MIAMI — 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo saw his rookie season with the Patriots end with him getting his first Super Bowl ring as a backup to Tom Brady.
If someone had said then that five years later, Garoppolo would be trying to win his first Super Bowl as a starting QB, everyone would have assumed it would be for New England, succeeding Brady.
Instead, in a serendipitous twist, at the exact time when Brady’s future with the Patriots is in doubt, it’s the 49ers who are hoping to reap the benefits of Garoppolo’s winning play in Super Bowl 54.
San Francisco had multiple chances to go in a different direction at quarterback. New England could have either kept Garoppolo stashed for Bill Belichick or found another trade partner.
Here’s revisiting the events that led to the 49ers acquiring Garoppolo for a 2018 second-round draft pick on Halloween 2017 and the fallout of the trade that pushed the team to play for a champonship only two-plus years later.
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The Jimmy Garoppolo alternatives
When the combination of general manager John Lynch and offensive-minded coach Kyle Shanahan were hired right before and after Super Bowl 51 three years ago, the 49ers operated with a clean slate at quarterback.
The firing of Chip Kelly meant cleaning house at the position, with both Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert not being re-signed. The initial ideal target for Shanahan was Kirk Cousins, the quarterback he helped mold into a strong NFL starter while serving as the Redskins’ offensive coordinator.
Cousins likely would have signed with San Francisco if he had hit the open market as a pending free agent. But in an unprecedented move, Washington slapped Cousins with a second consecutive franchise tag, exclusively, at a higher tender value, to keep him on a guaranteed one-year deal.
“It’s pretty well documented the relationship I had with Kirk,” Shanahan said. “Just being in Washington and everything, I felt confident he wasn’t going to stay there.”
With Cousins staying put, the 49ers were attached to the big free-agent trap of former Buccaneer Mike Glennon, who eventually was overpaid by the Bears. There were also the trade rumors with them going after either Tom Savage (Texans) or Trevor Siemian (Broncos). The 49ers settled for cheap veteran bridge QB Brian Hoyer, who played well for Shanahan while the latter was Browns offensive coordinator in 2014.
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Because of Shanahan being locked into Cousins and given that he had only two-plus months to prep for the 2017 NFL Draft, the 49ers chose not to enter the first-round fray at QB, which meant trading down out of No. 2 to not take Mitchell Trubisky (Bears). That also meant they chose to pass on the Texans’ Deshaun Watson, and, yes, the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes — Garoppolo’s countepart in Super Bowl 54.
Shanahan settled for Hoyer and possible No. 2 Matt Barkley in free agency to, in effect, table the position, and addressed it only with third-rounder C.J. Beathard in the draft, also adding Nick Mullens as an undrafted free agent.
With one average veteran, one shaky one and two unheralded rookies, it was clear Shanahan and Lynch were place-holding in their first offseason together, instead focusing on starting a massive roster overhaul at most every other position.
The confidence in that quarterback direction was helped by knowng there would be the fallback of Cousins in 2018 NFL free agency after he was certain to be not tagged for a third consecutive year by the Redskins.
“Any time you go into a season and know a franchise quarterback is going to be available the next year, it made me a lot more picky with what we were looking at,” Shanahan said.
The Jimmy Garoppolo rumors
During that 2017 free agency and draft period, Garoppolo would have been an option had the Patriots more actively sought to trade him a full year before his own pending NFL free agency in 2018.
The 49ers, however, looked like the third-best suitor behind the Bears and Browns, even though they were the clear best fit for Garoppolo because of Shanahan.
The Patriots were perceived as being extremely smart for raising their demands for Garoppolo, as high as getting two back-to-back first-round picks for his services. Chicago went with the Glennon and Trubisky combination and Cleveland drafted second-rounder DeShone Kizer to put with Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler in what would be an 0-16 season.
The 49ers went 0-8 to start the ’17 season with Hoyer and Beathard taking turns starting. They had to do something soon, given that their QB play was the worst in the league.
With the Bears out of the mix because of Tribusky and the Browns stting on the No. 1 overall pick for a strong 2018 QB class led by Baker Mayfield, the 49ers were the last real sutior standing. The Patriots’ supply now had less demand, and the fact the 49ers were an NFC team made a trade for Garoppolo — a promising but unproven commodity — more logical and feasible.
The Jimmy Garoppolo trade
The 49ers could have waited for Cousins like originally planned, but Shanahan and Lynch couldn’t pass on Garoppolo with the asking price lowered by the Patriots before the ’17 midseason trade deadline. It was a semi-sneaky move by New England, to maintain another good trading relationship with a non-conference front office.
From Lynch’s perspective, although he didn’t know at the time how special Garoppolo would end up being for his team, there was enough of a belief that he could be, and that was enough to make the move.
“We felt it was a reasonable cost, albeit a high one, a second-round pick, to have an opportunity to find your franchise quarterback,” Lynch told Sporting News. “It is one thing in our conversations with Bill Belichick, when I talked to him and when Kyle talked to him — ‘You’re going to love this kid. His teammates love him.’”
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The 49ers’ agreeing on the trade compensation was one thing; the other was the willingness to lock up Garoppolo to a lucrative market-value long-term contract before March 2018. Lynch didn’t mess around there, as Garoppolo signed a five-year, $137.5 million deal in February 2018.
San Francisco had shown its aggressive nature in the 2017 offseason. There was no spending on a QB, but there was plenty of money under the salary cap thrown around to bring in core free agents, including essential blocking fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Shanahan and Lynch simply doubled down on that by getting Garoppolo.
“To come in with Kyle and John, we kind of established everything, but once we traded for Jimmy, it just showed that these (guys) were committed to turning things around — and they weren’t going to wait around,” Juszczyk said. “They didn’t hesitate. They pulled the trigger on what some people might consider a risky trade at the time — he had started only four games — but they saw something in him that’s obviously panned out.”
The Jimmy Garoppolo rise
The 49ers were patient in playing Garoppolo, waiting four games into the second half of the 2017 season. He quickly showed he was worth trading for, leading the team to a 5-0 record with immediate superb play in a new offense.
His five-game numbers (260 yards per game, 96.2 rating, 8.8 yards per attempt) that season took the mysery off Garoppolo as it mirrored what he did starting two games for a Deflategate-suspended Brady to open the ’16 season (248 yards per game, 119.0 rating, 8.4 yards per attempt).
“I didn’t know anything about Jimmy when we first traded for him, except he had that one game with the Patriots where he played really well against Arizona,” longtime 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said. “I knew he was highly thought of as the heir apparent to Tom Brady, so it was exciting to get him on the roster and see what he was all about.”
Garoppolo has gone 23-5 as the 49ers starter, including the 2020 playoffs, after going 2-0 for the Patriots. His play is a big reason why, but so is what he puts into maintaining a competitive edge.
“Once he got here, Jimmy really impressed me with his preparation and workman-like mentality he had every single day,” Staley said. “He didn’t come in with an attitude like, ‘This is my team now.'”
That grinding nature, something Brady also had, also helped Garoppolo come back strong from a torn ACL that he suffered against the Chiefs in Kansas City in September 2018, which limited what could have a spectular first full season as the 49ers starter.
As the 49ers struggled and finished 4-12 without him, Garoppolo’s value to the team was even greater, given that they shot up to 13-3 with him fully healthy for 2019.
Lynch gushes now when he talks about Garoppolo the person and the player, sharing his well-earned pride in pulling off the deal key to getting the 49ers back to a Super Bowl.
Lynch and Shanahan expected the best of Garoppolo, because of what all it took to get and keep him, and that his success was tied to theirs. As they bought into Garoppolo, he completely bought into them.
“He understands that Kyle’s sole purpose is to try to get the most out of him,” Lynch said. “Kyle can be very demanding in doing so, and some guys don’t have the personality for that. I think it’s a perfect mix, because Jimmy almost gets better when Kyle’s chewing him out — so just keep chewing.”
Garoppolo needed the perfect place to succeed after his time with the Patriots. He found it in Lynch, Shanahan and the 49ers after they made one of the best trades in modern NFL history.