Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
College quarterbacks often enter the National Football League with high expectations, heavy burdens, and questions about if and when he will take the reins from a Hall of Fame quarterback.
In that vein, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's debut in professional football was unexceptional.
The New England Patriots were, at least for a moment, looking toward a future without Tom Brady. A young, square-jawed quarterback from Rolling Meadows, Illinois, was the ideal candidate to replace Brady on the red, white, and blue throne.
Garoppolo was a forgotten player for his first two seasons, completing 20 passes on 31 attempts for 188 yards and one touchdown.
The Patriots might have been planning for a world without Brady, but Brady wasn't preparing for a football world without him behind center.
Garoppolo's first two career starts were not due to ordinary circumstances.
Before Garoppolo's first start on September 11, 2016, NFL history contained no instances of an heir apparent moving into a starting role due to the NFL handing down a four-game suspension due to underinflated footballs.
A series of strange events - investigations, a smashed cell phone, legal appeals, and an odd court sketch - forcibly removed Tom Brady from his ivory tower, allowing Garoppolo to rent the space for a few weeks.
Alas, that is Garoppolo's world.
One start does not determine the success or failure of a career. Still, Garoppolo went on national television to kick off the 2016 season and lead the New England Patriots to a 23-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
He finished his first start 24-for-33 for 264 yards and one touchdown pass.
Those numbers were something to build upon and possibly soothe the doubters lurking in the fanbase.
The next week, Garoppolo was tossing darts through the Miami Dolphins’ porous secondary. With under five minutes left in the second quarter, Garoppolo already had thrown for three touchdowns and 217 yards.
Brady's starting job was never in question, but with a game-and-a-half under his belt, Garoppolo looked like the young Olympian god ready to overthrow the aging Titan warrior.
After dancing in a crowded pocket and a scramble left, Garoppolo completed his last pass of the 2016 season - a 15-yard prayer to wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell.
As the ball flew through the sticky Massachusetts air, Dolphins' linebacker Kiko Alonso hit Garoppolo and drove him to the ground.
Alonso's weight and the unforgiving turf caused Garoppolo to sprain his AC joint and surrender his starting role to rookie back-up Jacoby Brissett.
Garoppolo wouldn't take another regular-season snap for over a year.
The 2017 San Francisco 49ers started the new season with a new general manager, new head coach and a roster built upon repaired ACL ligaments.
Even worse, the 49ers had no quarterbacks on the roster, as each was a free agent. The franchise was trying to rebuild from the scattered ashes of poor executive decisions, childish media leaks, and two coaches who had no business being hired.
Flash forward to Week 6 of the 2017 season. Garoppolo was watching Brady from the sidelines, and 49ers needed a talented quarterback.
New 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan had seen enough of quarterback Brian Hoyer dismantling his playbook and benched Hoyer early in the second quarter in a game against Washington.
Whether or not Shanahan bought into Hoyer's “talent” is another story for another day.
No matter; Hoyer was a difficult sell to 49er fans. The idea of signing a low-talent quarterback as a “bridge” was not only insulting to Hoyer, but to those who shelled out a quarter of a year's salary on a Levi's Stadium Builders License, 49er season tickets, parking, and shrimp ceviche nachos.
Forty-Niner management had no choice but to find the quarterback of the future earlier than they wanted.
In a rare move, the 49ers traded a second-round pick in the 2018 draft to the New England Patriots for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
As much as 49er fans wanted Garoppolo to start right away - face it, everyone was dying to see a quality quarterback in 2017 - Shanahan was adamant about keeping Garoppolo on the sidelines for a bit.
"We'll look at that week-to-week. It's a huge challenge," said Shanahan on October 31, 2017. "You know, Jimmy coming here, never playing in this offense before. I know it's a completely different terminology from what he had in New England and college. That takes a lot of time. I know Jimmy is going to come in here and do everything he can to get ready. I know we are too, but by no means are we trying to rush the process. I would definitely not expect it this week. We'll look at it each week, and when we feel that he's comfortable and has a chance to go in there and have some success, with the time he's put in and the reps that he's got in practice, then we'll decide when that time is right."
Maybe it was divine intervention, or perhaps the cosmos had seen enough from Beathard, but Garoppolo was thrown into a Week 12 game very late after Beathard took another hard hit and injured his leg.
Naturally, Garoppolo closed the game with his first touchdown pass as a 49er to close out a 24-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
With Beathard injured, Garoppolo and the 49ers went on to close the 2017 season with five straight wins, including a 44-point performance against Jacksonville and beating the L.A. Rams by 21 points in Week 17.
In Garoppolo's world, the dealer always busts, and the house pays out five times on an odds bet.
The 49ers' brass knew Garoppolo was a cornerstone player to build the new foundation, and promptly inked him to a five-year contract worth $137.5 million.
Garoppolo's world changed dramatically. He was now the face of a storied franchise with a rich history of quarterbacks. Also, he was now one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in professional football - with seven wins in seven career starts.
Like Atlas, the punished Titan forever holding the western edge of the earth on his shoulders, Garoppolo would have to carry a heavy burden.
Faithful fans were starved for winning football and the gold-standard franchise they grew up watching.
Garoppolo, paired with a young, innovative head coach, immediately morphed into the second coming of Joe Montana and Bill Walsh, both returning to save the 49ers from utter ruin.
The 49ers opened the 2018 season with one win and one loss. Both games were far from pretty, exposing some raw and unfinished parts of the team.
Late in a Week 3 contest against the Kansas City Chiefs, Garoppolo was leading a 15-play drive that had chewed over seven minutes off the clock. He took the snap from a gun formation, took a short drop, and found nobody open.
Garoppolo shucked a would-be tackler aside and bolted to his left.
Unable to find an open receiver, Garoppolo took advantage of clear turf. Once he hit thirteen yards, his left knee buckled and he hit the earth in a heap.
The deities of Garoppolo's world decided to throw him another challenge - a torn ACL and another season of watching from the sidelines.
The 49ers' 2019 fate is only known to the masters of the universe. But with the right ears, you can already hear the offseason chatter critical of Garoppolo's play.
"He had a soft schedule..."
"... bailed out by his defense most of the season..."
"Garoppolo missed open receivers too often."
"Accuracy was off..."
Football experts are dying to fill empty March airwaves with “content,” even if it is delivered by people who casually watched the 49ers in 2019. It is far easier to ignore film and facts and create a narrative to fill a three-minute space.
A real history of the 2019 49ers will spotlight what Garoppolo did with an offense that lacked a dominating receiver corps and played with a patchwork offensive line for most of the season.
Garoppolo finished 2019 as a top quarterback in wins, completion percentage, touchdowns, first downs passing, yards gained per pass attempt, yards gained per pass completion, and net yards gained per passing attempt.
Oh, and he won 13 games, turning around a team that had won ten games combined during the initial two years of the Lynch-Shanahan era.
Nobody knows what's motivated Garoppolo to perform at a high level this year - perhaps he's playing this year to prove a point to those who told him he can't.
Factors and motivations aside, Garoppolo is making football fun again for the 49ers, all while reviving the franchise from the dark depths of irrelevance.
That’s his world, and we should all be grateful to be in its orbit.
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