There’ve been plenty of excuses for SF 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and it’s time to question Kyle Shanahan’s decisions at the position.
Now approaching four years in the organization, the verdict is in. Barring some unforeseeable change in his play, Garoppolo is a mediocre quarterback incapable of carrying a team.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s career in a SF 49ers uniform
Garoppolo is partially a victim of expectations. After his strong close to the 2017 season, when he led a terrible SF 49ers team on an unexpected five-game winning streak, fans ignored the inflated interceptions and questionable advanced statistics. They were quick to jump at his New England Patriots pedigree and say, “He just knows how to win.”
If only those maxims were true.
In 2018, Garoppolo’s torn ACL covered up a mediocre three-game sample that preceded it. The roster was so void of talent that it became easy to ignore, as backup signal-callers C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens floundered to the second-worst record in the NFL.
Last season, Garoppolo put up competent numbers. But outside of a fantastic performance against the New Orleans Saints, he was consistently pedestrian. It was an incredible 49ers defense and run game that carried San Francisco to a 13-3 regular-season record and NFC championship. While the Niners reached the Super Bowl, Garoppolo’s postseason play was easily the worst facet of the team’s performance throughout the year.
This season, Garoppolo was responsible for the team’s Week 1 loss to the Arizona Cardinals and was even worse in an atrocious half of play against the Miami Dolphins in Week 5. Aside from a strong half of play against the New York Jets, easily the worst team in the NFL, Garoppolo has not just been mediocre, but downright bad.
Yet, Garoppolo’s failures are the greatest indictment on head coach Kyle Shanahan’s tenure with the franchise. Easily one of the best offensive play-callers in football, there’s no denying Shanahan’s coaching prowess.
However, he has had numerous opportunities to find his franchise quarterback and seemingly failed at every turn.
Kyle Shanahan’s quarterback decisions as SF 49ers head coach
It’s hard to think back to the first months of Shanahan’s tenure as 49ers head coach, but when he was hired, they had a franchise quarterback named Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick had gone through ups and downs over the previous two seasons but remained a vibrant running threat and effective passer with minimal talent around him.
Instead, the 49ers released Kaepernick and signed career backup Brian Hoyer. Shanahan justified the move by citing a system fit. Few paid much attention to the move, but looking back, what exactly was Hoyer capable of doing that Kaepernick wasn’t? It’s hard to think Kaepernick’s national anthem protest played no role.
That same offseason, the SF 49ers held the second overall pick in the draft. Three premium quarterback prospects were available: Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, and Patrick Mahomes. The Niners decided to pass on the position altogether, instead going for Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas.
We know how poorly those decisions aged, but at the time, Shanahan’s justification was even more concerning. In an interview with The Rich Eisen Show (h/t Niners Nation), Shanahan gave the following explanation for passing on the signal-callers in the first round:
You know, none of them were just standing out to where it was like, this guy’s a slam dunk to start right away. They all had different traits. All the top guys who went early, you could see why. They all had ability and they have a great chance to be very successful in this league. But, I didn’t think anyone was just a slam dunk, ready to put in and play right away.
Even if we ignore Watson’s immediate success as a starter, Shanahan’s statement implies he wasn’t willing to draft a quarterback unless he could start immediately.
No one thought the SF 49ers would be a playoff team in 2017, and he ended up pairing Hoyer with Beathard that season anyway. Any of those quarterbacks could have had time to develop.
A large part of the 49ers’ relative indifference towards the quarterback position was then-Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins’ impending free agency, according to reports. However, even a competent starter like Cousins shouldn’t have been good enough to justify ignoring players like Mahomes or Watson.
During that season, Shanahan and Co. changed course when the Patriots surprisingly offered them Garoppolo for a second-round pick. In the years since, the 49ers quarterback room has remained pretty much the same. Garoppolo has been the starter with Beathard and undrafted free agent Nick Mullens battling it out for the backup spot.
Nothing prevented them from immediately moving on from Garoppolo that offseason and signing Cousins. They had the cap space to franchise Garoppolo, trade him to the highest bidder, and make Cousins the offer he wanted in free agency. They chose to extend Garoppolo. Cousins is an imperfect option as well, but his track record remains stronger than Jimmy G’s.
Shanahan had another opportunity to make a change this offseason. Yes, the 49ers were coming off a Super Bowl appearance, but a number of veteran quarterbacks were free agents. Cam Newton, Philip Rivers, Colin Kaepernick, and Tom Brady were all available.
Instead, they stuck by Garoppolo.
The Niners easily could have recouped draft capital for Garoppolo in a trade and possibly saved some much-needed cap space, too. Now, the franchise could just as likely release Garoppolo following this season for nothing in return and be back at square one.
Would that have been a bold decision? Absolutely. Is it unfair to expect any front office to make such a change after a Super Bowl appearance? Perhaps. But dynasties are built by making the right moves, not the easy or most popular ones. It would’ve been criticized at the time, but who’d be laughing now?
Regardless of the logic, Shanahan, general manager John Lynch and Co. have had four inflection points at quarterback. It looks like they’ve been wrong every time. They chose Hoyer over Kaepernick, Thomas and Beathard over Mahomes or Watson, Garoppolo over Kirk Cousins, and passed on Cam Newton.
Ultimately, no matter how well Shanahan can call plays, his inability to make the right decisions at the most important position has made his life far harder than it needed to be. If he’ll ever build a SF 49ers dynasty, he’ll need to find a franchise quarterback.
It’s abundantly clear Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t it, but is Shanahan capable of finding someone better?