Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
From the moment that he arrived in Santa Clara on the last day of October 2017, the media and fans began to wonder what to expect from Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo was perhaps the most coveted non-starting quarterback in the NFL when a trade on the eve of Halloween brought the 49ers a treat and had every fan looking to multiple sources to make sure it wasn’t a trick. Head coach Kyle Shanahan immediately tried to manage expectations by saying that there was a chance that Garoppolo might not play at all; whether he played would, in large part, be determined by how quickly he picked up Shanahan’s offense, no easy task for someone who has never played in it before, but throw in the fact that New England’s offensive terminology is completely different and you might as well be asking a native French speaker to read The Odyssey in it’s original Greek and recite it aloud in English. The football gods, however, do not care if you are ready.
Garoppolo would be forced into mop up duty against the Seahawks, where he looked like a competent NFL quarterback and showed poise under pressure while throwing a late touchdown in a game that was out of reach. Garoppolo would start the following week against the Chicago Bears in his native Illinois for the injured C.J. Beathard and lead the 49ers to just their second victory of the season. Garoppolo would go on to start the remainder of the games in 2017 going 5-0 as a starter and building up great expectations among fans for what could be in 2018, but, again, the football gods don’t care.
Going into the 2018 season Garoppolo was 7-0 as a starter, having gone 2-0 filling in for a suspended Tom Brady prior to his 5-0 stint as the starter for the 49ers and newly minted face of the franchise. Should 49ers fans expect to see the offense that scored on 62 percent of their drives the final five games of 2017 (the best in the NFL during that span) or would it come back to the pack? Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan said that it wasn’t until his second season in Kyle Shanahan’s offense that he became comfortable in the system. In his first year with Shanahan, Ryan threw for 4,591 yards 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, but in Year 2 Ryan threw for 4,944 yards and improved to 38 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions on his way to winning the NFL’s most valuable player award. Garoppolo had five games with Shanahan under his belt but only one training camp offensive installation, which is when the most intense instruction takes place. So, would the 49ers be getting a Garoppolo that looked more like Matt Ryan did in his first year or more like Ryan did in year two? Unfortunately for the 49ers, Garoppolo’s 2018 season would last less than three full games; the quarterback would tear the ACL in his left knee in the third quarter of the Week 3 loss at Kansas City freezing Garoppolo’s 2018 passing numbers at 718 yards, 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
By all accounts, the surgery to repair Jimmy Garoppolo’s ACL went well and there was no additional damage discovered during the procedure and his rehab is ahead of schedule, which is why Garoppolo was taking part in 7-on-7 drills on the first day of organized team activities (OTAs). So, what should fans reasonably expect from Garoppolo in the 2019 season?
Fans and reasonable expectations is an oxymoron that would make George Carlin proud, but given the history of recent quarterbacks returning from similar injuries and the history of quarterbacks under Kyle Shanahan there should be enough data to formulate an educated guess, beginning with how other quarterbacks have recovered from similar injuries.
By the time the 49ers open training camp on July 26, Garoppolo will be nearly ten months removed from surgery. Of all the starting quarterbacks in the NFL who have torn ACLs since 2006 only Tom Brady has had a longer period between his injury and a return to game action (assuming Garoppolo plays in Week 1 of the preseason); most of the quarterbacks came back from the injury to regain the form they had prior to the injury. In fact, two of Carson Palmer’s three Pro Bowl seasons have come in the season following ACL tears.
The biggest hurdle that many athletes face when coming back from injuries like the one Garoppolo suffered is mental; it is impossible to know what affect the injury will have on Jimmy Garoppolo mentally. Will he be afraid to step into a throw with people around his feet? Will he be hesitant to scramble for a first down? No one knows at this point, not even Garoppolo, but physically he should be fully recovered, but his mental recovery will have to wait until he takes snaps in a game.
The missing game reps are what is holding back Jimmy Garoppolo’s development to this point in his career (Beathard has more career passing attempts than Garoppolo). Garoppolo has only started ten games in his career and he has left two of them with injuries. While Garoppolo has done what he can to try and make up for the missed time, including putting in time with Mike Shanahan (Kyle’s father) breaking down film to try and get additional mental reps.
The very unscientific method of extrapolating Garoppolo’s 2018 number’s over a full 16 games yields a season line of 3,829 yards 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, which compares not unfavorably to Matt Ryan’s 2015 season; the question is whether Garoppolo will see the second year jump that Ryan saw.
The supporting cast that surrounds Garoppolo is much better than the one that he had in Week 3 of 2018 but is probably not at the level of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons, so to expect Garoppolo to turn in an MVP-type season might be setting the bar too high. After going through his second offensive install under Kyle Shanahan, I would expect Garoppolo to be much more efficient than what he showed in 2018, but his numbers will be tempered by the fact that the 49ers figure to be among the league leaders in rushing in 2019. Even with the focus on the running game, 3,800 yards 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions would not be out of the question for Garoppolo.
For all of the success that Kyle Shanahan has had as an offensive coordinator, he has never had the same starting quarterback for three seasons; he has only had the same starting quarterback in consecutive seasons three times in eleven seasons as offensive coordinator or head coach. Matt Schaub and Matt Ryan both saw significant upticks in their performances in Year 2 under Shanahan. Will Garoppolo join them?
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