I should warn you, this is going to be a pretty gushy blog post. I’ll give you a moment to decide if you care enough to continue reading.
There, now you’ve been warned.
So it should be clear by now that the San Francisco 49ers are my favorite football team, and that I feel a certain amount of emotional attachment to them and their ability to be good at football/win games. Logically I understand it makes no sense, but I get sad and angry when they are bad/lose, and feel happy and excited when they are good/win; close games make me nervous, bad calls cause me to scream at people who can’t hear me. Such is the life of a sports fan (see, too: reactions to Everton football matches and Hornets basketball games).
I noted recently that the Niners have had an up and down last few years (mostly, let’s be honest, down), and the beginning of last season, while providing some reason for optimism with the hires of new GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan, didn’t really help ease the aggravation. On Halloween night everything changed.
It was the last few hours before the NFL trade deadline and my phone buzzed: “49ers have traded for Patriots back up QB Jimmy Garoppolo.” Say what? This was the guy that Patriots coach Bill Belichick had recently said was pretty much untouchable, and now, it appeared, he was a 49er, essentially tabling all the “will the Niners sign Kurt Cousins?” and etc questions for the upcoming off-season; and, most importantly, allowing the team an opportunity to have what it had not had since, well, Steve Young (who’s last full season was in 1998) or, if I’m stretching it, Jeff Garcia (who was only 8-15 over his last two seasons in San Francisco, 2002-2003) or possibly Alex Smith (who was only really good for the Niners for his last two seasons, with a combined record of 19-5-1, after winning only 19 games in the previous five seasons) or the ghost of Colin Kaepernick (who won 25 games in 2 1/2 seasons and then three in his final 16). So it’s been a while since consistency existed at the quarterback position for the 49ers.
Other fun QB stats. In Smith’s rookie season, he was one of four QBs to start at least two games, including Cody Pickett, Ken Dorsey and Tim Rattay; Smith still won the most games. In 2007, it was four QBs again–Smith, 35-year-old Trent Dilfer (6 starts, 7 total games), Shaun Hill (2 starts, 3 total games) and 35-year-old Chris Weinke (1 start, 2 total games) for a 5-win squad. And don’t forget the 2008 season, where Smith missed the entire year with an injury and Hill and J.T. O’Sullivan combined for 8 starts a piece and won a total of 7 games. And finally there was 2010, the Singletary season, where the out of his depth head coach waffled back and forth between Alex and Troy Smith, and even tossed David Carr out for 13 pass attempts on his way to getting fired 15 games into the season. So yes, Garoppolo’s presence in red and gold was a welcome sight.
Yesterday afternoon, the 49er interrupted the bonanza of another trade deadline–this time it was for the NBA–with more big QB news: they had locked in Garoppolo long-term, to the tune of 5 years for $137.5 million (the exact terms are still not available as of this writing). For those of us who have been waiting for an answer at quarterback–and had been fooled into thinking the solution had come in the form of Kaepernick just a few years ago–this was music to our ears. Obviously given the sudden cliff-dive of Kaepernick’s play after he received his contract extension (the team was 8-8 in the season that followed, and coach Jim Harbaugh resigned, leading to the organization’s current predicament, not all of that was Kap’s fault, and some of the facts are likely untrue), there is some trepidation; but generally speaking, it’s all smiles in 49er Land and the optimism seems to extend beyond the team’s headquarters in Santa Clara.
Despite the team finishing just 6-10 last season, there are many pundits touting the Niners as one of the top 10-15 teams in the league, with a large number of those experts predicting the team will be able to compete not only for the NFC West title, but also make some noise in the playoffs. The argument is sound enough. Last year’s NFCW leaders were the Los Angeles Rams, who finished 4-12 in 2016 before hiring a new coach and turning around to win 11 last season. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles came off a mediocre 7-9 rookie year for QB Carson Wentz before skyrocketing to 13-3, the number one seed in the NFC and eventually winning the whole thing (albeit under back up QB Nick Foles). The Jacksonville Jaguars were 3-13 in 2016, but shored up their defense in the off-season to help them make a dramatic turn around to 10 wins and a spot in the AFC Championship game. And that’s just from this past season.
The NFL has enough parity for there to be a worst-to-first story on an almost yearly basis. In fact, since 2003, this has happened every season except 2014, and in both 2005 and 2006, three of the league’s eight divisions saw it happen. Of the now 22 teams who have accomplished that feat in that time period, two–including the Eagles–went on to win the Super Bowl (the Saints in 2009 were the other). It isn’t a foregone conclusion, but it seems like the Niners are going to at least be competitive again, with a look to keep that up for years to come. And it’s mostly because of this guy:
Obviously Jimmy GQ, as is his now Niners Nation official nickname, won’t do it on his own. But he has one skill that leads me to believe he, unlike those flash-in-the-pans who came before him in recent years, can sustain his excellence for years to come: he makes the players around him better. No disrespect to Brian Hoyer or C.J. Beathard, but they just didn’t do that for the rest of the roster last year, and it showed with the 1-10 record they posted together before Garoppolo was inserted into the line up against the Bears. Like the man he sat behind for 3+ years in New England, one Mr. Tom Brady, Garoppolo has shown he can make a lot out of nothing (see: the porous interior offensive line suddenly looking competent during the 5-0 run). The roster can still improve around him, and the team still has plenty of cap space and draft capital to make that happen during this off-season.
In short, having this QB means the most important position in sports is solidified for at least the next five–and hopefully many more–years. If the front office is smart with how it uses its assets and money, they can remain competitive for as long as Jimmy G is there. Maybe in 2036 we’ll be looking back at that long run and how jealous the rest of the league was that the Niners have it all figured out.
That would be the best.