This was going to be a piece about Jimmy Garoppolo’s legacy as the 49ers’ quarterback. It turns out the roller coaster nature of his tenure won’t allow for a predictable ending where we can project how he’ll go out using a narrative crafted throughout his career. That roller coaster is presumably winding down and could either sail in smoothly to leave riders wanting a little more, or come to a screeching halt after one final drop that leaves riders more eager than ever to exit.
Garoppolo came to a lost 49ers team. They were 2-14 in 2016 and 1-10 when he arrived via trade with the New England Patriots in 2017. He threw a TD pass in his first appearance and Garoppolo-mania was on. His next five starts all resulted in wins and San Francisco had their franchise quarterback. They rewarded him with a five-year, $137.5 million contract that offseason, and in 2018 the roller coaster took its first drop.
In two-plus games Garoppolo completed 59.6 percent of his throws with five touchdowns and three interceptions. Then he tore his ACL. In 2019 he bounced back to start all 16 games to help lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl, but an irreparable rift opened during that postseason run that set a tone that will mar Garoppolo’s overall legacy in red and gold.
With 2:49 to go in the second quarter of the 49ers’ divisional playoff matchup vs. the Vikings, Garoppolo fired an interception into the chest of Minnesota linebacker Eric Kendricks. It was the prototypical, head-scratching decision that ultimately stands above all of Garoppolo’s other traits as a signal caller. It was clear throughout 2019 that he was limited as a passer, and limited passers can’t also be mistake-prone.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan pulled the plug after that INT. After Minnesota kicked a field goal to pull within four points, Shanahan had Garoppolo take a knee with 31 seconds and one timeout left. The 49ers threw the ball six times the rest of the game. Then threw it only eight times in the NFC championship game. In the Super Bowl Garoppolo threw a bad interception, completed only 20 of his 31 throws for 219 yards, and his missed deep shot to Emmanuel Sanders that would’ve given the 49ers a late lead stands as the single most memorable offensive moment for San Francisco in that game.
Injuries derailed a potential bounce-back season for Garoppolo in 2020, and in 2021 he’s displayed more up-and-down moments. He’s been worse statistically than he was in 2019, but the 49ers are still 10-7 and in the postseason for the second time in as many years when Garoppolo starts virtually all of their games.
This season’s final three games were the perfect encapsulation of the Garoppolo experience. He threw two bad interceptions and missed a sure touchdown to fullback Kyle Juszczyk on a deep throw in a loss to the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football. He got hurt in that game and had to miss the following week against the Houston Texans. Then in Los Angeles in a must-win situation he overcame some early mistakes to help lead a comeback from 17-0 down, including an 88-yard drive with no timeouts in the final 1:27 to tie the game at 24 and send it to overtime. Then he guided the game-winning drive in OT.
Those highlights are very high. The shootout with Drew Brees and the Saints in the Superdome stands out. So does his stellar outing in Seattle to grab the NFC crown that same year. And his very strong game to beat the Bengals in overtime this season in Cincinnati.
The problem is the great games are not peppered in among good games with the stray subpar performance. It’s all over the map, and Garoppolo’s legacy will only go as far as his last performance because the inconsistency won’t allow for a smooth narration of his career in the Bay Area.
Going into the playoffs it’s hard to imagine not looking back fondly on Garoppolo as the 49ers’ signal caller. That’s mostly because his most recent game was the remarkable comeback against the Rams that sent San Francisco to the playoffs.
On the other hand, every roller coaster rise comes with a drop, and the lasting legacy of Jimmy Garoppolo will be the perpetual anxiety of knowing the fall is coming. The only way he can solidify his place in 49ers lore is to go win a Super Bowl, but looking back on how the Garoppolo ride has gone, it’s impossible to think there’s not one more gut-wrenching drop before it screeches to halt and everyone gets off as fast as they can in search of something more consistent.