Jimmy Garoppolo is hurt again, yet somehow that injury is being viewed as the stiff breeze that cracks open the door for the 29-year-old to make his triumphant return to Foxboro.
Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels may very well believe that Garoppolo is totally capable of being the next trigger man for their offense. They may very well be right. But the evidence refuting that belief is piling up.
We've been over Garoppolo's on-the-field shortcomings.
He very rarely throws the ball deep, despite that being a key portion of Kyle Shanahan's offense when he feels he has a quarterback capable of making such throws. Matt Ryan, for example, won MVP in 2016 and was in the top-15 of the NFL in terms of deep-passing rate playing under Shanahan in Atlanta.
When Garoppolo does heave it deep, he's been bad. His quarterback rating on passes that travel over 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage this season is 2.1. In 10 attempts, he's completed one pass (against the Patriots in Week 7) and he has two picks. Had he simply taken those deep attempts and chucked them out of bounds, his rating would be 39.6.
But thanks in large part to the fact that he plays for one of the game's brightest offensive minds in San Francisco, and because he's surrounded by playmakers who pick up chunks of yardage after receptions, Garoppolo's numbers look passable. Despite throwing shorter than every NFL quarterback outside of Drew Brees, he's 10th in yards per attempt this season (7.8).
Still, Garoppolo has a below-average 7-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a quarterback rating (92.4) that places him 24th in the NFL this season.
Now he's banged up. Again.
This trend began in 2016 when Garoppolo suffered a shoulder injury rolling out of the pocket in his second start as a pro, replacing the then-suspended Tom Brady. After being traded and winning five games with the Niners in 2017, Garoppolo tore his ACL in late September of 2018 trying to pick up a few extra yards at the end of a scramble with his team trailing by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
This year's ankle issue included, that's three significant injuries in five seasons. He has one year of experience as a wire-to-wire starter.
While his missed time in previous seasons has been used as an excuse as to why Garoppolo hadn't yet reached the heights he would in 2020 and beyond, missed time is now looking more like the expectation for him. If he's unavailable for the rest of this year, he will have missed 44 percent of the games he should have started since 2016.
That's too many for any starter. That's a disaster for a player given a deal that would pay him an average of $27.5 million per season two years ago. The Niners are 4-11 without Garoppolo since he signed his second contract.
And now it seems almost a fait accompli that he'll be elsewhere in 2021. The Niners can get out from under Garoppolo's contract with less than $3 million in dead money hitting their books this coming offseason while simultaneously freeing up more than $24 million in cap space.
What's it all mean? Should the Patriots want to welcome Garoppolo back if he's available?
They're in a beggars-can't-be-choosers spot at the position. But if given the choice to trade a draft pick -- say it takes a second-rounder, as ESPN suggested it could -- and re-acquire him on his current contract, the answer should be a quick-and-easy no.
If the draft-pick compensation in a trade isn't quite that high, if the Patriots can convince Garoppolo to take a pay cut, then the conversation becomes more interesting.
But, as would be the case if the Patriots traded a pick for Sam Darnold or any other roll-of-the-dice at the position, Garoppolo would have to be part of a multi-pronged approach behind center. (Darnold, in fact, might be a more attractive piece in many respects. He has some upside that Garoppolo might not at this stage in his career. He's on a cheaper contract. And he's more durable, having started 32 of 38 games through two-plus seasons.)
It'd be a nice story: The Patriots' Prodigal Son. But at the moment, Garoppolo is an average player with a scary injury history on a hefty salary. And a reunion might require the Patriots parting ways with precious draft capital.
For a team that places dependability at the top of the list of quarterbacking traits, bringing back Garoppolo doesn't quite add up.