49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo could face questions after next season, too

Jimmy Garoppolo is on the hot seat. This should have been obvious to anyone paying attention.

On Monday, reported that “there’s been perception in league circles that Jimmy Garoppolo is on the clock, because Kirk Cousins is a free agent in 2021.” Meaning if Garoppolo doesn’t improve, the 49ers could cut him or trade him and sign Cousins in 2021. This is a decidedly realistic scenario.

Kyle Shanahan coached Cousins from 2012 to 2013 when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins. And Shanahan planned to sign Cousins in 2018 before John Lynch traded for Garoppolo in 2017. Apparently, Shanahan still loves Cousins and may not be sold on Garoppolo.

Garoppolo has received an outpouring of support from local media and fans following his fourth-quarter collapse in the Super Bowl. They often point to his terrific numbers from the regular season - his first season as a full-time starter, and his first season back from a torn ACL. But Garoppolo’s stats probably say more about Shanahan’s offensive scheme than Garoppolo’s ability - lots of Garoppolo’s passes were to wide-open receivers.

Plus, Shanahan doesn’t care about stats. He said so.

“I don’t just look at their completion percentage, how many touchdowns did they have, what’s their quarterback rating, what’s their win-loss record,” Shanahan said in 2017. “I watch every play individually and see what they are capable of doing based on the 10 guys around them. I very rarely even know their stats.”

Garoppolo’s future with the 49ers has little to do with his regular-season numbers. His future depends solely on Shanahan’s belief and trust in him, because Shanahan is the most powerful person in the 49ers’ organization. And Shanahan doesn’t seem to trust Garoppolo. All the evidence suggests this.

Shanahan gave Garoppolo an extremely short leash in the playoffs. When Garoppolo threw an interception during the first half of the 49ers’ divisional playoff game against the Vikings, Shanahan essentially took the ball out of Garoppolo’s hands for the next game and a half. Allowed him to throw only six passes during the second half against the Vikings, and only eight passes total against the Packers in the NFC championship game. Shanahan didn’t trust Garoppolo to make decisions and protect the football.

In the Super Bowl, Garoppolo threw two careless interceptions and was so shaky, Shanahan didn’t let him lead a two-minute drill at the end of the first half. The 49ers had the ball at their 20-yard line with 59 seconds left and three timeouts remaining - plenty of time to drive down the field and score. But Shanahan called back-to-back runs on first and second down and didn’t take a timeout after either play. He actually ran the clock down on his own offense while John Lynch desperately motioned for a timeout from his luxury suite. Again, Shanahan didn’t trust Garoppolo to make quick decisions on the fly. The 49ers didn’t score before halftime, and lost by 11.

Similar things happened during the regular season when the 49ers played the Ravens, an opponent many assumed the 49ers would face in the Super Bowl. At the end of the first half, the 49ers got the ball at their 25-yard line with 1:58 left and all three timeouts remaining. Again, plenty of time. But Shanahan called a run on first down and didn’t take a timeout. He wasted 38 seconds. The 49ers didn’t score, and lost 20-17.

After the Super Bowl, Shanahan had measured praise for Garoppolo. “I think he overcame a lot,” Shanahan said. “This was his first year in his career going through an entire NFL season. He still doesn’t have as many starts and stuff as (Cleveland Browns QB) Baker Mayfield. I think (Garoppolo) had a hell of a first year truly playing the position, especially coming off an ACL.”

Translation: Garoppolo is good for an inexperienced quarterback, but he’s still a question mark, like Mayfield. Not a huge endorsement.

Compare Shanahan’s quote to his statements from January about what makes Cousins good: “Just his mind and how he works at it,” Shanahan said. “How he understands everything that’s happening whether it’s good or bad. When you’re like that, you can learn from things. When he has had bad games, he has always learned from them, came back and responded. He has shown people he is one of the better quarterbacks in this league.”

Shanahan never has given Garoppolo such praise. Never has lauded his “mind” or called him one of the “better quarterbacks in the league.” Garoppolo hasn’t earned those distinctions, but Cousins has, according to Shanahan.

Here’s what defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said about Cousins: “He knows exactly where he needs to go. The pre-snap movement of the defense or the post-snap movement of the defense doesn’t really fool him very often. He knows, post-snap, by the time he hits his back foot, where the ball needs to go, he knows where everyone is on the football field. Because of that, he can make a very smart decision. He’s worth every penny they pay him.”

The 49ers never speak of Garoppolo in those terms. It’s clear Shanahan and Saleh see Cousins as a fully formed franchise quarterback, and Garoppolo as a work in progress.

So when rumors began to circulate that Tom Brady might want to sign with the 49ers this offseason and the 49ers might have interest, the 49ers didn’t debunk this rumor as they had debunked rumors in the past. Just last year when a report emerged of friction between Shanahan and Lynch, Shanahan texted a reporter that day to call the report “complete bull----.” Shanahan could have sent a similar text about Brady, but hasn’t.

Lynch responded to the rumor at the NFL scouting combine by saying, “We’re extremely proud of Jimmy and committed to Jimmy moving forward. He’s our guy.” Technically, yes, Garoppolo is the 49ers’ guy because he’s under contract. But they could cut him or trade him with almost zero salary-cap penalty because his contract is team-friendly, and then he wouldn’t be their guy.

If the 49ers truly were committed to Garoppolo, they could extend his contract this offseason. They have just $13 million in cap space and could create much more space by extending Garoppolo’s contract, but doing so would commit them to Garoppolo long term. They no longer could cut him with minimal-cap penalties.

The 49ers aren’t willing to do that. “I think we’re in a good spot right now and we’ll probably hang tight,” Lynch said.

So the 49ers will keep their options open at quarterback. They might sign Brady and trade Garoppolo back to the Patriots, or they might keep Garoppolo one more year and, if he doesn’t take a major leap forward in Shanahan’s eyes, then they might get rid of Garoppolo after next season and sign Cousins, who will be a free agent. A scary thought for fans and media who see Garoppolo as the second coming of Steve Young or Joe Montana.

Just remember, Shanahan probably sees Garoppolo much differently.

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