San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, left, talks with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) prior to Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Feb. 2, 2020. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/TNS)

Why 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has a lot on his shoulders in 2020

By Chris Biderman

The Sacramento Bee

A funny thing happened happened this week when 49ers left guard Laken Tomlinson was asked about critics who question Jimmy Garoppolo as a championship-level quarterback.

Instead of offering a boilerplate answer, which happens often during Zoom news conferences, Tomlinson went into casual mode, off script, with a drop of humor.

“How dare you doubt my dude like that,” he said. “Are you crazy? You see him out there doing his thing? Come on, man. That’s my dog.”

There’s an obvious chasm between how observers nationally view Garoppolo versus the 49ers locker room. To a man, Garoppolo is revered by his teammates. He has the business-like approach needed for a franchise quarterback, and he can add his awkward sense of humor when needed, like when he trades barbs with the far more outgoing George Kittle.

If there’s a sense Garoppolo let the 49ers down in the Super Bowl, it certainly hasn’t been put out there by any player publicly. Any questions about Garoppolo have been universally dismissed by teammates.

“Jimmy is a leader to all of us out there,” Tomlinson said. “It’s all nonsense, honestly. It’s all just talk.”

49ers face Garoppolo decision

The key decision makers have made a similar point when asked about why Garoppolo hasn’t been given any financial assurances beyond this season. Garoppolo after this season has no guaranteed salary left on his contract, which in the NFL means you’re essentially in a contract year and in danger of being a salary cap casualty if you don’t perform.

The 49ers are cap-strapped while still needing to decide on the futures of looming free agents such as left tackle Trent Williams, cornerback Richard Sherman, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, slot corner K’Waun Williams and nose tackle D.J. Jones, among others. The team might be wise to sign Garoppolo to a new extension, or at least rework his contract to guarantee more cash while creating cap space.

That’s what Tom Brady did almost annually in New England, which became a crucial financial component to the Patriots’ dynasty. He regularly took a below-market rate to keep a championship-caliber roster together while giving him more long-term security in the form of signing bonuses converted from base salary.

So when defensive end Dee Ford, who also had no guaranteed salary on his contract beyond 2020, had his contract reworked last week, general manager John Lynch was asked why a similar move hasn’t been made with Garoppolo and if it’s an indictment of how the team feels about its starting quarterback.

“No I don’t think so at all. Jimmy is our quarterback and we’ve stated that numerous times,” Lynch said. “Jimmy is as big a part of our plans as he’s ever been. And we’re really excited having Jimmy Garoppolo having as our quarterback going into this year. I wouldn’t read too much into that.”

Of course, if Garoppolo had always been “as big a part” of the team’s plans as Lynch said, the 49ers wouldn’t have kicked the tires on Tom Brady when he made overtures during free agency and then publicly admit to it. Which makes it fair to wonder about the team’s confidence in Garoppolo over the long haul when considering the Brady interest and Garoppolo’s contract status.

On the other hand, Garoppolo is under contract for two more seasons and his camp might be looking at other contracts throughout the league and argue Garoppolo would need to get a significant raise if he were going to restructure his deal. Garoppolo is due to count for $26.6 million in 2020, $26.9 million in 2021 and $27 million in 2022.

Meanwhile, 10 other quarterbacks are currently on contracts making $30 million or more per season on average.

It would be logical from both the 49ers’ and Garoppolo’s standpoint to take a wait-and-see approach to the season. Garoppolo could conceivably elevate his game in just his second full season as a starter in a way other quarterbacks did under Kyle Shanahan previously.

49ers offense will fly or sink with Jimmy G

The most famous example is Matt Ryan, who went from middling to MVP during Shanahan’s final season in Atlanta in 2016. Ryan, who struggled initially the play-action heavy scheme that often required turning his back to the defense, increased his touchdown throws from 21 to 38 and decreased his interceptions from 16 to seven. His passer rating in 2015 a mediocre 89.0 before it ballooned to a league high 117.1 the next season.

“I think that Jimmy Garoppolo has all the tools certainly to be an elite quarterback,” new ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Brain Griese told reporters on a conference call this week. “I think he has a supporting cast, most importantly, in San Francisco, and he has a coaching staff and a head coach that will put him in position to succeed. I mean, this is a team that was on the doorstep of a championship and let it slip through their fingers in the Super Bowl, and I think you’re going to get a hungry team. I think you’re going to get a coaching staff that will anticipate the situations that they were in last year and be better in those situations this year.”

The 49ers receivers have been a hot topic throughout the summer and leading into Week 1 with top option Deebo Samuel (foot) and first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk (hamstring) uncertain to play Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.

But the team is getting back a handful of other players who could contribute in different ways. Slot receiver Trent Taylor is back to form after missing all of last season with a series of complications following a botched surgery on his foot. And running back Jerick McKinnon has been the team’s best pass-catching running back and could offer a dynamic the team didn’t have out of the backfield last season. The team also added tight end Jordan Reed who, if healthy, could give San Francisco the best tight end tandem in the NFL

“I think Jimmy right now will be motivated based off of some of those failures that he had late in (the Super Bowl),” added Louis Riddick, who is also a new commentator on Monday Night Football. “I think Kyle will be motivated based off of some of the failures that his team had late in that game.

“I had said earlier when they traded for him from New England, I thought from a value standpoint he would turn out to be one of the best trades that San Francisco had ever made, and had they won that Super Bowl I think that would have been validated.”

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