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‘Like riding a bike’: 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo, Kyle Shanahan discuss unexpected change at quarterback after Trey Lance injury

Sep 18, 2022 at 6:24 PM--

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It's been a long, strange trip for Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers, and it got even stranger on Sunday when he found himself back under center after what appears to be a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Trey Lance.

Garoppolo has been with the 49ers since being traded from the New England Patriots in 2017. He led an unexpected late-season emergence after the trade that saw the 49ers finish with five consecutive wins -- a streak that sparked newfound optimism into a franchise that completely rebooted itself earlier in the year with the hiring of head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch after firing head coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke following a 2-14 season in 2016. But that optimism vanished quickly in 2018 when Garoppolo saw his season come to an end after tearing his ACL in a Week 3 loss to the Chiefs in Kansas City.

Fast forward to 2019, and Garoppolo returned healthy to a cast of talent that was ready to shine. Everything came together for the 49ers that season as they rebounded from four consecutive losing years to finish 13-3 and advance to the Super Bowl, where they fell once again to the Kansas City Chiefs. The 49ers were expecting to return to the Super Bowl in 2020, but the injury bug got in the way once more, this time putting Garoppolo on the sidelines for the second half of the season due to an ankle injury.

And then, for Garoppolo, things got unexpectedly weird.

The 49ers caught the league by surprise in March of 2021 when they pulled off a trade with the Miami Dolphins that landed them the third overall pick in the NFL Draft, which they made clear they would use to select a quarterback to eventually succeed Garoppolo. Shanahan and Lynch explained at the time that Garoppolo's injury history played a role in acquiring that pick, which they decided to spend on a young, inexperienced quarterback out of North Dakota State by the name of Trey Lance.

Lance wasn't quite ready to take over the quarterback spot as a rookie, so Garoppolo remained as the team's starter despite the presence of his eventual replacement. Garoppolo and the 49ers came within minutes of advancing to the Super Bowl yet again in 2021, but both he and the 49ers knew that the addition of Lance meant his time in the Bay Area was coming to an end.

Or so it seemed.

Garoppolo said goodbye to fans, players and media after the 2021 season, then proceeded to have surgery to repair an issue with his shoulder on his throwing arm. Both the 49ers and Garoppolo expected there would be another team that would want to take him in a trade, but the surgery didn't help his cause, and by the time training camp arrived in July, Garoppolo was still on the 49ers' roster.

Shanahan made it clear after the start of camp that the 49ers were Lance's team. Meanwhile, Garoppolo was visible during 49ers training camp sessions, but instead of practicing with the team, he was throwing off to the side while rehabbing his shoulder. The 49ers did not include him in their preparations for the 2022 season, and it continued to look like Garoppolo was destined to be playing elsewhere in 2022, whether it was via a trade or a release from the 49ers.

As the start of the 2022 season got closer, however, the 49ers pulled yet another surprise when they agreed to keep Garoppolo around on a restructured contract. The new deal made Garoppolo the NFL's highest-paid backup quarterback at $6.5 million for 2022 and included bonuses in case he saw playing time.

If all went as the 49ers hoped, there would have been no need for bonuses and Lance would have held firm to the job while leading the team back to the postseason. But things took another bizarre turn on Sunday, when Lance suffered his injury during the first half of the team's Week 2 game against the Seattle Seahawks.

So, just weeks after wondering where he would be playing in 2022, Garoppolo was back under center for the 49ers, which is where it appears he'll stay for the foreseeable future.

Garoppolo threw for 154 yards in the 49ers' 27-7 home win over the Seahawks, adding one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown. In spite of everything that happened in the months leading up to the game, it felt just like old times for Garoppolo in Levi's Stadium, even if it came with the unpleasant feeling of seeing a young, promising teammate's season come to an end.

"Just like riding a bike," Garoppolo told reporters after the game. "It felt good to be back out there. I feel terrible for Trey. I've been on that side of it. This league is tough. Everyone has their share of injuries but that sucks for him. I feel bad for him but he's our brother and we'll pick him up."

There didn't seem to be any rust coming from Garoppolo, even though he missed the preseason and wasn't truly a part of the team until agreeing to his new contract. He came out aggressive and threw four passes in his first five plays, one of which went for a 38-yard touchdown to tight end Ross Dwelley.

"It felt good," Garoppolo said. "We were talking earlier -- it kind of felt like 2017 where it was just go throwing, make plays. That's what I like to do. It's different than what we usually do around here, but sometimes you need to do that."

Shanahan was happy with what he saw from Garoppolo, who fought with the elements late in the game but helped the 49ers build a 20-0 halftime lead before cruising to victory in the second half.

"I thought he did a real good job coming off the bench, made some real key throws," Shanahan said. "I thought it got real tough there in the second half when that rain came back. It was on and off, so we had to be a little selective in certain moments. It especially was tough when we lost our run game a little bit there in the third, early fourth. It was a little tougher to throw there when the rain started coming. But I'm real proud of Jimmy and how he came in and was ready for the moment and help us get a win."

In other words, there were no signs of rust on Garoppolo, at least from what Shanahan saw.

"He looks good," Shanahan said. "Still handsome. Doing good."

Just as important for Garoppolo and the 49ers was the fact there weren't any issues stemming from Garoppolo's shoulder. Garoppolo told reporters after the game his shoulder "feels great" and his passes are coming out the way he wants as a result.

"I don't know if it's stronger," Garoppolo said. "It feels good. That's what I'm happy about. The ball's coming out good, spinning right. So I'm happy with that."

There were those who predicted Garoppolo would see the field at some point this season due to the lingering uncertainty factor surrounding Lance, but no one imagined it would happen under the circumstances that took place on Sunday. Fortunately Garoppolo was ready, even if he wasn't a true part of the team throughout the preseason.

"Jimmy's played a lot of football; he just had to get healthy," Shanahan said. "So he got healthy and a little behind on reps throughout training camp, but that also happened with him -- he's farther ahead than he was his ACL year where he missed everything with an ACL and couldn't do much. I thought that took longer to come back from."

Shanahan added some plays to the playbook over the offseason, a few of which Garoppolo saw for the first time on Sunday. But aside from that, Garoppolo's preparation came down to getting healthy, which finally happened while he was working on the side in August.

"It was more just about getting the shoulder ready," Garoppolo said. "Mentally I knew the scheme. Some of the new plays took a little while to learn, things like that. There's always some new wrinkles in the offense. But for the most part, once my shoulder was good I was ready to roll. It feels good now."

The current scenario surrounding Garoppolo and the 49ers would have been hard to imagine in July, even for Garoppolo. He revealed after the win over Seattle that his mind moved further away from the 49ers as camp proceeded, instead of warming up to the idea that the team could keep him around.

"Honestly it was kind of the opposite," Garoppolo said. "As it was going on, other teams became interested. Things started to happen. The Niners didn't really come in until later in the picture with the whole restructure of the contract. Things have a way of working out. I'm not always going to try and control things, but when it is in your control, you've got to do it. But when it's out of control, you've just got to roll with the punches sometimes."

The 49ers are obviously glad they still have Garoppolo on the roster. Most teams would face a grim outlook if they lost their starting quarterback, but Garoppolo gives the 49ers a chance to reach the goals they expect to reach during the 2022 season.

"We feel very fortunate to have Jimmy here as our number two quarterback, especially when your starter gets hurt," Shanahan said. "It's good to know the experience and how good of a player he is. We've lost our starting quarterback I think the fourth time in sixth years, so we have been in this before. I do feel we're a little more prepared with our backup right now, so I'm happy for that."

As for Garoppolo, he's happy to still be with the 49ers as well. He's not particularly thrilled with how his opportunity came about, but now that it's here, it's an opportunity that is most likely better than any he would have gotten with another team.

"I'm comfortable here," Garoppolo said. "The players, the scheme, all that stuff, the locker room, I'm comfortable. I'm familiar with it. I'm not saying I knew this was going to happen but I was ready for this in case it did happen and just want to take advantage of the opportunity."

It also doesn't hurt that he got a six-figure bonus for his time on the field Sunday.

"Now that you said it, it feels good," Garoppolo said when a reporter mentioned the bonus to him after the game. "I don't know, you're not thinking about that stuff out there. You're in the game, you're flowing with the game, trying to get guys ready. So I was kind of in that mode. But yeah, that's always a nice positive."

But while the 49ers will pick up where they left off in 2021 with Garoppolo, the team's thoughts on Sunday were also focused heavily on Lance. This was going to be the season where the 49ers hoped to see Lance became the franchise quarterback they envisioned when they drafted him in 2021, but now there's a new dose of uncertainty surrounding Lance as he looks ahead to a 2023 season in which he'll be coming off a serious injury while lacking the experience he expected to acquire in 2022.

"It's unfortunate for him," Shanahan said. "We're really hurting for him. We were really hoping to see a lot of him this year. To have that bad of an injury to where he can't come back from it, we feel for him. But if anyone can do it, it's him."

Garoppolo spoke to Lance for a brief moment after the game and sent him his well-wishes. He's confident Lance will bounce back from the injury, but in the meantime, it's strange for him to know he's now on the opposite end of what caused the 49ers in part to want to draft Lance in the first place.

"I think I was sitting on the sideline, I forget who I was even talking to, but talked about coming full circle," Garoppolo said. "I've been in Trey's shoes. That sucks going through that. It's tough as a young player, but he'll come back better from it. If you do that, I think it'll set you up for success in the future and that's what I'm doing."

Meanwhile, Garoppolo will move forward with his opportunity and whatever it may bring. Maybe this will be his final season with the 49ers, maybe it won't. It's anyone's guess how this will turn out, but as long as he's in the Bay Area, he'll want to keep the focus on the task at hand instead of what it all will mean for him.

"It's never about you," Garoppolo said. "I'm not a big me guy. It's about winning football games. I'm a big believer in that. People can say whatever they want, talk stats, whatever, but when you win football games, that's what we're here to do. And that's all I'm trying to do."

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