SANTA CLARA — After watching the San Francisco 49ers muster only four wins last season following arterial cruciate ligament reconstructive surgery in his left knee, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has been content this offseason with the little things.
“Every day gets easier and easier,” Garoppolo said on Wednesday, as the 49ers began Phase 1 of their offseason program. “I’m able to make this throw better than I was last week. It’s small victories like that. Throughout this process it’s been about the small victories.”
For Garoppolo, the road to recovery from a torn ACL and meniscus — which was suffered in the 49ers 38-27 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sep. 23, 2018 — has been made easier by the presence of starting running back Jerrick McKinnon.
Last season was to be the breakout year for San Francisco, with McKinnon and Garoppolo set to team up for an entire campaign under Kyle Shanahan. Instead, the two have worked side by side, both rehabbing their ACLs, preparing for take two in 2019.
“Initially, you were just so down after the surgery and everything like that,” Garoppolo said. “It’s encouraging being with someone, especially [McKinnon]. I mean the guy is so positive every day so how could you not be in a good mood with him?”
Last year, the expectation was for McKinnon to be dropped into the 49ers offense and add a new dimension to their game. Considering that McKinnon packed 4.41-second 40-yard dash speed and gained nearly half of his yards in 2017 through the air, it was thought that his arrival would foreshadow a big payoff for San Francisco offensively, especially with a full season of Garoppolo under center.
Signed away from the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent, McKinnon went down in one of the final practices before the regular season after making an awkward cut at the very end of a non-contact team session. Garoppolo’s road began a little bit after McKinnon’s, as he suffered his injury against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 23.
Undergoing surgery to repair the ruptured ligament after the swelling in the knee went down, McKinnon was right back in the 49ers locker room, albeit on a pair of crutches but with a smile on his face. By the time Garoppolo went down just shy of a month later, McKinnon had already been through what Garoppolo called “the worst part” of the ordeal, and had some tips and tricks ready for his quarterback.
“[McKinnon] was about three weeks ahead of me I think it was,” Garoppolo said. “So he always had some tips for me on ‘I did this,’ or ‘try doing that,’ type of thing.”
The two had only spent the later part of the offseason training camp and the preseason together, so the dual rehab allowed McKinnon the chance to observe his quarterback’s work ethic up close, and for months on end.
“It was nice because it was the same injury and I got to see how hard he works,” McKinnon said. “It’s a lot of time spent together. Just going through plays and picking his brain, him picking mine. Just trying to get on the same page for the upcoming season.”
For Garoppolo, before he could even think about getting back onto the field, his first step was trusting his body again.
“I think trust is a good word for it,” Garoppolo said. “It’s really the movements you haven’t done in a while. I’d say like cutting, for example. The first cut you make, you kinda do it half speed. Then 75 percent, then you build it up slowly. I think it’s a process. Every movement from throwing, cutting, jumping, whatever it is. But once you’ve done it a couple of times, your body reacts pretty quickly and remembers how to do it.”
Garoppolo and McKinnon were able to work on some passing and catching as they recovered. General manager John Lynch spoke about this during a SiriusXM radio interview, in which he described watching the two through the tinted window of his office.
“You never know when those guys are watching, Their windows are hard to see through,” Garoppolo said jokingly. “[McKinnon and I] were on different schedules. He was a few weeks ahead of me so I was trying to play a little bit of a catch game with him.”
Just two days into San Francisco’s offseason program, those aspirations have been jump started as both players are expected to be back in the fold soon.
According to both players, there is no set time table in regards to being fully cleared for football activities. Despite that, each feel like they’re well on their way to making a full recovery thanks to the help from one and other.
“Definitely,” McKinnon said when asked if the start of training camp was a realistic expectation. “But that’s way down the road. I just know that when the time comes, we’ll be ready.”