All eyes are on the 49ers quarterback. Yet no one knows exactly what they’re looking at.
Jimmy Garoppolo enters Sunday’s season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the most important player on San Francisco’s roster, as most signal-callers are. But this Week 1 is a little different.
Last year, Garoppolo was coming off an encouraging 5-0 stretch as the starter where he looked like one of the NFL’s premier young quarterbacks. Now he is the 49ers’ biggest question mark.
His play wasn’t quite at the same level through almost three games 2018 as it was during his splashy debut. Then he tore his ACL Sept. 23 in Kansas City. Sunday in Tampa will be just his 11th career start in six seasons, fewer than 25 quarterbacks had in 2018 alone.
Even Kyle Shanahan, the figure most responsible for Garoppolo becoming the franchise quarterback, doesn’t quite know what to expect in Garoppolo’s first regular season game in nearly 12 months.
“I know Jimmy can play,” Shanahan said. “I can’t tell you exactly how he’s going to play every single play or every single game.”
It’s all on Jimmy G
Shanahan is reiterating is common line of thinking when it comes to prognosticating San Francisco’s season.
The team’s success falls largely on Garoppolo’s shoulders. Which means the 49ers could snap their five-year playoff drought if Garoppolo performs like he did in 2017, or the team could be in for its fifth-straight losing season if Garoppolo struggles to come back from the injury.
Or if he gets hurt again.
“I think there’s mental hurdles, physical hurdles. Both of them,” Garoppolo said. “You’re trying to balance them and at the same time not think about it too much because you’re dealing with training camp and everything.”
Garoppolo hasn’t elaborated much on the “hurdles” forced upon him by the injured knee. But it was clear in the during his five-interception practice last month, and preseason debut in Denver, playing football after the injury didn’t come as natural as it seemed to in 2017 when he earned a $137.5 million contract on the strength of just five starts.
Of course, Garoppolo appeared closer to his normal self in the third preseason game in Kansas City, throwing for 188 yards while completing 14 of 20 passes with a touchdown in the first half. Three of his five possessions resulted in points.
It’s fair to expect highs and lows from Garoppolo this season, particularly in the early going as he looks to find his rhythm and get familiar with a new group of pass-catchers that includes a pair of rookie receivers in Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd (who could miss multiple games with a back injury), and new running back Tevin Coleman.
The 49ers open with consecutive road games in Tampa and Cincinnati before two home contests against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, who both expect to be in the playoff hunt in the AFC. It sounds like Shanahan is going to be patient with his quarterback.
“I know Jimmy’s going to have some ups and downs,” Shanahan said. “But I don’t sit there and try to make a different decision based off of one practice or one preseason game, and then flip the next game.”
Buccaneers coach knows the feeling
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians is familiar with quarterbacks coming off ACL tears to their front legs. He coached Carson Palmer with the Cardinals when he suffered the same injury six games into the 2014 season. Palmer came back to have one of the best showings of his career in 2015, averaging a personal-best 291 yards per game with 35 touchdowns while helping Arizona reach the NFC title game after a 13-3 campaign.
“Carson, he’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached,” Arians said Wednesday in a conference call. “Just mentally tough and physically tough.”
Which made Arians’ coaching advice to Palmer simple.
“When you’re ready, know you’re ready and don’t try to (come back) too soon,” he said. “But when you’re ready and know you’re good to go, don’t worry about it any more and just play.”
“Watching him,” he continued, “he knew he was ready, he was champing at the bit. ... He was more than ready to go.”
Shanahan didn’t speak in such absolutes Wednesday when he was asked about Garoppolo, but does sound optimistic about Garoppolo’s chances at being successful coming off the injury. The most important thing is getting playing time to build from.
“I think he’s as far along (mentally) as he can be,” Shanahan said. “... But it’s the same for everyone coming back from an ACL. They go through the whole preparation, getting their body ready, trying to get their mind ready, which they’re always as ready for as they can be, but they got to go out there and go through it. You hope it happens in the first quarter, the first game, but that usually takes a little bit of time.”
What should benefit Garoppolo is having a better feel for Shanahan’s complex system now that he’s had two full offseasons to learn it. Perhaps that will let him play more freely and with less second-guessing, which appeared to be a problem early in 2018 before going down.
“Just sling it,” said George Kittle when asked what advice he’d give his quarterback. “When he first got here, he didn’t know the entire offense and he showed up and he just slung it. So just get back that. Just go out and sling it and we’ll back him up.”