You can’t blame John Lynch for giving it a shot.
As he and Kyle Shanahan took over the San Francisco 49ers in the winter of 2017, seeking to rebuild a team that had won all of two games the previous season, they needed a quarterback. Colin Kaepernick had opted out of his contract and perhaps didn’t fit into the type of offense Shanahan had successfully run as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. Shanahan had a strong relationship with Kirk Cousins in Washington and wanted to bring him to San Francisco, and Cousins, according to a report, believed that he “was going to be a 49er.” The Redskins had other ideas; they franchised Cousins a second time.
So, as Lynch considered all possibilities during that 2017 offseason, he inquired in a conversation with Bill Belichick about the availability of Tom Brady’s backup and heir apparent in New England. Told that Jimmy Garoppolo was off the table, Lynch dared to ask the unaskable, bringing up Brady himself.
“I figured, what the heck, you gotta take your shot, right? You can’t score if you don’t shoot, so I had to summon up the courage,” Lynch recalled last year. “Bill laughed at me and basically hung up on me. But, hey, I took my shot.”
Although the Patriots seemed to have a firm succession plan in place for Brady, the terrain was changing in Foxborough, where owner Robert Kraft was still committed to Brady. Thus, Belichick reached out to Shanahan months later, in late October of 2017, to gauge his interest in trading for Garoppolo, who had filled in capably when Brady served his 2016 Deflategate suspension.
Belichick was purging his roster of backups, already dispatching third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett to Indianapolis in September. And so, at the end of October, New England treated the 49ers to Garoppolo – a guy Belichick had drafted out of Eastern Illinois with the 62nd overall pick in 2014 – for the low, low, one-time-only price of a second-round draft pick. Garoppolo reportedly had turned down potential contract extensions in New England, Brady was putting together an MVP season and the 49ers were 0-8. Now, a reportedly “furious and demoralized” Belichick traded Garoppolo, at what ESPN reported was the behest of Kraft, who didn’t think Garoppolo was in his team’s long-term plans.
Just like that, a franchise quarterback landed in the Bay Area.
“We made the trade, but then there were some days that Kyle Shanahan was like in mourning because I think everybody knows his master plan was to have Kirk Cousins come in eventually,” Lynch said in March, 2018. “I was proud of Kyle because I think he knew that this was the right thing for our franchise. And he didn’t hesitate. But then, even then, Jimmy really had to prove himself.”
The 49ers were on their way to a 6-10 finish in 2017, and a big decision on whether to go with Garoppolo or sign Shanahan’s pet, Cousins, who was becoming a free agent in March, 2018. A 25-23 victory over Tennessee in Week 15, in which Garoppolo passed for 381 yards and drove the Niners for a game-winning field goal as time ran out, sealed the decision. “I knew he was making some plays that just came very natural to him,” Shanahan told SI’s MMQB in February, 2018. “. . . He showed that he had a natural feel that you can’t really coach. He was born with it.”
That, coupled with a 5-0 late-season run under Garoppolo, sold Shanahan. “Did Kyle know sooner than he let me know, and he just wanted to be extra sure? That kinda deal? I don’t know,” Lynch said. “But I remember when he came in and said, ‘All right, go.’ That made me happy because, yes, he does have such a high standard. When he said go, it was like. ‘All right, it’s on.’ ”
“It” was a five-year, $137.5 million contract in February, 2018 that, at the time was the largest given to a quarterback. A month later, Cousins signed with the Minnesota Vikings.
“Everyone knows how I feel about Kirk,” Shanahan told MMQB. “And for anybody who knows how I feel about Kirk, I think this shows how I feel about Jimmy, the fact that we ended up doing this [contract]. I’m not a guy who’s going to get excited and just go with the momentum, at all. I usually do the opposite, question it to make sure I’m absolutely confident, and not go with the momentum or the excitement.
“Talking about Kirk, understanding where he could be in the next year, for me to feel this way about Jimmy? It says a lot about Jimmy.”
But San Francisco’s turnaround was delayed. The team finished 4-12 in 2018, a lost season in which Garoppolo started slowly and tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the third game. With Garoppolo healthy in 2019, the 49ers cruised to a 13-3 finish and the top seed in the NFC playoffs, where they’ll host – wait for it – Cousins and the Vikings on Saturday afternoon. The Patriots, meanwhile, have an uncertain future, with Brady set to become a free agent for the first time in his career after a poor finish to the season.
Garoppolo comes in as the leader of his team, the guy who led the 49ers to a big win last month over the Saints in the Superdome. For the season, he completed 329 of 476 passes (69.1%) for 3,978 yards, 27 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 102 passer rating. He placed fourth in 49ers history in yards for a single season and third in completion percentage. Niners fans are hardly ready to anoint him the next Joe Montana or Steve Young, and Garoppolo had his critics during the regular season. Richard Sherman called them out after the 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers in November.
“You have people nitpicking,” Sherman said. “We run for 300 yards and they’re like, ‘Well, he didn’t throw a lot.’ We ran for 300 yards! Then he throws for 400 and they’re like, ‘Well, I think he got outplayed by [Arizona’s] Kyler Murray,’ and Kyler Murray barely had 100 yards passing. You start to laugh at these things, but the goal posts keep moving with him.”
And, Sherman added bluntly. “Jimmy Garoppolo is our leader and we will follow him into the darkest of dark.”
Not that Garoppolo’s confidence has wavered, not given the lessons he learned from Belichick and Brady.
“The competitiveness between the two of us was very similar. If I’m playing my best friend in one-on-one basketball, if we are both into it, by the end, we are going to hate each other,” he said of Brady in a 2018 Bleacher Report interview. “That’s how it is. All the good competitors have that. We got along, but there were always times where we wanted to kill each other. It was a healthy, competitive relationship.”
That means that he never considers any possibility other than being the best quarterback on the field. “Even when I was a little kid, my brothers, whenever we would play, I would literally always think I was going to win. I wouldn’t, but I would always think that. It’s like when I go to New England, when I first got there, I thought in my head, ‘I’m better than this dude.'”
Even when “this dude” is Tom Brady.