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Where did the 49ers’ plan for Jimmy Garoppolo go wrong?

Rohan Chakravarthi
Dec 10, 2021 at 10:30 AM

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Sunday's loss to the Seattle Seahawks summed up the San Francisco 49ers season: one mired by mediocrity and fueled by self-inflicted mistakes. Now, we could take the last five weeks and piece together a high-functioning football team that seemed to be clicking on all cylinders, injuries aside. But, looking at the whole season in perspective, mediocrity is the best word that describes this 6-6 effort, especially after a loss in which the 49ers shot themselves in the foot so many times that they ended up losing to a team that had lost six of their last seven.

Now, everything isn't all lost, not at all. The 49ers sit in the 7th spot in the NFC playoff seeding and are still in a position to make the playoffs due to their tiebreaker wins over fellow competitors: the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings.

But, with the amount of potential this team has showcased all season long, it's fairly disappointing that the 49ers continue to find ways to self-destruct this late into the season and lose football games.

At the heart of it all is veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Speaking specifically about Sunday, while Garoppolo wasn't the only reason San Francisco lost, he played an integral role, both positively and negatively.

The 49ers came into this season with a plan: develop the rookie they spent three first-round picks on by sitting him on the bench and start Garoppolo, who's been relatively the same quarterback every year he's started in San Francisco in terms of skillset. Well, the plan was flawed from the start, and let's break down exactly how.

The Offseason

The turmoil all started with the trade rumors of quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Matthew Stafford, who both had requested trades from their respective organizations, and in the middle of both reports were the 49ers, who evidently were looking to upgrade at the quarterback position, caring about the player first and the locker room morale second.

It seemed like the 49ers were high in the running for Stafford, making it even more crushing when the division-rival Los Angeles Rams swooped in to get their franchise quarterback, although at a cost of two first-round picks, along with their own starter Jared Goff, who, like Garoppolo, carried a heavy cap-hit, despite being a rather mediocre quarterback, at least in 2020.

That turmoil came to fruition on March 29th, when it was reported just 20 minutes before the trade that the 49ers were in talks to move up in the draft nearly a month ahead, presumably for a quarterback. And then, all hell broke loose. It was confirmed: San Francisco was sending not one, not two, but a whopping three first-round picks, along with a 2021 third-rounder for the #3 overall pick. What made the news even crazier was the bluntness of Kyle Shanahan, who directly iterated that the move was for San Francisco's quarterback of the future, immediately putting Jimmy Garoppolo's future with the team into question.

The team had essentially thrown their starter under the bus during the early offseason rumors with both Stafford and Watson, and poured fuel to the fire by trading away the majority of their future for a specific player, not on draft night, but rather an entire month ahead.

It certainly didn't help that Shanahan reminisced about his failed opportunity with Stafford, citing in July that he was very close to a deal but ultimately didn't gauge the seriousness of the situation properly, allowing McVay to take the prized Detroit quarterback from his lap. Not only was Shanahan naive during the trade talks, but six months after the trade, he still discussed the interest in Stafford, only lowering the confidence and trade value of his current veteran starter, Jimmy Garoppolo.

Then came draft night. And no trade for San Francisco's veteran quarterback was in place yet. Suddenly, following the two expected picks of Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, the 49ers were on the clock, and they chose to go with Trey Lance, the one rookie quarterback who hadn't played in 2020 and perhaps the rawest of the five quarterbacks, over the likes of Justin Fields and Mac Jones, who both are the starters for their respective teams currently.

After constantly showing interest in what seemed like every potential quarterback on the market, including options like Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco to be their bridge starters, San Francisco continuously struck out and was left with a quarterback with near-to-no trade value remaining. And still, despite all their efforts to get rid of Garoppolo, they reportedly turned down a second-round pick from the New England Patriots for the quarterback, per ESPN's Seth Wickersham, which Shanahan vehemently denied. Still, the amount of controversy around the situation with Garoppolo was already head-scratching.

In addition to the hesitation in keeping Garoppolo, the 49ers were reluctant to create cap space by restructuring or even extending Jimmy Garoppolo's contract to perhaps make enough space to bring in another quality cornerback in free agency for insurance, or other pieces that were available on the market. Instead, they let the entire league know their intentions with their starting quarterback and continued as if nothing happened following the draft.

Now, the decision to keep Garoppolo and his $27.5 million cap hit was somewhat shadowed by San Francisco's other offseason moves, as the 49ers were somehow able to re-sign a significant amount of their key free agents, despite having minimal cap space, ironically due to Garoppolo's large contract. They brought back offensive linemen Trent Williams, Tom Compton, and Daniel Brunskill, defensive backs Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley, K'Waun Williams, Jaquiski Tartt, and Dontae Johnson, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, running back Jeff Wilson Jr., and defensive tackle D.J. Jones.

Nine of the ten players re-signed have been or currently are starters for the 49ers, with Wilson Jr. being the exception, and eight of the ten are on one-year deals. That doesn't bode well for a team's future, especially when the players don't have chemistry with their supposed future leader—Lance. After months of hindering Garoppolo's name publicly, despite this team rolling behind their quarterback of the last five years, was everything supposed to just return to normal when the 30-year old veteran wasn't traded? While stars like George Kittle and Trent Williams have continuously had Garoppolo's back, it certainly doesn't help with all the backlash from the media.

Perhaps that's why Garoppolo was kept. The locker room certainly wouldn't have been the same without that presence from the last few years; that was seen after San Francisco's Week 8 win against the Chicago Bears.

But, if Garoppolo was such a locker room presence, why not make the moves quietly, like they did when trading up to No. 3 overall pick, rather than put all thoughts into the public sphere? To me, this season has been a spiral from the offseason, where the 49ers tried saving themselves with a multitude of one-year deals to make a last push for a playoff spot to be an attractive free-agent destination in 2022, when the rookie Trey Lance would presumably take over as the starter. However, as Shanahan failed to gauge the seriousness during the Stafford trade talks, he yet again failed to realize the impact that all the talk around Garoppolo would have on the locker room and this football team as a whole.

And that's where the 49ers first failed. Rather than becoming an attractive destination, San Francisco had turned into a toxic culture of indecisiveness before 2022 even began. It seems like every move the 49ers have planned has tried to put one foot in the basket for 2022, but keeping that other foot in 2021, trying to fight a tough battle in two worlds where they were in over their heads.

The Draft

Looking at their draft picks in 2021, San Francisco selected Trey Lance, Aaron Banks, Trey Sermon, Ambry Thomas, Deommodore Lenoir, Jaylon Moore, Talanoa Hufanga, and Elijah Mitchell.

Their draft class symbolizes the methodology of fighting in both 2021 and 2022: Lance was for 2022, which was proven almost immediately when Shanahan ruled out a quarterback battle during training camp, despite Lance playing better in some aspects, such as in his willingness to take deep shots. Still, it seemed as if Shanahan had already pushed Lance towards his 2022 plans, wanting to set an exact plan in which he could function, which was intriguing because Lance would allow the offensive guru to open up his creative mind with an endless possibility of plays.

Similarly, Aaron Banks, a less-agile that was better suited for a power-run scheme or pass protection rather than San Francisco's zone-heavy offensive scheme, seemed like a pick specific for 2022, when Shanahan would change up the playbook to open up the offense for Trey Lance, both in the passing game and running game, where Lance runs with power, as opposed to utilizing his speed on the outside. However, in 2021, the 49ers have continued their zone-heavy scheme, which was why Daniel Brunskill started the year as the starter, despite being an average offensive lineman, at best. Still, the Aaron Banks pick has not truly negatively impacted the 49ers yet, as they've managed to sport an above-average offensive line this year with the pieces they have.

Moving forward, Trey Sermon seemed like a pick for 2021, as his power-run outlook would complement Raheem Mostert, whose knowledge of Shanahan's outside-zone scheme was why this 49er offense had been moving the last few years. Sermon would add something different, an element this offense hadn't had since Carlos Hyde and Frank Gore, with his ability to bruise through defenses and get yardage. Rather than going for hammer plays like Mostert, Sermon could've opened up Shanahan's playbook to incorporate more power-run plays, stretching out defenses even more.

However, Sermon couldn't pick up steam following training camp, where he was the presumed "top dog" behind Mostert, starting a trend of Shanahan rookies that leveled off following an early burst, as Trey Lance had a similar trajectory after a strong start. In addition, with Sermon following more of a power-run scheme, he also could be pointed towards the "drafted-for-2022" pile because he fits the system San Francisco looks like they'll run next year with Lance, Sermon, and Banks in the fold: a more power-anointed scheme, utilizing the quarterback, and extending drives for long periods of time, while also opening up the passing game. So, once again, Shanahan was caught trying to balance the present with the future, all while having a quarterback controversy on his hands, as Garoppolo knew he wasn't going to be in San Francisco past 2021, barring unforeseen circumstances.

Ambry Thomas, Deommodore Lenoir, Talanoa Hufanga, and Elijah Mitchell all seemed like 2022 draft picks for the players that San Francisco re-signed in the offseason: Jason Verrett, K'Waun Williams, Jaquiski Tartt, and Raheem Mostert, respectively. However, the injury bug hit the 49ers, forcing Lenoir, originally projected as a slot-corner, to the outside, where he played well during the preseason. But, it was evident that both Lenoir and Thomas were for 2022, as Shanahan elected to start a player off the street without much knowledge of the playbook in Josh Norman over the rookie during San Francisco's Week 2 win against the Philadelphia Eagles. Then, Shanahan followed suit by making Dre Kirkpatrick, another free agent signed straight off the streets, available over both rookies, signaling the confidence that San Francisco's head coach had in his two first-year defensive backs.

Hufanga was also thrust into action during the preseason due to injuries to Jaquiski Tartt and then Tavon Wilson but was originally third on the depth chart at strong safety, despite being considered a "draft steal" after being selected in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Hufanga's recently gotten action as San Francisco's began to play three safeties on the field, but it's interesting that the rookies being drafted in the later rounds are the ones playing in 2021, rather than those drafted with earlier picks.

Look at Elijah Mitchell. Perhaps the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year, Mitchell was originally far down on the 49ers depth chart but shot up following Trey Sermon's struggles and injuries to Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. Mitchell's ability to gain yards after contact indicate his aggressiveness, which will be needed in a more power-run reliant scheme in 2022, but his 4.3 speed, or what looks like it, opens up the outside-zone for the 49ers, which is why they've been such a successful team on the ground.

Out of all the 2021 draft picks for San Francisco, only Mitchell has made a legitimate impact, expressing the 49ers' desire to develop for 2022 while staying competitive in 2021, which is a dangerous ground to tread if you want to avoid mediocrity.

The Season

Anyways, back to Garoppolo. During the preseason, the 49ers experimented with their two-quarterback sets, bringing in Trey Lance during red zone opportunities against the Las Vegas Raiders, which brought initial success, showcasing San Francisco's potential with their two dynamic quarterbacks.

But, given the substantial differences that the two offensive systems had, it was certain that a two-quarterback system was not sustainable long-term, which was best seen during Trey Lance's first career start against the Arizona Cardinals. With the offensive line having to shift the amount that they did due to Trey Lance's skill set, there were an insurmountable of self-inflicted mistakes, even from stout left tackle Trent Williams.

In this 2021 season, it seems like there have been many turning points for the 49ers, especially at the quarterback position.

Fast forward to Week 3, aka San Francisco's first legitimate test: a Sunday Night matchup with the Green Bay Packers. After two relatively easy, yet close, matchups against the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles, the 49ers were set to take on the Packers at home. In fact, I even mentioned this game as a top-five matchup for the 49ers all season in terms of importance.

During the game, San Francisco struggled mightily in the first half, scoring just seven points, which came on a half-ending, 1-yard touchdown rush by Trey Lance, not Jimmy Garoppolo. Coming out with a methodical mindset in the 2nd half, the 49ers retained momentum, up until 4:58 left in the 4th quarter when the 49ers were down 24-21 and with possession of the football. However, an ugly Jimmy Garoppolo fumble turnover both the ball and the momentum over to the Packers, who were able to salvage a field goal, increasing their lead by six points. Then, Garoppolo led the 49ers on a soul-crushing 2-minute, 75-yard touchdown drive, putting the 49ers up one point with just 37 seconds left.

We know how that story ends. If Jimmy Garoppolo doesn't fumble, who knows? If Jimmy Garoppolo doesn't fumble, maybe the 49ers waste the rest of the clock and score a touchdown, putting them up four, rather than one. If Jimmy Garoppolo doesn't fumble, maybe we don't talk about that play as what we remember, but rather his late-game heroics, leading the 49ers to another hard-fought victory against this Packers team. If Kyle Juszczyk doesn't score, maybe the 49ers run out the clock and score a touchdown to end the game.

In reality, the 49ers' entire season has been marred by a horde of "ifs" and "maybes," yet they still can't figure out a way to solve those hypotheticals.

Go one week further, and you find the 49ers taking on Seattle at Levi's Stadium, coming off a brutal loss, but still a close game, and the Seahawks coming off a poor 30-17 defeat to the Minnesota Vikings. In this game, almost the exact opposite happened: Jimmy Garoppolo started off firing on all cylinders, finishing an eight-play, 71-yard touchdown drive with a 21-yard pass to Ross Dwelley in the endzone. However, everything deteriorated from there, as the oft-injured Garoppolo threw an interception while nursing a calf strain and was ruled out by halftime, leaving Trey Lance to start the second half. From there, a combination of a conservative gameplan and special teams miscues led the 49ers to their second straight defeat, in which self-inflicted mistakes continued to be the trend.

After all, going out for a quarterback like Matthew Stafford was for the sole purpose of avoiding an issue like this: paying $27.5 million to an immobile quarterback who can't be healthy for an entire season, forcing early judgment on Shanahan's prized weapon, Trey Lance, when the offensive head coach didn't want to tip his cap on the 2022 plans he had in mind with Lance as the focal point for the playbook.

In Lance's first career start, a similar offensive gameplan was met, as Shanahan elected to call a variety of quarterback runs as San Francisco's main form of offense, hiding the offensive complexities once again, rather than letting Lance improvise in the pocket. As a result, the 49ers lost 17-10, increasing the number of "ifs" and "maybes" along the way with all sorts of questionable choices, as there always is with one-score games.

However, it was adamantly clear that Lance gave this offense a rushing threat, with Arizona keeping five to six defensive linemen on the field and up to eight defenders in the box at times to defend the run. Following Week 5, there was a glimpse that Lance could potentially unseat Garoppolo as the starter, as he'd shown plenty with his talent on the ground, and his miscues in the passing game were similar to those of Jimmy Garoppolo(high-pointed throws, not seeing defenders clearly at times, etc.), despite having five years less of experience in Shanahan's system. In addition, Lance showcased the ability to go through his progressions at a high pace with ease, which is something Garoppolo's failed to manage in his NFL career, as the veteran's stuck onto his first read on numerous occasions, resulting in an enormity of dangerous throws.

But, in keeping his offense with Lance hidden, Shanahan had overrun his rookie quarterback, as Lance suffered a knee sprain during San Francisco's Week 5 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, keeping both quarterbacks in jeopardy. Had Lance not been injured heading into the 49ers' bye week, it seems highly possible that he could've started Week 7 in favor of the "not 100%" Jimmy Garoppolo and taken off from there.

The knee sprain made Lance an inactive heading into Week 7, where Garoppolo faltered with two more interceptions, which didn't eliminate the trade talk surrounding the 49ers starter going into the trade deadline, especially with Jameis Winston suffering a torn ACL, causing the Saints to need a legitimate starting option. But, just like almost every week is with the 49ers, a turning point hit in Week 8 as Garoppolo arguably had his best game as a 49er, throwing for 322 yards and rushing for two touchdowns, snapping San Francisco's losing streak and any chance of Trey Lance taking the starting job from him.

Now, it's not like Garoppolo changed overnight. To me, and to many others, he's the same quarterback week in and week out but flashes when his supporting weapons play at their best and is elevated by their performance.

But, following San Francisco's four-game winning streak, in which Garoppolo efficiently, although certainly not amazingly, played the role of a game manager, it seems that Lance will see limited, if any, action down the stretch.

And still, with San Francisco coming off a promising with against the Jacksonville Jaguars during that stretch, Ian Rapaport reported, on gameday nonetheless, that San Francisco planned to trade Garoppolo in 2022 and move forward with Trey Lance, contrary to Kyle Shanahan's comments earlier in the week suggesting that the 49ers were not ruling out the possibility of their five-year starter rocking the red and gold for another season.

While it was likely stating the obvious, as Garoppolo's $27 million cap hit would hinder San Francisco's free agency plans and their efforts to re-sign key players like Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel, the report turning from rumors into substance added yet another element to the dysfunction behind the 49ers' quarterback room. Why did that report come to fruition, and who potentially elected to leak the news to Rapaport, despite Shanahan's own words earlier in the week? And, most importantly, why did it come on the morning of a game day, especially one with major playoff implications, during a time where Garoppolo was playing the best football of his career?

For the first drive of the Minnesota game, Garoppolo looked flustered in the pocket, eventually throwing an interception, before settling in with help from Deebo Samuel and the run game.

But, the reports unleashed were just another product of a mishandled offseason regarding the quarterback controversy, in which the 49ers looked at almost every avenue at the quarterback position publicly while continuously saying they had full confidence in Jimmy Garoppolo. Contradiction much? If they had such confidence in their quarterback, they wouldn't have looked to upgrade or even be willing to downgrade with Andy Dalton or Joe Flacco, nor would they have traded THREE first-round picks for an unproven rookie, nor would they have let these reports come out, distracting the team's focus from the potential playoff run ahead of them.

Then came the cherry on top. After a hard-fought win against the Minnesota Vikings in what seemed like a playoff atmosphere, last Sunday's loss to the Seattle Seahawks proved something: this 49ers team is just an, inconsistent, all-around question mark, whose ceiling is a top-ten team in the NFL, but whose floor can be among some of the worst. Were they missing key offensive and defensive pieces? Yes. Without a doubt. Still, they continued to find different ways to self-destruct against a capable but underperforming Seahawks team, who constantly brought the 49ers back into this game, but San Francisco failed to capitalize.

Now, was last week's game a must-win. No. The NFC is weak enough that the 49ers could make the playoffs with a mere 9-8 record, but it was certainly a winnable game, even without Deebo Samuel, Fred Warner, and Emmanuel Moseley, who departed early with an ankle sprain.

Perhaps, San Francisco is content with simply making the playoffs. After all, only 14 franchises get the luxury to do so each year, and a playoff appearance could certainly be attractive to free agents in 2022 when the keys are handed over to Trey Lance. But, with the amount of toxicity that has circulated around the team involving their quarterbacks, Kyle Shanahan's master plan may come to hurt him rather than help him.

Now, being an extreme confidant in Shanahan's offensive mind, I have no doubts that this offense can take off with Trey Lance at the helm, especially after seeing the glimpses of success in Week 5 against the presumed best team in the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals. But, by trying to manage this team in the present, while setting up for the future, the 49ers are stuck in a limbo of two windows, with a cluster of older players like Trent Williams and Alex Mack, coupled with the future in Trey Lance and the most recent draft class, while also having to account for the numerous amount of starters on 1-year deals.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see what the 49ers have in store for us to end this season and in the offseason.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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1 Comment

  • Benjamin
    jimmy g has a 70=75% winning percentage. he's started one full season in the nfl, and took the team to the superbowl. now in his second season he's again taking them to the playoffs. the 49ers and Mike Shanahan win 35% of their games without g. none of the trades ive seen involving g make any sense at all from the 49ers standpoint. furthermore there is no reason to suppose lance will be as successful as g as a starting qb. draft picks bust all the time. none of this makes any sense.
    Dec 23, 2021 at 2:52 PM


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