In the midst of what looked like a comeback in Kansas City, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on a scramble made a very un-veteran-like move, cutting back inside from the left sideline in an attempt to gain an extra yard or two. That plant, in what was no doubt an effort with his team in mind, ultimately crushed the hopes of the 49ers’ 2018 season. The $100M man went down with a non-contact injury, grabbed at his left knee, and was ruled out for the game after being carted to the locker room.
The worst was confirmed by the 49ers on Monday, as Garoppolo was diagnosed with a torn ACL after undergoing an MRI.
With the franchise quarterback headed for injured reserve, many are already wondering what’s next. What is this team going to do at QB, if anything; what is the proper lens with which to observe this team for the remainder of 2018; and what do we make of Garoppolo's future?
Prospect of Kaepernick
Almost immediately, Colin Kaepernick's name was brought up. He's undoubtedly the best free-agent quarterback, and better than many of the current starters teams are fielding. He deserves a shot and would keep the 49ers competitive and potentially in a playoff hunt. The match, however, is just not at all as realistic as conventional logic would indicate; there are many layers that are unique to Kaepernick and the 49ers.
First and foremost, this very regime already had Kaepernick in the building in 2017 and the two parties mutually agreed to part ways.
The 49ers have invested a third-round pick (#104) and significant time in C.J. Beathard, which is more than most teams do with their backup QB. They’ve given him reps in training camp and preseason knowing that if something were to happen to Garoppolo, this would be the player they’d lean on. Now that the moment has arrived, they’re going to stick to the game plan, John Lynch himself confirmed.
Shanahan said in April 2017 that Kaepernick's unique skills do not make him a fit for this system. While that's debatable by those who understand this scheme and Kap's profile as a QB, Shanahan, the owner, designer and operator of the offense still said it. Even if it wasn't the whole truth, that's an indicator that there will never be a pairing of the two.
This is an intense offensive system with complex concepts and verbiage. Timing with receivers is also something to consider. Since the season is already underway, Beathard is very well the best man to lead this group this year.
A deliberate move like hypothetically signing Kaepernick means they're not giving up on 2018, maybe for the sakes of guys like Joe Staley and Richard Sherman. And best case scenario, they're right about Kap, and he performs well enough where it creates a QB controversy that leads into next year. The 49ers don’t want that with a $100 million quarterback rehabbing; it muddies the waters for 2019 and invites internal drama.
Personally, I think Kaepernick's next opportunity, should he get one, would be best served with a team like Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, New England, Los Angeles (A), or Oakland. It’d be a fresh start elsewhere, each of these teams could use a quality backup or future starter, and he could parlay that into another contract.
NFL draft angle
For the “tank” crowd – first, that’s not a thing. NFL teams, or professional sports teams for that matter, don’t lose on purpose. The 49ers will continue to cut their teeth under Shanahan this season. They’re going to try to win every game. That said, considering they've lost Garoppolo, they don’t need to try to tank to maybe end up with a top-10 draft pick again. They're already in the top 10 after three games.
And that’s the bright side, if there is one.
The 49ers after all are still very much a rebuilding team. There was a very real chance they didn’t make the playoffs this year. This positions them for another foundational player in the draft. They need an impact playmaker on offense, they need a top-end pass rusher on defense, they could use an impact guard, and a cornerback with elite potential as well.
And we can definitively say, with Beathard behind center instead of Garoppolo, the 49ers are more likely to have a shot at a blue-chip prospect that settles a need. They're already on the wrong side of the W-L column at 1-2. If Beathard wins even half of his starts (6.5), which would be both implausible and excellent, the 49ers are still in the bottom half of the league at 7-9 or 8-8. Five wins could be the ceiling, though.
5-11 got the Broncos the No. 5 overall pick in 2018. So, the top 10 is realistic and the top five is a possibility.
Anticipating a return
If this had to happen, and it was an unavoidable outcome that had to occur at some point in 2018, Week 3 wasn't the worst timing. Most of Garoppolo's rehab will take place during this season, and barring any setbacks, he likely won't miss any activities in the 2019 league year.
Scott Kacsmar and Zach Binney of Football Outsiders conducted a study with 112 players that had ACL tears in the 2011-2016 regular seasons. Sixty-three percent of players that incurred injury between Weeks 1-5 were available for Week 1 the following season, which was the best return rate for the average week the ACL injury occurred.
Also of note was that quarterbacks in general were far less affected due to the nature of their position.
They had quicker turnarounds. The most recent example, Carson Wentz, tore his ACL in Week 14 of 2017, and returned for Week 3 this year. Another QB that was back early, according to FO, was Carson Palmer, who tore his ACL in the playoffs and was somehow ready the following preseason – and that was back in 2006.
This data makes it appear likely Garoppolo returns to form and gets back to the team for another full offseason.
What’s scary for Garoppolo and the 49ers
Garoppolo sat for three and a half years behind Tom Brady after being drafted 62nd overall in 2014, only making two starts in New England. He had five starts after arriving in San Francisco in 2017, and three more in 2018. With checkered play, and no real commitment to him as QB1 until now, this was was supposed to be his first full year as an NFL starter.
This, understandably, must be the hardest part for Garoppolo. He has patiently waited for his opportunity – till his sixth season in fact – and here comes another roadblock disrupting his career path.
Anticipating Garoppolo comes back 100% healthy, "ahead of schedule" as they tend to do, he will turn 28 years old in November 2019, on the second year for a $137.5 million contract, and he will have never started a full season. That's what San Francisco will be counting on. And when I say counting on, I mean Garoppolo is the center of their universe.
At the same time, there has to be empathy for Garoppolo not fully launching his pro career until his 28th birthday.
That unknown factor, though, of his injury and lack of experience in conjunction with his contract and relative expectations, hangs over the 49ers and will be the talking point leading into 2019. Now, it’s not as if Garoppolo becomes any less promising, but this team will go another year wondering what their franchise quarterback is truly capable of, and that's after committing $61.2 million to him over the first two years of his new deal (2018-19).
The 49ers were a total upside pick this year, a fun dark horse with nothing to lose. If they went 8-8, it would’ve been a widely accepted improvement, and it still might be depending on how they perform as a team with Beathard at the helm.
With Garoppolo, they could’ve gotten hot and made a run, a possibility that was always lingering in the background. But the expectations from most prior to the beginning of the season were that they were a promising team not quite ready to compete for a Super Bowl. If you didn’t expect San Francisco to go far this year, you’ll have a better chance of digesting this with a glass-half full perspective and the long view in mind.
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