Shortly after John Lynch was hired as the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers last January, the former All-Pro safety reached out to Tony Dungy, his former head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dungy’s advice to Lynch was simple: Lock yourself in a film room with Kyle Shanahan, the team’s new head coach, and “talk ball.”
So, Lynch did.
The 49ers’ new brain trust watched hours of tape of players at every position, spending the most time on quarterbacks. San Francisco had no quarterbacks under contract at the start of last offseason, a fact that Lynch said at the time he found “somewhat liberating.”
They watched free-agent quarterbacks. They watched backup quarterbacks. They watched draft prospects.
The more Lynch and Shanahan watched, the more they returned to New England Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo, convinced he was “the guy.”
“We don’t like talking about it a whole lot, but we made some efforts right away to try to do something, and they were rebuffed quicker than I could ask, so we just kind of moved on,” Lynch says.
The 49ers first inquired about a trade for Garoppolo last February. The Patriots said no.
San Francisco signed Brian Hoyer, drafted C.J. Beathard and continued to long for Garoppolo.
“We were hoping that we would have our quarterback by our second year, so I think it’s gone as planned,” Shanahan says. “You’d like to get it the first day you get somewhere, but that’s not as easy as everyone might think it is. But we got him, and we feel great.”
It took persistence, patience, a second-round draft choice and money -- lots and lots of money -- for the 49ers to acquire their franchise quarterback.
The 49ers traded a 2018 second-round pick for Tom Brady’s backup a day before the Oct. 31 trade deadline. Four months later, after only five starts in San Francisco, Garoppolo signed a five-year, $137.5 million contract that made him the highest-paid player in NFL history on an average-per-year basis.
“After Colin [Kaepernick] opted out, we didn’t have a quarterback on the roster, so we had to add a bunch of guys,” Shanahan says. “You look into all free-agent possibilities; you look into draft possibilities; and you look into trade possibilities. Jimmy was one of those guys going into the last year of his contract that I think everybody knew there was a trade possibility, especially with the starting quarterback they had there [Brady]. We looked into that, just like every other situation, and they weren’t interested at all early on. I don’t think they were later. I think they became a lot more realistic right before the trade deadline. I think that pushes a lot of teams to have to make certain decisions, and I think they tried to hold on to it as long as possible. A few days before the trade deadline it came up, and I think they had to make a move to help their team and their future. Fortunately, it helped us also.”
Garoppolo is undefeated, and he is highly paid. But his sample size is small, with only seven career starts.
It begs the question: Is Garoppolo the savior San Francisco has sought since Steve Young’s retirement following the 1999 season, or is it just wishful thinking on the 49ers’ part?
The team’s brass is sold, with Lynch calling Garoppolo “special.”
“I think the physical traits [stand out],” Lynch says. “He can really quickly process and get rid of the football in a fashion that, I’d say, is elite. Then you go study the makeup of the guy, and the only way to do that is to see him around his teammates. To me, the best leaders, the best quarterbacks, they make everyone around them better. … There’s no mistaking when he came in and started playing, it lifted our team. It lifted everyone around him. Then, just his makeup, his work ethic. He never left the facility.
“That whole deal, we watched it, and it became clear in our minds this was a guy we wanted to move forward with, and we’re pleased that we’ve done it.”
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Garoppolo’s story is almost as appealing as Kurt Warner’s. His college career follows Tony Romo’s. His wait compares to Young’s in San Francisco. His trade is not unlike that of Brett Favre. The start of his career is reminiscent of Ben Roethlisberger’s.
Now, can he do what Warner, Romo, Young and Favre did and what Roethlisberger is doing?
“We have one goal in mind, and that’s to get to a Super Bowl and win it,” says Garoppolo, who broke the passing records set by Sean Payton and Romo while at Eastern Illinois. “We want a parade just like Philly had one, and that’s our goal here.”
Joe Montana won four Super Bowl titles for the 49ers, and Young added another as the starter in 1994. San Francisco has not won one since.
Garoppolo, a second-round pick in 2014, already has two Super Bowl rings. But they might as well have “Brady” on the side instead of “Garoppolo.”
Now, though, he has his own team and wants his own ring.
Garoppolo became the 15th starter for the 49ers in the 18 seasons since Young retired. He sat, though, for three games and four weeks after arriving from New England as he learned the offense.
Even Shanahan’s wife, Mandy, kept questioning her husband about Garoppolo’s wait.
“It wasn’t that hard, because I thought he was going into a real tough situation, so it was harder for me to pull the trigger to put him in,” Shanahan says. “You don’t want to put a guy in a tough situation, and we weren’t playing great at the time. When you bring a guy who has never had the time to learn what you’re doing, it’s a tough position to just throw him out on an NFL field. We were trying to wait as long as possible, and I think we waited long enough.”
Garoppolo inherited a 1-10 team and went 5-0, becoming the first quarterback since Roethlisberger to win his first five starts. Garoppolo passed for more yards in those games than Montana and Young did in their first five starts combined.
“I think a big part of it was the coaching staff put me in a good spot to succeed,” Garoppolo says. “I think that’s where it all starts, preparing throughout the week and getting a good game plan together. Kyle, [quarterbacks coach] Rich [Scangarello], all those guys, they put us in a good spot to succeed, and we just went out there and executed. I think there’s a lot more that goes into it, but I think that was a big part of it.”
Garoppolo, 26, says he felt right at home the day he arrived in the San Francisco locker room. It’s where he quickly decided he wanted to spend the rest of his career.
Garoppolo, who made $10.5 million in his first four seasons, will earn $61.2 million over the next two seasons.
“If you would have asked me as a little kid if I thought this was a reality, probably not,” Garoppolo says. “But you always dream about being that NFL quarterback and everything, and this is just taking another step in that direction, I guess.”
Thus far, Garoppolo and the 49ers have proved a perfect match.
Reminded of his “somewhat liberating” comment of a year ago when he was searching for a franchise quarterback, Lynch laughs.
“I’m always an optimist, and I was trying to be one there,” Lynch says. “But the idea was that we could shape it the way we wanted, and we were able to do that. What’s even more liberating is having Jimmy under contract.”
-- Written by Charean Williams (@NFLCharean) for Athlon Sports