MIAMI — John Lynch did not see this coming. Nor could he have.
The 49ers general manager knew little about Jimmy Garoppolo when he traded a second-round draft pick to the Patriots in exchange for their backup quarterback almost three years ago. A small-college product whom New England drafted in the second round in 2014, Garoppolo had played well in just two starts over his three-and-a-half-year stint with the era’s premier franchise. Lynch knew he was getting a solid player, but that was the extent of his expectation.
“We just didn’t know,” Lynch told Sporting News at the 49ers’ Super Bowl hotel when asked whether he anticipated the leadership qualities Garoppolo would bring to San Francisco in addition to his smooth QB play. “I didn’t think that he didn’t have that in him. I just didn’t know.”
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Now he knows. Garoppolo, 28 and on the verge of completing his sixth NFL season, has the 49ers in the Super Bowl in his first full season as starter — the ascent was delayed by the knee injury that wiped out the majority of Garoppolo’s 2018 campaign.
Lynch wasn’t completely caught off guard by his team’s success with Garoppolo, of course. Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s glowing endorsement of the QB during trade talks facilitated the deal and enhanced Lynch’s confidence. More concrete evidence of Garoppolo’s potential arrived soon after the trade when he led San Francisco to five straight wins to end the 2017 season.
Really, with the exception of the knee injury, Garoppolo’s football path has provided nothing but reasons to believe he has always been capable of becoming the franchise QB he is now. Below are the notable checkpoints of that journey.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s college career at Eastern Illinois
The reason Garoppolo played college football at the FCS level is simple. A linebacker as a freshman and a sophomore, he didn’t play QB until his junior year at Rolling Meadows High School, located in the northwest Chicago suburb where he grew up. So he was not on the radar of FBS programs.
Garoppolo chose to play at Eastern Illinois, located a couple of hundred miles south of Chicago in Charleston, Ill., over Illinois State and Montana State in part because liked the coaching staff’s up-front and honest recruiting tactics. It was looking like a poor choice as the Panthers went 2-9 in each of Garoppolo’s first two seasons before longtime coach Bob Spoo retired. EIU’s hiring of Dino Babers as its coach in 2012 not only turned around the program, but it altered the future of the then-junior QB.
“His style of offense really changed our team as a whole and really accelerated my career,” Garoppolo told SN, also admitting he would not be where he is without the influence of Babers, now the head coach at Syracuse.
Garoppolo went on to break all of EIU’s passing records, almost all of which were held by former Cowboys QB Tony Romo. Saints coach Sean Payton, who played at EIU in the 1980s, once held some all-time marks for the Panthers, as well. After his senior season, Garoppolo joined Romo as the school’s only Walter Payton Award winners, basically the Heisman Trophy of the FCS level.
When the Patriots drafted Garoppolo in the second round in 2014, potentially as the eventual replacement for the greatest QB of all time, no Eastern Illinois player had ever been selected higher.
That apparent succession plan in New England didn’t exactly work out.
As a rookie, Garoppolo helped the Patriots win Super Bowl 49 without playing a snap against the Seahawks. He played running back as a kid and linebacker in high school, and the athleticism required to play those positions also was required to play the part of Russell Wilson on the scout team as New England’s defense prepared to face the shifty Seattle passer.
“My legs were tired, man,” Garoppolo recalled with a laugh. “Lotta running around. Being Russell, it was tough, but it was well worth it. Hopefully (I) gave them a good enough look. Malcolm (Butler) did the rest.”
Garoppolo appeared in only 11 games through his first two NFL seasons, relieving Tom Brady only in garbage time of blowout wins. That changed when the absurd Deflategate saga ended with Brady’s four-game NFL suspension to begin the 2016 season.
Garoppolo admitted he was nervous before his first NFL start, which came in Week 1 of that season against the Cardinals. But he embraced — and continues to embrace — the pregame butterflies. (That’ll be important when he makes his first Super Bowl start Sunday against the Chiefs.)
“I get nervous before just about every game,” he said. “But I think being nervous and having a bit of an anxiety is a good thing, because if you don’t get nervous, it really doesn’t mean that much to you then. Those jitters and those emotions, you gotta harness them and use them to your advantage.”
The approach evidently works. New England won its first two games of the 2016 season with Garoppolo as the starter, but he sprained his AC joint late in the Week 2 victory. He missed the next two games before Brady returned from his suspension.
Garoppolo took a few more garbage-time snaps toward the end of the regular season, but he didn’t play in the postseason as the Patriots stormed through the AFC field and won Super Bowl 51 over the Falcons. Those random plays late in 2016 would be his last in a Patriots uniform.
Trade from Patriots to 49ers
A few months after New England traded Garoppolo to San Francisco for a second-round draft pick, ESPN published a report detailing a process that made Belichick “furious and demoralized.”
Having spent a second-rounder on a QB he envisioned as Brady’s eventual replacement, Belichick reportedly pushed back against Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s desire to deal Garoppolo and stick with Brady as long as possible. Reports also indicated Belichick, after losing his battle against Kraft, wanted to send Garoppolo to an NFC team with which the QB could succeed — perhaps an effort to create an I-told-you-so situation, but also a favor for a player the coach liked. Hence the deal that was completed with just a second-rounder rather than at least a first.
Lynch’s recollection of trade talks with the Patriots just before the 2017 deadline lines up with the idea that Belichick was indeed moving a player he would have liked to keep.
“In our conversations with Bill Belichick,” the GM explained, “when I talked to him and when (49ers coach) Kyle (Shanahan) talked to him, (he said), ‘You’re going to love this kid. His teammates love him.’
“Bill’s not prone to hyperbole. He doesn’t say things just to say them, so if he says something, he means it. That stuck with me.”
Added Garoppolo when asked about the day he was traded: “When (Belichick) called me, there was really no beating around the bush. It was right to the point. He said he appreciated everything, and I said the same to him. ‘Thank you.’
“I mean, the guy taught me so much about the pro game and the ins and outs of it. So I appreciate everything he did for me.”
Lynch described the second-round pick he traded to New England as a “high” price, but he admitted it was “a reasonable cost” for the chance to land a potential franchise passer.
Garoppolo proved to the 49ers he was exactly that as the QB led the team to victories in each of his five starts to close the 2017 season. With Garoppolo set to become a free agent after his fourth NFL season, Lynch was determined to sign his new QB to a long-term deal in the offseason.
It came in the form of a five-year, $137.5 million contract extension, which at the time made him the NFL’s highest-paid player. Not a bad deal for a player who had started just seven NFL games.
2018 knee injury
Strangely, the torn left ACL Garoppolo suffered in Week 3 of the 2018 season was a boon for the 49ers. It ruined their season; they went 4-12 as Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard traded starts at QB with Garoppolo on the shelf. It also gave them the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
With that selection, San Francisco snatched defensive end Nick Bosa to join a line that already featured four first-round picks. At the end of the season, fellow NFL players voted Bosa as Sporting News’ Rookie of the Year for his role in what has become a dominant defense.
In an interview with Sporting News before this season, Garoppolo described the injury as “very tough” initially, mainly because he had to accept the fruitlessness of all the work he had put in during the offseason. He was thrilled, though, to be healthy in time for the entirety of San Francisco’s offseason program.
Now he calls his injury a “blessing in disguise.”
“Things have a way of working out,” Garoppolo noted before the 49ers’ win over the Packers in the NFC championship game. “We got Bosa out of it. That’s a pretty good trade-off.”
Supported with a knee brace, Garoppolo has played at full strength all season. Now the team is benefiting from what Lynch described as a “perfect mix” of QB and coach. Shanahan agreed, citing that Garoppolo appreciates when the coach is hard on him. It helps the QB focus.
Lynch could not have seen this coming, either, but he’s not surprised.
“I think his Midwest roots are really evident,” Lynch said. “The fact that he has a great family and that he probably was humbled by older brothers, put in his place a few times. He’s a joy to be around.
“We’ve got a coach who’s extremely demanding and expects a high standard of play out of him, and Jimmy’s awesome at that. I think that’s where the linebacker in him helps. He’s not sensitive. He understands that Kyle’s sole purpose is to try to get the most out of him. Kyle can be very demanding in doing so, and some guys don’t have the personality for that. Jimmy almost gets better when Kyle’s chewing him out.”
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