The legend of Jimmy Garoppolo was a tale spun before it was even realized—a common courtesy granted to the only quarterback that ever made New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick consider parting ways with Tom Brady.
San Francisco 49ers fans have patiently waited—and waited—for that caricature of the heir apparent to Brady to jump off the pages.
Two years have passed since the 49ers gambled away a second-round draft pick to acquire Garoppolo from the Patriots. Well over a year has passed since the team opted to hand him the richest contract in NFL history at the time—a five-year, $137.5 million deal with an average of $27 million per year.
And the 49ers are still waiting.
During a training camp practice on Wednesday, Garoppolo dropped back and threw five interceptions on five consecutive passes (yes, you read that correctly). That’s Nate Peterman throwing five interceptions in a single half to the Los Angeles Chargers bad. That’s Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing six picks to the Kansas City Chiefs bad.
Perhaps there’s a dash of sensationalism in those two comparisons, but it isn’t any less crazy than throwing on a blindfold and pretending like a franchise quarterback throwing five interceptions on five straight passes happens at every NFL practice, much less from a franchise quarterback we know little about.
Garoppolo has only played in nine of a possible 32 games for the 49ers over the last two seasons, leaving plenty of mystery of how he’s actually going to look in coach Kyle Shanahan’s completely revamped offense.
Everyone saw the five games at the end of the 2017 season of him catching defenses off guard and slinging the ball around the field like he was the next Aaron Rodgers. However, he was also facing defenses that didn’t have much NFL tape on him.
He had only appeared in two games as a starter for the Patriots, when Brady was forced to sit out the first four games for the whole Deflategate fiasco. The rest of the highlight-worthy moments in the three years he spent with the Patriots came in garbage time.
There is also less certainty when putting a magnifying glass to his stats with the 49ers. He has thrown 12 touchdowns to eight interceptions, along with being sacked 21 times, in nine games.
Health has been the biggest hurdle for Garoppolo so far in his professional career.
A week after leading the Patriots to a stunning Sunday Night Football victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the 2016 season opener, he was knocked out of a road game against the Miami Dolphins with a shoulder injury, which ruined his opportunity to fill in all four games for Brady.
Then there was the devastating torn ACL injury he suffered in his right knee in Week 3 in 2018 against the Chiefs that knocked him out for the season. Injuries are out of Garoppolo’s control, but the combination of the lingering health issues, along with the struggles in training camp, should be concerning for the 49ers.
The pieces are in place for them to compete right now, assuming they aren’t dependent on a revolving door of backup quarterbacks feigning as starters.
They need the version of Garoppolo that emerged nearly two years ago; the version that made their offer of a second-round draft pick look like the biggest steal of the decade.
Jim Harbaugh, who was basically run out of San Francisco, finished with an 8-8 record in his worst season with the team, after leading them to three consecutive NFC Championships and a Super Bowl appearance.
The last three years has seen Chip Kelly go 2-14 in a one-and-done season and Shanahan muster an overall 10-22 record.
If the 49ers fail to be competitive in 2019 as well, the entire road-mapped vision put into place by Shanahan and general manager John Lynch could come into question.
There is more tape on Garoppolo than ever before, and opposing defenses are going to force him into the same uncomfortable situations he’s seeing from his own defense at practice. Will he succeed at making the necessary adjustments to justify his hefty price tag?
More importantly, however, will he be able to stay healthy?
Those two questions should deliver franchise-altering answers to help separate fact from fiction in the premature legend of Garoppolo, along with making or breaking the case that the combination of Shanahan and Lynch were in over their heads from very beginning.