In the waning moments of a miserable late-November home game, San Francisco 49ers fans should have been trudging for the Levi’s Stadium exits. The 49ers were down 24-6 to their fierce rivals, the Seattle Seahawks, and spiralling towards another defeat in a lost season. To compound a horrible afternoon, starting quarterback C.J. Beathard lay crumpled on the floor with knee and hip injuries after taking a big hit with just over a minute left. It should have been a low point.
However, the moments that followed sparked an entire franchise and their fanbase, setting the tone for a very different feeling surrounding Kyle Shanahan’s team heading into the 2018 campaign. Despite it being a busy Week 12 across the league, NFL Redzone cut straight to Santa Clara as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo – a surprise mid-season trade acquisition from New England – jogged onto the field to face the Seahawks.
Suddenly, the eyes of the NFL were on a 49ers team about to go 1-10.
Of course, we were simply fascinated to see Garoppolo’s first action in San Francisco after serving as Tom Brady’s backup since entering the league in 2014. He quickly lived up to the hype, completing an eight-yard pass to Aldrick Robinson on fourth-and-five before saving his best until last. On the final play of the game, Jimmy G was pressured out of the pocket and rolled to his left before squaring his shoulders and delivering an inch-perfect 10-yard touchdown strike to Louis Murphy, who was tightly covered by two frustrated defenders.
The in-stadium response was sensational given that time had run out during the play and the 49ers were beaten 24-13. The place should have been deserted, but fans were going crazy and the pumped-up 49ers looked like they could turn around and play another game right away.
They had to wait a week before taking on the Chicago Bears, but that late touchdown had awoken a young and previously-downtrodden team. With Garoppolo at the helm, the 49ers sprinted to the finish line, defeating the Bears, Houston, Tennessee, Jacksonville and the Los Angeles Rams to end the year.
“I got a great deal of pride out of the way we finished,” general manager John Lynch reveals. “That’s what so much of being a successful organisation is about – finishing everything you do. I’m really proud of the way Kyle Shanahan and his staff kept the team positive and upbeat but, at the same time, never lowered our expectations of what we expected out of them. I thought Kyle did a tremendous job of leading these guys.”
It was no coincidence that San Francisco’s unlikely dart to the finish line coincided with their new quarterback’s introduction.
With outstanding leadership skills, quick decision-making and incredible accuracy, Garoppolo looked like a 10-year veteran while leading the 49ers to their 5-0 finish. He hit on 67.4% of his throws for 1,560 yards, seven touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 96.2.
Those numbers were far from perfect, but they were very impressive considering Garoppolo was learning a brand-new offense on the fly after his Halloween trade out west. That’s why he was kept on ice until a December 3 start in the Windy City. “I thought he was going into a real tough situation,” Shanahan admits. “So it was harder for me to pull the trigger to put him in. We weren’t playing great at the time. We were trying to wait as long as possible.
“Was it a short sample size? Sure. But it was convincing. Does he love the game? Absolutely. Does he have those innate skills to make everyone else around him better? We saw that. Does he put his teammates before himself? He did that. He is a fabulous thrower, his teammates gravitate to him and he just kept checking the boxes as we were watching.”
“Jimmy came in and was fabulous,” Lynch adds. “He was great for us and he made people around him better. I think that’s the mark of a player who has an opportunity to be special.”
In an exclusive interview with the Gridiron Annual Bookazine, Garoppolo paid tribute to Shanahan and his coaching staff: “A big part of it was the coaching staff putting me in a good spot to succeed. That’s where it all starts, preparing throughout the week and getting a good game plan together. Kyle, (quarterbacks coach) Rich Scangarello and all those guys put us in a spot to succeed. We just went out there and executed.”
Such was the level of execution that 49ers fans have spent the months since the campaign counting down the days until the next one. From battling Cleveland for the worst record in the NFL, suddenly San Francisco fans see an imminent return to football’s top echelon, spearheaded by their franchise passer – who affirmed his commitment by penning a five-year contract just days after his former team, the Patriots, had been defeated by Philadelphia in Super Bowl LII.
“I had never been in San Francisco for an offseason before now, so everything is still kind of new for me,” the former Eastern Illinois product admits. “Being able to talk through the offense and getting into some of the finer things that I didn’t get to during the season will really help me take some steps forward.
“It’s good – a lot slower than during the season. That was a bit of a whirlwind. I’m still picking stuff up and critiquing the little things. Having film from last year to go off has really helped a ton.”
Digging into the detail of Shanahan’s high-octane attack has left Garoppolo, who cost the 49ers a second-round draft pick, realising he has much more to learn before the 2018 season kicks off. “It’s weird because there are certain things I thought during the season that are now a little different or there is more to it than they were telling me at the time,” Garoppolo revealed. “And that was because we just didn’t have the time.
“You find out the little finer details to route concepts and things like that. Every week I come in and hear terms for the first time and I’m like, ‘What’s that formation?’ They have to explain it to me. That has been different from my three years prior to this. In New England, I would come in and I pretty much knew what was going on.”
You can see traces of ‘The Patriot Way’ in Garoppolo. He makes everything about the team and doesn’t seek the spotlight – not even when the 49ers made him the highest-paid player in NFL history by handing out that $137.5 million deal. The 26-year-old agreed to this interview on the proviso that the story gives a nod to the entire team.
And while he wears 10 on Sundays, Garoppolo looks a lot like a guy up in New England who wears number 12. Jimmy G learned a great deal while studying that particular future Hall of Famer at close quarters. “I think being around Brady for three-and-a-half years, things just naturally rub off on you,” Garoppolo reveals. “It’s good to emulate a guy like that. The way Brady prepares, that was one thing I picked up from him. Week in and week out, it makes the difference.”
Adopting Garoppolo’s team-first approach, it should be noted that San Francisco’s run-in was far from a one-man show. The defense woke up and forced some timely turnovers down the stretch and the passing game targets became effective.
The receiving trio of Buffalo cast-off Marquise Goodwin, rookie fifth-rounder Trent Taylor and undrafted rookie free agent Kendrick Bourne would be described as ‘unheralded’ at best, yet that group combined for 55 receptions for 729 yards and a touchdown during Garoppolo’s five-game stint as the starter. Tight ends George Kittle and Garrett Celek were also big parts of the attack, offering genuine promise that Shanahan can take this offense much higher than their 12th-placed ranking of 2017.
“I was very excited how we came together at the end,” Shanahan stressed. “Marquise rose to the occasion and got better in each game. I thought the best he was playing was at the end of the year. George can really help us in the pass game. I’ve got really high expectations for him.”
The 49ers have added to their ranks during the offseason, securing the services of veterans such as New York Giants centre Weston Richburg, Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon and a long-time nemesis from the Seahawks in cornerback Richard Sherman, who Lynch described as “a special player who you really don’t like if he’s on the other side, but you love him if he is on your side”.
Those signings, the way the 2017 season ended and having Garoppolo signed to a long-term contract have sent expectations exploding through the roof in the Bay Area. “Hopefully you guys don’t go crazy on us,” Shanahan warned the media earlier during this offseason. “I get that everyone is excited, especially when you finish the season with five wins in a row. We understand that. I also know that it doesn’t help us at all.”
Garoppolo, unsurprisingly, echoed his coach’s sentiments: “We’re working in the right direction. There are a lot of pieces that come into play and we’re putting those pieces into place right now. Then when the season comes around, we have to actually go out there and perform. That’s really what this league is all about – going out there executing and performing on Sundays. If we do that, the results will speak for themselves. But this is a whole different team to last year. We have new guys, we lost some guys and that’s the evolution of the NFL. We’ve got to rebuild from the ground up.”
San Francisco’s leading men can try to temper expectations all offseason, but it won’t work. For Niner Nation will enter the 2018 campaign dreaming of a sixth Lombardi Trophy and, with their talk-of-the-league passer under centre, who can blame them?
This article originally appeared in the 2018 Gridiron Annual Bookazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE