Jimmy Garoppolo sat on the bench and shook his head, his face a brew of shock and despair. He had just thrown a wild back-handed shovel pass while being pulled down by the Rams’ Aaron Donald, one of the great defensive linemen of his or any generation, and on cue the ball was deflected and picked off, sending Los Angeles to the Super Bowl and sending the 49ers home.
Nobody was terribly surprised by this outcome, even though the Rams had lost six straight to the 49ers. In the final minutes of this NFC Championship game, while discussing the 49ers’ failure to run the ball, Fox broadcaster and Hall of Famer Troy Aikman said, “I’m afraid it’s going to have to be Jimmy Garoppolo that gets it done.”
The Niners were surely afraid of that, too.
Just as Tom Brady was exiting stage left, likely retiring as a seven-time champ at age 44, this was a rare opportunity for the man drafted to replace him in New England to show the world that at age 30, he was finally ready to become a champion, too. But just as he unraveled in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl two years ago, blowing a 10-point lead to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, Garoppolo got smaller and smaller with each crunch-time snap.
He lost 5 yards in three plays after Aikman said what he said, with the score tied, and then after the Rams seized a 20-17 lead, Garoppolo took the ball at his own 25 with one timeout and 1:46 left. His first pass was batted down, his second was caught for a 3-yard loss, and his third was the desperate shovel pass intercepted by Travin Howard, surely the final throw of his 49ers career.
“I love Jimmy,” his coach, Kyle Shanahan, said afterward. “I’m not going to sit here and make a farewell statement or anything right now. That’s the last stuff on my mind. But Jimmy has battled his ass off. He battled today. He did some unbelievable things today, and I love coaching Jimmy.”
Back in New England years ago, Bill Belichick also loved coaching Jimmy. In fact, Garoppolo inspired perhaps Belichick’s most candid press conference remark of all. This was in the spring of 2014, and the Patriots had just made the Eastern Illinois prospect their second-round pick.
Garoppolo’s former college coach Dino Babers would say the kid had the second-fastest release he’d ever seen, right behind Dan Marino’s. If Belichick didn’t feel the same way, he did see enough potential in Garoppolo to anoint him Brady’s successor.
“We know what Tom’s age and contract situation is,” Belichick said that day.
Tom’s age? Tom’s contract situation?
Since when did Belichick ever bring those things up in front of a live microphone?
Brady would turn 37 before the start of the 2014 season, and Belichick was itching to make a change at the game’s most vital position. Brady’s numbers and arm strength were in decline, and nobody had any earthly idea that he wouldn’t retire until he was 44, after he won three more Super Bowls for New England and another for Tampa Bay while silencing all GOAT debates forevermore.
At the time, Belichick was telling people he looked forward to the day he could try to win it all with a different man under center.
That different man was going to be Garoppolo, at least until Brady blew up the plan.
So on Halloween 2017, the coach shipped Garoppolo to San Francisco for a lousy second-round pick. Belichick liked Garoppolo and wanted to put him in the hands of a creative offensive mind the likes of Shanahan, son of Belichick’s buddy Mike.
The Patriots coach wanted to give the quarterback he handpicked and developed a chance to play in the kind of game he played in SoFi Stadium on Sunday night. As it unfolded, Garoppolo threw for two scores against the Rams to take a 10-point lead. He played a good game, at least until the moment summoned him to be great.
And that’s the problem with Jimmy G. Despite his 37-16 career record, including 4-2 in the postseason, he’s been a pretty good quarterback but never a great one. His numbers in the playoff victories over Dallas and Green Bay (a combined 303 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions) tell the tale. Garoppolo has never thrown for 30 touchdowns or for 4,000 yards in a season. He’s no Matthew Stafford, and he’s certainly no Tom Brady.
The 49ers have already drafted Garoppolo’s successor the way New England drafted him as Brady’s eight years ago. They surrendered two first-round picks to move up the board last year to take Trey Lance at No. 3 overall, and Shanahan didn’t pay that kind of price to keep him on the bench.
So that’s a wrap for Garoppolo in San Francisco, while the Rams play the long-shot Bengals for the grand prize.
“It’s a tough way to end it,” Garoppolo said.
It’s a shame, too. As Brady heads into retirement, his would-be replacement never became the player Belichick drafted him to be.