The 49ers win with Jimmy Garoppolo on the field. But he’s not always on the field. And right there, you’re presented with a conundrum.
On one hand, head coach Kyle Shanahan’s winning percentage jumps to 73.3 when Jimmy G is on the field and starting regular-season games. Without him starting, Shanahan boasts a 6-24 record.
Quarterback wins are a fairly lazy evaluatory tool when considering the importance of a quarterback. But it is evidence. The Niners are a better team with Garoppolo healthy and in the lineup.
The problem, though, is Garoppolo hasn’t been healthy. Whatever small injury reputation he had with the New England Patriots before being traded to San Francisco carried over to his current team, including the two high-ankle sprains suffered in 2020 which limited him to just six games last year.
The 49ers subsequently finished the year 6-10, although that record didn’t occur in a vacuum with Garoppolo’s setbacks the only other factor.
Earlier this week, general manager John Lynch once again stuck to his guns defending Garoppolo in an interview with the “Eye Test for Two” podcast:
“If he is injury-free,” Lynch was asked, “is there any doubt in your mind that Jimmy Garoppolo is your quarterback when you line up in September?”
His response was immediate.
“No,” he said. “Not at all. I really believe that.”
But the conundrum presented itself later in the interview when Lynch added the following:
“When he’s healthy,” [Lynch] said of his quarterback, “he’s played at a high level. But we probably have to add someone. We probably need to improve ourselves, so if he’s not there we’re all right … we can win games.”
The phrase “when he’s healthy” has become all too common a portion of the Jimmy Garoppolo conundrum. Even if Garoppolo was an above-average starter, him being mostly unavailable because of injuries for the better part of two of his three full seasons as an expected starter would probably convince most teams across the league they’d have to consider better alternatives.
Lynch and the Niners are certainly exploring this, although they’ve remained awfully quiet on the comments section. That’s for good reason, too. What message would it send to Garoppolo and the locker room if they were publically calling out Jimmy G for being oft-injured and wanting an upgrade, only to see no plausible solutions presented and being forced to roll with Garoppolo in 2021 instead?
Here’s where the cloudiness of Garoppolo’s situation gets murkier, too. As Niners Nation’s Akash Anavarathan pointed out, EDGE Dee Ford actually has played in three more games than Garoppolo over the last three years despite missing all but one game in 2020 and seeing just 11 regular-season games in 2019.
And Ford is set to cost San Francisco just a shade over $20 million, 11 percent of the team’s salary cap in 2021, compared to Garoppolo’s $26.4 million (14.5 percent). When many a fan thinks about how the 49ers can create more cap space, Ford is all too often the player discussed because of his injury-prone nature.
Garoppolo can be, too, but it’s a much more divisive camp.
Is the conundrum a bit clearer now?
Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers and it being about money
It’s fair to defend Jimmy G. His teammates have done it regularly, and going back to Shanahan’s record is yet another reason why one should assume the Niners are better with the quarterback on the roster than without him.
But be realistic here for a second. Assume Garoppolo suddenly became a free agent right now. Would he somehow manage to sign a free-agent deal somewhere else with a team willing to shell out $26.4 million given his track record of being injury-prone?
No. Not even close.
And while some may blame San Francisco for paying that much money on Garoppolo back when the deal was inked in 2018, the reality is that’s what his contract currently commands unless the 49ers find a way to back out of it, either via a cut or trade. If hindsight was a thing, San Francisco probably wouldn’t have gone with that contract if it knew Garoppolo would miss nearly two of three years thereafter.
Yet as Lynch pointed out, suddenly the Niners have to put more of an emphasis on contingency plans for another Garoppolo injury. This has become a reality within San Francisco’s situation heading into 2021.
For a team boasting little more than $13 million in cap space and with a flurry of holes opening up elsewhere on the roster, it’s less than ideal.
Lynch’s words are essentially what front offices should say about their starting quarterbacks. But it doesn’t mean the 49ers are blindly committed to Garoppolo, nor does it mean they’ll move him at the soonest opportunity.
If anything, they’re facing a conundrum and one which won’t likely be answered easily.