Jimmy Garoppolo has a mental barrier to overcome to be the kind of quarterback he and the 49ers – not to mention the team’s fan base – expect him to become.
It is only natural that a player, any player, returning from a significant injury must deal with overcoming the mental side of the challenge. That occurs when he no longer thinks about the injury or can just react naturally and instinctively.
In the case of Garoppolo, it’s his front leg while throwing passes. He sustained a torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee in Week 3 of last season at Kansas City.
That knee, which has been fitted with a bulky yet lightweight brace, is closest to the oncoming pass rush.
Garoppolo has always used a vast repertoire pass styles – sometimes flat-footed with different arm angles. But it seemed to be more pronounced on Monday. He did not appear to be stepping into his throws while going 1-for-6 with an interception and zero yards passing against the Denver Broncos in his preseason debut.
Coach Kyle Shanahan speaking on a conference call with Bay Area reporters on Tuesday, expressed no concern about the mostly futile 11-play sequence for Garoppolo and the 49ers’ first-team offense.
“You always want to play better, but to get concerned over 10 plays, that’s pretty irresponsible,” Shanahan said.
Garoppolo, likewise, did not admit to any concern after the game. He said he was already looking forward to getting back on the field, where he is expected to have a longer outing in the upcoming Week 3 of the preseason.
"It's something that I haven’t done in a year, obviously, so I’ve got to knock the rust off and everything,” Garoppolo said afterward. “Thankfully, we have a short week this week, so we can bounce back quickly. But it's the first step of getting back into it."
The 49ers’ next game, Saturday night at Kansas City, should provide yet another update on Garoppolo’s comeback.
By and large, Garoppolo’s return has been uneventful – even “flawless,” in the words of general manager John Lynch. Of course, Monday was also the first time in 11 months he faced a defense that was not instructed to keep its distance.
But even in those practices against his teammates, Garoppolo seemed to struggle and come up short on passes in which he did not throw from a clean pocket. That was particular apparent on Friday in a practice against the Broncos when Garoppolo threw an interception when Von Miller was on the ground, in the vicinity of his left leg.
After the game on Monday, Garoppolo said he did not consider his knee to be any kind of issue.
"Honestly, I really wasn’t thinking about it out there, so I'm happy about that,” Garoppolo said. “Just in general, it didn’t bother me that much."
It’s quite possible Garoppolo did not consciously realize he was wary of the very natural inclination to protect himself.
Perhaps, the game Monday served its purpose. Perhaps, Garoppolo has cleared the mental hurdle of returning to action against an enemy defense that wants to hit him and hit him hard.
The next barrier to clear is when he absorbs his first big hit.
“I think those will just come naturally,” Garoppolo said. “It's football, and you know what you sign up for and everything, so I think there's value here in wanting that. I think I’ll build that in due time.”