There are a lot of hypotheticals for what the 49ers can do at quarterback next season.
But it became clear this week the organization has determined the most feasible, reasonable and, therefore, the most likely scenario is that Jimmy Garoppolo will be back where he started the past three seasons.
Coach Kyle Shanahan said he “believes” Garoppolo will be the 49ers’ starter again in 2021. General manager John Lynch said on KNBR, “Jimmy is our quarterback.”
Shanahan left the door slightly ajar, though, as he stated he could not make such a declaration “with certainty.”
“Now, you look into every avenue and you see if there’s something out there that can get you a ton better,” he said. “It’s the same for every position.”
You can be sure the 49ers’ decision-makers have already looked into many of the widely discussed scenarios at the quarterback position. It is also logical to deduce that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to bring in a veteran quarterback who is seen as an immediate upgrade.
The 49ers have some time to continue to look and kick around ideas. Something unforeseen could happen, of course.
But at some point, the 49ers are likely to determine that no such options are available. That is when they will restructure Garoppolo’s contract to create a significant amount of much-needed salary-cap space for the 2021 season.
The 49ers will not ask him to take a pay cut. That’s not what this is about. The structure of Garoppolo’s contract gives the 49ers a lot of flexibility.
He is scheduled to count $26.9 million against next year’s cap, including $25.5 million in salary and bonuses. That is why it would be easy for the team to move on from Garoppolo this offseason. There would be very little cap acceleration if they were to trade him.
When the 49ers decide Garoppolo will definitely be back with the club, that's when they can re-work his contract. The 49ers can easily convert a large portion of his $25.5 million pay into up-front money. That bookkeeping maneuver would push the bulk of the cap hit to 2022, the final year of his contract and a year when the cap should see a significant rise.
Shanahan and Lynch can continue to stand behind Garoppolo, as they should, but the final word on Garoppolo returning to the 49ers in 2021 will not be a done deal until they re-do his deal.
The timing of a restructured contract could coincide with the start of the new league year in mid-March. Or it could be a lot sooner, if the 49ers decide to end any lingering speculation about Garoppolo's future.
Shanahan and Lynch have regularly touted the bottom-line results of Garoppolo. Since the beginning of the 2017 season, the 49ers are 7-26 without Garoppolo as the starter and 24-9 with him.
But there is another number that is not as favorable for Garoppolo: 23.
On Sunday when the 49ers conclude the regular season against the Seattle Seahawks, it will be the 23rd game Garoppolo has missed due to injuries since the beginning of the 2018 season.
Garoppolo missed opportunities in 2018 and 2020 to gain valuable experience and improve. The one season he remained healthy, he played very well.
The 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl. And when the fourth quarter began, Garoppolo was a strong candidate to be the game’s MVP. But he struggled and the defense collapsed, and the Kansas City Chiefs rallied from a 10-point deficit for a 31-20 victory.
Garoppolo’s arrival to the 49ers in 2017 was a game-changer for the organization. The team was 1-10 when he was rushed into the starting lineup after being with the 49ers for just five weeks.
Despite knowing just a fraction of the playbook, Garoppolo played surprisingly well. He threw the ball around and energized the team and the fan base.
Every time he steps on the field, the 49ers are expected to win. The problem is he has not been on the field nearly enough. And he has not noticeably elevated his game from what we saw at the end of 2017.
While Garoppolo has been on injured reserve with his second high ankle sprain of the season, TV cameras have caught him watching games from a suite and taking notes. Shanahan said Garoppolo takes more notes than anyone he’s ever been around.
There is no way to make that into a negative, other than to suggest that Garoppolo might need to do less thinking and more reacting when he next steps on the field. He seems like a natural. And he needs to recapture the fun of 2017, when he just went out and played.
But, more than anything, he needs to play.
Shanahan hit all the right notes when discussing Garoppolo this week.
Shanahan expressed support for Garoppolo and confidence in him. But he also reiterated the 49ers are always going to look to get better at every position.
And he also made it known he expects the next version of Garoppolo to step on the field should be better than any previous model.
“Jimmy’s shown in one year that he’s a guy who can take us to the Super Bowl,” Shanahan said, “and I also think Jimmy’s going to get a lot better the more he plays.”