With a Super Bowl appearance in his first season as the 49ers’ starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo has set the bar high on expectations for 2020.
The Niners were, after all, coming off a 4-12 season in 2018 as Garoppolo was lost for the year with an ACL tear in Week 3. 2019 was a different story altogether, though. Garoppolo, coming off that knee injury and completing his first full season as the starting QB, led San Francisco to a 13-3 record, an NFC Championship, and a Super Bowl appearance while working his way towards the top of many of the league leaders in quarterbacking categories.
And while he and the team came up just short in Super Bowl LIV to the Kansas City Chiefs, the arrow for both he and the 49ers is still pointing way up.
Yet Garoppolo still has plenty of critics who feel the signal-caller is nothing more than a mediocre game manager fortunate to be surrounded by a tremendously talented roster.
And while he must shoulder some of the responsibility for the team losing a 10-point lead to the Chiefs in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, there was still plenty of blame to go around for their 31-20 loss.
Overall, however, it’s hard to understand why so much criticism has been thrown his way. After all, he was the only quarterback in the NFL last season to rank in the top five in touchdown passes (27), passing yards per attempt (8.4), and completion percentage (69.1) in the regular season. He finished with a 102.0 rating and threw for nearly 4,000 yards on the season as well, putting himself fourth all time in the franchise’s leaderboard in that last category.
Perhaps some of the skepticism is based on a relatively small career sample size. After all, general manager John Lynch took quite a bit of heat from some in the media when the team signed Garoppolo to, at that time, a record-breaking five-year, $137.5 million contract after starting just five games to end the 2017 season. Of course, he was 5-0 in those games and showed both Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan enough to evoke confidence Garoppolo was in fact a franchise QB.
The team can get out of the contract in the spring of 2021, however, with relative ease.
He is now just the 11th highest-paid quarterback in the league. So signing him then as opposed to working a shorter deal seems to have been forward-thinking, especially after the Chiefs signed quarterback Patrick Mahomes to a 10-year, $450 million contract this offseason.
For a team that struggled for years to find a franchise guy (apologies to Jeff Garcia) after Steve Young retired way back in 1999, and after trading a 2018 second-round pick to New England for Garoppolo, retaining Jimmy G was a fairly easy decision.
And comparatively speaking, a relative bargain with little risk beyond this season.
So the question remains, what does Garoppolo need to do this season to quiet those same critics?
How Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers silence the hate
Aside from leading the team to a resounding Super Bowl victory while throwing for 40 touchdowns and 5,000 yards during the season, the answer is he may not be able to.
I know, it sounds like a cop-out. But there is some truth to that sentiment.
Let’s say he has similar (or even better) numbers this season than 2019, leads the Niners deep into the playoffs once again, but he and the team come up short of a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance. The critics will certainly come calling.
Anything less than a resounding championship and hypothetical impressive stats mentioned above will fall short of some of those critics’ expectations.
But think about that for a minute, if you will.
For a quarterback in just his second full season as a starter to have Super Bowl-or-bust expectations thrown on him is actually pretty high praise. After all, there are plenty of guys who have been starting in the league who are still looking for their first playoff appearance, the Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford, for example.
You only need to look at Young and ask him about playing with those lofty expectations year in and year out. And while his situation was different in that he was replacing another legend in Joe Montana, none of Young’s deep playoff runs or ridiculous stats could silence critics until he finally hoisted a Lombardi Trophy of his own.
This is not to say Garoppolo is anywhere close to reaching Young’s level of play and consistency under center, of course. But there is a notable comparison.
Perhaps Jimmy G has that terrific career year, statistically, and carries the team to its sixth title. Maybe his regular season is just average, but he has a magical postseason run (a la the Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco in 2012… as it hurts to remember). Maybe Garoppolo’s season is lackluster and leaves much to be desired.
Or maybe his season falls somewhere in between. Ultimately, we won’t know until they play the games.
Jimmy G will either thrive in this situation or wilt under the weight of the pressure.
My gut tells me he finds a way to rise to the challenge. He seems to have the moxie you need to continue inspiring teammates and sustain success in the NFL.
But either way, one thing is certain, and that is it must feel pretty good to be a 49er fan and have realistic Super Bowl expectations for the team and its quarterback heading into a season.
Kinda feels like old times.