formula with their old/new quarterback back in the saddle.
Before he and I got to what’s next for the Niners, Garoppolo had to address how he ended up back on the field on Sunday in the first place. That part of the story played out a little over 12 minutes into Sunday’s game, on a second-and-8 from the Seattle 21.
Before the snap, Ray-Ray McCloud motioned in, lining up to Lance’s right. Lance then called for the ball, put it in McCloud’s belly, and followed his read to keep it. He ran behind left tackle Trent Williams, pulling to the right, into the right side of the line. Seahawks defensive tackle Bryan Mone and linebacker Cody Barton converged onLance behind Williams and, under their weight, Lance’s right ankle bent back the wrong way, and broke. Lance will have surgery on Monday.
“It’s tough, man,” Garoppolo says. “Injuries, it’s never fun, and especially for a young guy like that, I’ve been in his shoes and it’s going to be tough initially. But it’s how you come out after. I’m a big believer in that. Trey’s a tough dude, he’s got a good mindset, and I’m hoping [for] the best for him.”
And when it was over, Garoppolo went with a bunch of his teammates to the training room to see Lance and reiterated the message—that he’d been there, and that he knows it sucks, but that it’s important to draw some positives out of a tough situation. The message could resonate with Lance, too, since he just saw Garoppolo do just that.
Going back to when the Niners traded up nine spots to position themselves to land a quarterback in the 2021 draft, Garoppolo knew his days in San Francisco were numbered. After San Francisco took Lance with the intention of redshirting him as a rookie, Garoppolo knew he’d have to grit his teeth, swallow his pride, and do the best he could with a Super Bowl–caliber roster even with all that writing on the wall.
You know the rest. Garoppolo helped the Niners to the NFC title game. The Niners followed the course they charted thereafter to hand the reins to Lance. Garoppolo had a shoulder injury that he first tried to rehab, then had to have surgery on. And that surgery made it much more difficult to move Garoppolo than it would’ve been otherwise—and impossible to get the price (a couple second-round picks) they were looking for.
So the situation lingered, other teams filled their quarterback openings, and the Niners and Garoppolo were stuck with each other. Which led to Garoppolo spending the first few weeks of camp throwing by himself on a side field and going home when his teammates would go into meetings, with the premise being there was no need for anyone to waste anyone else’s time if he wasn’t gonna be on the team.
“Weird offseason in general,” Garoppolo says. “I go back to the shoulder surgery—didn’t think I had to get it and then all of a sudden, rehab’s not working so we had to get it. Then, yeah, being on the side field, I had my guy catching balls for me, he did a great job, he’s one of the interns here, and yeah, it was weird. Honestly, just the whole situation—didn’t know if I was going to be here … I’m rambling, man.”
Rambling because, well, there’s a lot there—right down to the staffer who was catching the ball out on a practice field adjacent to where Lance was leading the first offense.
“It was just funny, we didn’t have, like, receivers, so he was the only guy that could catch for me,” Garoppolo says, laughing. “He actually was [good]. He’s like 6-foot-3 so he’s got a good catch radius.”
But, of course, it’d be hard for anyone in that situation not to think they were spinning their wheels. And Garoppolo was.
Kyle Shanahan was the one who, out of nowhere, came to Garoppolo with the message: As frustration mounted on both sides over the lack of a real trade partner, the door was open for Garoppolo’s return. Not at the $24.2 million base he was due, of course. And not as the starter. But if Garoppolo wanted to stick around, Shanahan said, the Niners would be amenable to working something out.
“It was right in the middle of training camp, [Kyle] kind of just called me in one day and threw out the idea, and it really wasn’t even on my radar until he said something about it,” Garoppolo says. “And then he kind of laid it out and obviously the re-structure is what it is, I think it had to be done just with the situation. I know it sounds weird, but things kind of just fell into place, honestly. It wasn’t like I was planning on this happening or anything.
“But I’m a big believer in, if you’re a good person, good things will happen to you.”
And absent there being a starting job with a contender waiting for him, the more he thought about it, the more the status quo made sense.
“I mean, honestly, at one point, I didn’t think I was going to be a Niner,” he continues. “I was pretty set on going to a couple different teams I had in mind. And then all of a sudden things switched [at the] last second. There was a lot of familiarity with the organization, the offense, teammates, all that stuff played a role. It was just a good opportunity. I know we got a good team here and I know everyone keeps saying this, but we’ve got a chance at a Super Bowl and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
So he accepted the Niners’ parameters—he’d have to make less than what Lance’s rookie deal averages ($8.525 million) in base pay, with the chance to make more of what he was giving up back in play-time incentives, and got no-tag and no-trade provisions for agreeing to the deal, which gave him some control.
Still, it’s not like he could’ve forecast what happened Sunday. And, as we talked, he was sure to keep saying how badly he feels for Lance, especially since, as he said, he’s been there before. “It all starts with Trey,” he says. “Obviously, I feel terrible for him, I’ve been on that side of it; I’ve dealt with it.”
But it did happen, and with Garoppolo’s patience and belief keeping him in a place where he’d be ready, it didn’t take him long to feel comfortable running the Niners’ offense again.
On his first snap, a third-and-6 on which Garoppolo would hit Brandon Aiyuk for four yards to make Robbie Gould’s field goal just a little shorter, Seattle rusher Uchenna Nwosu came free off the edge to Garoppolo’s left, and buried him into the turf on arrival.
“I got hit pretty good,” Garoppolo says. “So it kind of woke me up in a good way. I was happy about that. And then, honestly, after that, it was just playing ball.”
The Niners’ next series started with Deebo Samuel drawing a 16-yard interference penalty on Coby Bryant, which was followed by Garoppolo finding Aiyuk for 12 yards, McCloud for 16, and then Dwelley for the 38-yard scoring strike that put the quarterback at 4-for-4 for 70 yards.
“Yeah, just little play-action, we knew their linebackers were aggressive, they stepped up and we kind of hit it right behind them,” he says. “Cleared it out with a post and Dwelley ran a corner for the touchdown. And he just made a little move at the goal-line to get in there. It’s just … it was a lot of fun today, man.”
Winning, of course, is fun, and came a little easier on this Sunday for the Niners. After that 4-for-4 start, Garoppolo was just 9-of-17 for 84 yards, and San Francisco still won by 20. The key, of course, was that the run game was working (45 carries, 189 yards), and the defense was dominating. And so, as had been the plan with Lance, the Niners’ blueprint didn’t ask too much of Garoppolo, and the team won going away.
There will come a time, at some point, when the Niners need more from the quarterback than they did on Sunday, and Garoppolo knows that, too. But for this week, just playing was plenty.
Garoppolo knows, looking ahead now, what the expectations are. The 49ers brought him back as insurance to protect a team good enough to win a title, and now it’s fair to say the policy they took out is paying off handsomely, as clunky and uncomfortable as it looked to those on the outside.
But, again, Sunday wasn’t about numbers or trophies. It was about getting to play again, and getting to do it with a group of teammates who stuck with him—another reason for him to stick around when he could have forced September free agency a few weeks back.
“Oh yeah, those are my guys,” he says. “Going to a new team in the middle of training camp? I’ve been traded in the middle of the year; it’s hard to learn a new offense all of the sudden like that, new players and getting accustomed to all that stuff. It was just a very familiar situation here.”
For the first time in a while, the Niners can say—without even a hint of a qualifier—that the feeling is mutual.
They have a shiny, fresh 1–0 mark to show for that. They also have much bigger things in mind. Garoppolo does too, with his relationship to his team having just become a whole lot less complicated than it was.
And yes, it was complicated. When I asked him how he’s let so much roll off his back over the last 18 months, he jokes, “What are you talking about, man?” But he concedes now that there were things that got to him, and getting past it meant being able to look past his own emotions.
“I mean, trust me, there’s some things that I do take personally,” he says. “But for the most part, when things are out of your control, why stress about it? You just got to worry about the things you can control. We’re in the f—ing NFL, man. Go have some fun.”
Garoppolo had plenty of fun on Sunday—and there’s a lot more to come.
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