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Jimmy Garoppolo Staying with 49ers Will Define 2022 Season—for Better or Worse

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVAugust 30, 2022

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Nothing drives a narrative in the NFL like drama at the game's most important position. And over the past year or so, you'd be hard-pressed to find a team with a more riveting soap opera at quarterback than the San Francisco 49ers.

First, the team mortgaged its future in the 2021 draft to select small-school standout, Trey Lance. Veteran signal-caller Jimmy Garoppolo proceeded to lead the 49ers to 10 wins, a wild-card berth and a trip to the NFC Championship Game. Then, the 49ers spent most of the spring and summer talking up Lance as the future while shopping Garoppolo around the league.

Now the story has taken another twist. On Monday, the Niners agreed to terms on a restructured contract that will keep Garoppolo on the team in 2022. It was a jaw-dropping development—one that will likely define the 49ers not just this year but also potentially for years to come.

ESPN's Adam Schefter was among those who broke the news after months of wondering where Garoppolo would land. As it turns out, he isn't going anywhere.

Per Schefter, it's a deal that could pay Garoppolo anywhere from $6.5 million to upwards of $15 million, depending on how much he plays this season.

Adam Schefter @AdamSchefter

Comp update: Jimmy Garoppolo’s one-year restructured deal is worth $6.5 million in base, fully guaranteed, per sources. He has another total of $500k in roster bonuses. He also has playtime bonuses that can boost it another nearly $9M. So, one year, $7M, up to just shy of $16M.

It was a surprising move, given that the 49ers have spent most of the past six months looking for a trade partner for Garoppolo. After all, the writing was on that wall when San Francisco traded three first-round picks for Lance.

While appearing on the I Am Athlete podcast a few weeks ago (h/t Kyle Posey of Niners Nation), San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan sounded like a man who did not expect Garoppolo to be on the roster come Week 1.

"You gotta make tough decisions in this business. The more you learn about salary cap. The more you learn about how to keep ahold of your players. I thought Jimmy played great during that Super Bowl year. But I also know how good of a team we had.

They were young, and it gets harder and harder to keep these guys. Going forward, we realized how hard it would be to keep Deebo, and sign guys like Fred [Warner], like [George] Kittle. We know we’re going to end up paying [Nick] Bosa a lot of money.

So you look at all that stuff, and getting a guy on a rookie quarterback was a big part of that. And I love that we’re giving a good team to Trey, so he doesn’t have to do that on his own. Just like I didn’t believe Jimmy had to. You try to build a team to where it’s not just about the quarterback."

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However, the market for Garoppolo's services just wasn't there, either because the 49ers' asking price for him was too high or because by the time they dropped it, there weren't any teams outside their own division that needed a quarterback.

Had they released Garoppolo, his clearest path to playing time would have been in Seattle, and San Francisco general manager John Lynch reportedly wasn't keen on the Seahawks landing him. So plans were changed. Fences mended. And now Garoppolo is back as Lance's backup.

On some level, it makes sense for both sides. The Niners have an insurance policy under center who has a higher winning percentage as the starter in San Francisco than Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay.

And with no-trade and no-tag clauses baked into the new deal, Garoppolo will absolutely hit free agency in 2023. If he does play this year, it will be for a team he took within one game of a second Super Bowl appearance over the last three seasons.

It's that last part that could turn San Francisco's 2022 season into a circus, though.

No one is debating Lance's physical gifts. He has a cannon for a right arm and the athleticism to gain yardage with his legs. All offseason, the 49ers have gone out of their way to talk up the young quarterback.

But after an up-and-down training camp and preseason, even Shanahan admitted that Lance might not be as ready as he'd like to start games that count.

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"I would love to get Trey more practice and everything, more experience," Shanahan told reporters. "But we've run out of those games, and he's as ready to go as he can be. He needs to get in these real games now and start playing. There's going to be times he makes some mistakes, and he's got to learn from them and find a way to still win the game and overcome some of those things as he learns on the run."

They say actions speak louder than words, and bringing back Garoppolo seemingly hammers home the reality that Shanahan and the 49ers have reservations about Lance's readiness.

Talent or no, Lance has started three meaningful football games since 2019—one of those was a one-game season for FCS powerhouse North Dakota State—and has had one season as a full-time starter since high school.

The 49ers aren't the New York Jets, Chicago Bears or Jacksonville Jaguars—rebuilding teams willing to let a young quarterback take his lumps in a season that will end after Week 18. The 49ers fashion themselves a contender. If Lance has success early, all will be well. Garoppolo is a pro's pro who will mentor Lance the same as he did a year ago.

But what if he doesn't? What if Lance struggles in Week 1 against the Bears? What if when the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams come to town on October 3, the Niners are 1-2 or 0-3 and in danger of the season getting away from them?

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Garoppolo doesn't have Lance's arm or legs. But what he does have is 31 wins in 45 regular-season starts for the team and, as Tim Kawakami reported for The Athletic back in January, the respect of San Francisco's locker room.

"Jimmy G, you can't say enough about that guy," tight end George Kittle said. "The s--t that he takes, excuse my language. Just consistently people try to pull him down, and all he does is try to deliver. And he leads this team. He's the sense of calm in the huddle, he's the sense of calm in the storm. He allows us to play football at a high level."

If Lance struggles, how long will it take for fans and the media to clamor for Garoppolo? For players in that locker room to wonder why the guy who potentially gives the team a better chance to win now isn't on the field? For Shanahan to consider a switch?

And if Garoppolo does indeed retake control of the offense, what does that say about the massive draft capital the team invested in Lance?

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It may not come to that. Lynch and Shanahan have made many more right moves than wrong ones in their time in Santa Clara. Maybe Lance will ball out, Garoppolo will bide his time, and all will be well at Levi's Stadium.

But bringing back Garoppolo appears to show that even the 49ers have their doubts things will play out that way, and in using the past as insurance against the future, the Niners may have defined their season.

For better or worse.

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