Once upon a time, the 49ers transitioned from Joe Montana to Steve Young. It was clunky, to say the least.
Now, the 49ers are clunking again, with Jimmy Garoppolo back from exile to serve as the No. 2 quarterback for a team he took to one Super Bowl and nearly to another.
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News has spoken to Young about the current quarterback situation in San Francisco. He had a compelling opening comment.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed,” Young told Inman. “This is great. This is hairy stuff.”
Indeed it is. After the 49ers could find no takers for the last year of Garoppolo’s contract, Garoppolo ate more than $19 million in salary he wasn’t going to earn anyway to spend the season as the backup to Trey Lance. For as long as Lance stays healthy and doesn’t fail.
It’s a delicate situation, to be sure. Garoppolo, who recently admitted that he doesn’t like to ruffle feathers, apparently will internalize whatever discomfort he may be feeling. Last year, he was definitely feeling it; he told Adam Schein in the offseason that Garoppolo doesn’t know that he’d wish his 2021 experience on anyone.
“If Jimmy is a problem, it kind of speaks to the ability to do the job,” Young told Inman. “He doesn’t seem like it’s bugging him, and I would say, ‘Hallelujah,’ because if it does, we have a problem.”
But it can be a problem even without it bugging Garoppolo. The locker room loves him. The fans will love him once again, too, if Lance falters. And that continues to be the biggest problem that comes from keeping Garoppolo around. It puts more pressure on Lance.
“That’s what I would tell Trey,” Young told Inman. “It doesn’t matter. The job’s a job. You’ve got do it. If you don’t do it, you have to pay the price.”
Young emphasized his point in a more colorful way.
“The job, how do I put it, it’s like climbing Everest,” Young told Inman. “It’s for experts only. ‘Oh, Sir Edmund Hillary is sitting in the tent with me. I still have to climb Everest. It doesn’t matter.’”
But it does matter, because someone can decide to tell Sir Edmund Hillary to take over for Lance.
“In some ways, Jimmy being there, holds your own feet to the fire that can be productive,” Young told Inman in what seemed to be an incessant effort to characterize a possibly leaking glass as half full. “It depends how he takes in in. It seems he takes in productively, and it can be thought in of the positive.”
Young doesn’t see anything that happened this offseason as a positive for Garoppolo.
“Something’s not right,” Young told Inman. “He just had a referendum on him. Something either perceptually or really is not resonating. If I’m Jimmy, I take the opportunity to change whatever narrative teams have — words, whispers, scouts, whatever — right now, it’s not good, because no one wants him to start for them.”
In fairness to Garoppolo, he had shoulder surgery that took him out of play when teams were figuring out their potential starters for 2022. By the time August rolled around, teams had the guys they regarded as their best options. Garoppolo remains a fringe top-20 quarterback; he’s good enough to start somewhere. That’s the point Young is missing.
“If I’m him, I can’t keep playing the same music and thinking I’m getting a starting job somewhere,” Young told Inman. “This is a period of time he can start [to] change [the] narrative, whether it’s first guy in, last guy out, memorization, owning the data, processing. Whatever’s out there that’s keeping him from getting a starting job, he needs to change.”
While Garoppolo would be wise to start returning calls and texts, the shoulder surgery continues to be the main reason for his current predicament. That said, it will be very interesting to see whether, if a franchise loses a starting quarterback, that team calls the 49ers about a possible trade or simply opts to bump the backup into the No. 1 job.
For now, the real question is whether Lance can be sufficiently durable and successful to avoid having coach Kyle Shanahan throw his hands into the air and send Garoppolo back into the fray. Shanahan can insist all he wants that it’s Lance’s team.
Maybe Shanahan eventually will believe it. With Garoppolo sticking around after Lance struggled in the preseason to show that he’s ready to do the job, plenty of others don’t.