By Kaiyo Funaki
The time is nigh for the most polarizing quarterback to suit up for the San Francisco 49ers.
Make no mistake: Jimmy Garoppolo’s fate as the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers was decided exactly 270 days ago. That was the day, of course, that the 49ers mortgaged their future to select Trey Lance with the third pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
Afterall, this wasn’t a move the front office made as a contingency plan for their much-maligned starter. No, this was an indication that the team knew what they had in their incumbent starter and understood that his limitations would prevent the team from ascending to new heights.
Meanwhile, they drafted Lance knowing that he could very well open up a part of Kyle Shanahan’s playbook that the offensive genius could never dream of doing with Garoppolo.
Granted the veteran handled what could have been an awkward situation with aplomb, welcoming and even mentoring his eventual replacement. For that, Garoppolo deserves credit. There was little, if any, report of discontent in the locker room. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“Jimmy is one of the best teammates and leaders I’ve ever been around,” Lance told reporters after he started in place of an injured Garoppolo in Week 17. “So, for me to have him, I know he’s got my back on the sideline, whether good play or bad … Huge confidence booster, just that I know that he’s another guy that’s got my back.”
Furthermore, Garoppolo, for all of his flaws, commands the respect of his teammates and is the unquestioned leader of his team. He is a “winner,” and one that has battled through multiple injuries and media noise to help put the Niners on the cusp of their second Super Bowl appearance in three years and a shot at the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy.
As a result, rumors have emerged that the team may stick with him for at least one more year.
That would be an egregious mistake.
For the Niners to continue to compete with the NFL’s elite, they must move on from Garoppolo next season and give the reins to Lance, even if they win it all with Jimmy G at the helm.
Yes, he is a fine starter, but one that will never strike fear in the heart of a defense.
His reputation as a winner partially masks his production on the field, as the signal-caller has been underwhelming at best during the team’s late season surge.
In two postseason starts this year, he’s generated a total of 303 yards, two interceptions, and zero touchdowns. That is unacceptable, especially in comparison to what some of the other starting quarterbacks have done this postseason.
From the clinics that Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, and Joe Burrow have put on, it’s apparent that Garoppolo can not compete with them.
The Niners have been able to depend on their strong run game and defense, but they won’t always be able to dictate the game through those facets. To have to rely on Garoppolo to carry the team is something that Shanahan is reluctant to do, and for good reason.
He routinely puts the ball in harm’s way and overestimates his arm strength. Though he excels at quick reads, his improvisational skills pale in comparison to what the league’s elite can do.
Yet, because of the improbable run the Niners have gone on, other teams in desperate need of a quarterback will look to the leader of the offense and overestimate Garoppolo’s value. John Lynch and Co. should capitalize on that opportunity and recuperate some of the lost draft capital they traded when the moved up to select Lance.
Should he be traded after June 1st, that would save the Niners $25.5 million in cap space, resources that they could allocate to crucial players in need of a new contract, like Nick Bosa, and Deebo Samuel.
Handing Lance the keys of the offense would also help expedite his development. He was a raw, toolsy prospect coming out of college, so perhaps a season sitting on the bench did help in the long run. However, there’s no sense in waiting any longer, as he needs actual playing time to determine whether or not he is really the future of the franchise.
No matter what happens the rest of the playoffs, Jimmy Garoppolo should be appreciated for what he has done for this franchise. Prior to his arrival mid-2017, the team had been horrendous. He quickly helped reverse the fortunes of the team and returned the Niners to the postseason.
Nevertheless, his time as the starting quarterback is expiring. The Niners need to maximize the star power they have on both sides of the ball, and Garoppolo has only taken them so far. To keep their Super Bowl window open, Lance needs to be one guiding this team.