No one who stands next to Jimmy Garoppolo appears particularly handsome. And yet the 49ers quarterback is making everyone around him look a lot better.
And that’s not just his receivers, who benefit from accurate passing, his offensive linemen, who seem to block better because of his quick release or the defensive players, who are not on the field as much because the Garoppolo-led offense can sustain drives.
The two main beneficiaries are Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch. Moves they made that seemed dubious just a month ago appear so much more genius with Garoppolo under center. To wit:
▪ More than $5 million a year for a fullback? The 49ers’ acquisition of Kyle Juszczyk topped the list of seeming missteps pre-Garoppolo. On Sunday, Juszczyk was one of San Francisco’s heroes, hauling in a career-high 64 receiving yards, including a great catch in tight coverage down the sideline. This may be more due to the scarcity of fullbacks than anything else, but Juszczyk could end up being the 49ers’ lone representative in the Pro Bowl.
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▪ Marquise Goodwin is nothing more than a No. 3 receiver. That’s how his previous team, the Buffalo Bills, used him, a status that seemed to be reinforced by early season drops and inconsistent play. Pierre Garcon’s season-ending injury has forced Goodwin into the No. 1 role, and with Garoppolo throwing to him, he’s risen to that responsibility. He’s caught 14 passes for 205 yards in the last two contests and has a shot at something few 49ers receivers have accomplished in the post-Terrell Owens era: finish a season with more than 1,000 receiving yards.
▪ Why didn’t the 49ers draft a top quarterback? That was a question and a critique, especially early in the season when the Texans’ Deshaun Watson, drafted 12th overall, got off to a hot start and veteran Brian Hoyer struggled. No one is pining for a first-round rookie now. Garoppolo is a double whammy as far as where he is in his career: He’s still young – he turned 26 last month – but has apprenticed under a master craftsman, Tom Brady, for four years.
Fans certainly had plenty of patience with, and faith in, Shanahan and Lynch prior to the trade for Garoppolo. But there also was a realization that their tear-down-and-rebuild plan would take a long time.
Suddenly it doesn’t seem farfetched that the 49ers at least could be interesting and possibly competitive in 2018.
Of course, it’s easy to get swept up in Jimmy mania – Garoppolooza? – and forget that the two teams he’s beaten have combined for eight wins this season. A truer test will come the next three weeks against the Tennessee Titans, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Los Angeles Rams, all of whom have winning records and are jockeying for playoff position.
Tennessee has recorded 20 sacks in its last three games, the Jaguars have the best passing defense in the league and the Rams are tied for the NFC lead in total sacks and are second in interceptions.
Still, there’s no denying there’s a buzz around the 49ers that didn’t exist before Garoppolo arrived. At midseason, a Week 15 49ers-Titans game had all the excitement of C-SPAN marathon and maybe would have left Levi’s Stadium half full.
Now the 49ers have true momentum, real optimism and legitimate intrigue that promise to put fans in the seats.
And that’s something that makes the owner look good.