SANTA CLARA, Calif.—“So,” I asked Niners GM John Lynch Sunday, “what’s the story with Jimmy Garoppolo? What’s he been doing every day?”
From his office desk in the shadow of the 49ers’ stadium, Lynch craned his neck toward the picture window on the side of his office. He pointed to the far practice field, where a solitary figure was working out and throwing footballs efficiently.
Garoppolo, who quarterbacked this team to a win over Aaron Rodgers and the top-seeded Packers eight months ago, is a strange sight to behold these days. He works out, throws and rehabs apart from his teammates, most often when they’re inside in meetings. When the other 89 men on the San Francisco roster are practicing outside, Garoppolo is usually inside, or on his way home. I heard he does not have a playbook, does not attend quarterback or team meetings and barely knows new quarterbacks coach Brian Griese.
While Garoppolo awaits his fate — he’s most likely to be released before Labor Day unless a needy team suffers a major quarterback injury or Deshaun Watson is banned for the season in Cleveland — the new kid, Trey Lance, spent Sunday taking every snap of practice. Seriously: every one. Lance played little in the preseason opener Friday and won’t play next weekend at Minnesota, so afternoons like Sunday are crucial in his development.
Lance has thrown 389 passes in real football games since he graduated from high school, and this Final Four team in 2021 is working to try to be a Final One team in ’22. So every rep is gold for him now. And for his coach, Kyle Shanahan, who thinks that Lance, eventually, can take this team deeper into the playoffs and do more things with his arm and legs than Garoppolo could.
But whether Lance can do it is one of football’s great mysteries entering this season. Shanahan really likes coaching Lance and loves his potential, but sitting in his office after practice Sunday, he made a startling admission that really should be startling about a player who’s had one starting season—that in FBS football—in the last four years.
“Is Trey ready to take it on his shoulders?” Shanahan said. “He shouldn’t be. He hasn’t gone through it enough.
“I believe in him as a man, as a person. I believe in his talent. I don’t think he is going to make or break our season, just like in 2019 and last year, I didn’t think Jimmy was going to make or break our season.
“But what sucks is when you’re learning how to play and you’re not there yet, how do you not get worse sometimes when that pressure’s on you and you need to go through the growing pains?”
Complicated story, as you can see.
Most places I go, practice gets a little humdrum at times. I’ve been watching summer football practices since 1984, when I covered the Bengals, and I once had the audacity during a blazing-hot two-a-day full-padded practice to ask Cincinnati owner Paul Brown — only one of the greatest coaches in the history of this game — whether he ever got tired of four hours of football practice, daily, in the heat of camp.
“Young man!” Brown said sharply. “This is our lifeblood!”
I thought of that Sunday, watching Lance take every snap of a camp practice. For Lance, this is lifeblood stuff. Part of the heavy load was because the Niners had a game Friday night, so Shanahan wanted most of those who played big swaths of the game to sit out Sunday, with those who didn’t play Friday night getting lots of work here. Lance got 11 snaps Friday, ergo he played a lot Sunday.
I loved it. Facing lots of first-teamers on an excellent defense is the best medicine for Lance right now. I compared Lance of 2021 camp to Lance of today (no tape, just recalling from my mind’s eye), and the words that came to mind were “more decisive.” He’s more confident, more sure in the pocket. No wasted motion. The footwork is significantly better.
He made three superb throws, I thought, on Sunday: a lofted corner route to Deebo Samuel, throw right on target…a red zone TD throw, with soft, excellent touch, to tight end Ross Dwelley in the right corner of the end zone. “You stayed in,” the back judge working the practice said to Dwelley, nodding…a three-quarters-motion throw, also for a TD, to tight end George Kittle, who had to stretch to make the catch. The awareness, avoiding the rush by coming down with the arm angle on the throw, was perfect.
“Mentally,” he said later, “I feel like things are a lot more clear for me. I understand the offense, and I’m able to play fast.”
That’s the good. I worry a bit about the accuracy. In this practice, he threw high on a 15-yard cross for Brandon Aiyuk, a throw that should be easy. He missed an open Samuel twice, by my count.
There’s a lot to learn in all aspects of the game. Before practice Sunday, Shanahan met with the full team and reviewed the win over Green Bay. What bugged Shanahan was some of the sloppiness, even on big plays. One of the big stars for the Niners was rookie third-round wideout Danny Gray, who caught a 76-yard TD bomb from Lance in the first quarter. “Your game is speed,” Shanahan told him. Yet Gray broke from the line in a bad stance, negating his best asset, and the TD made everyone overlook it.
Same thing with Lance. On an early handoff to running back Trey Sermon, Lance was supposed to carry out a bootleg fake, so maybe a defender or two would chase him and not Sermon. No. Lance just watched the play develop, and didn’t carry out the fake. Shanahan said: Great, you threw a touchdown pass and we won. But you’ve got to do everything well, not just some things.
When I asked Shanahan about it, the answer was some about his own players, some about coaching, some about society. I think his answer’s important — all of it — to coaches and players.
“I don’t have to think too hard about things,” Shanahan said. “I just say what’s there. These guys are told after games they’re successful because they won a fantasy football game for their uncle or something. If you get the numbers and stuff, you played good, according to everybody. That doesn’t tell you anything. Nothing. We talk about what actually happened on the play. We can say we had a good game because we won, but that’s not really what we’re focused on here in the preseason. We’re focused on the product and how you did it.
“It’s up to me to teach these guys that the people who are deciding whether you make the team or people around the league who are deciding if you don’t make it here, whether they could sign you to their active roster, how those people see the play. I want them to know what coaches who are studying you see on tape. Then you actually get the reality. Stats don’t dictate success. Doing it the right way dictates success.”
So…the near future. What’s it say?
The Niners have two weeks to cut the roster to 53. Theoretically, they would want to make a decision on Garoppolo by then, because in an ideal world they don’t want a guy they have no intention of keeping count against their 53. But that’s out of their hands unless Cleveland or Seattle figures it would be smart to trade something for him. If they keep Garoppolo, they’d have to expose a make-it player on cutdown day and they could lose a valuable special-teams performer, let’s say. The next landmark is the week before the Sept. 11 opener. If Garoppolo is on the roster then, the club would have to guarantee his $24.2-million salary for the season.
The reality is that the Niners likely won’t keep Garoppolo with the big salary. But then there’s the danger of releasing Jimmy G before the season, and a motivated Garoppolo going to Seattle, for example (San Francisco’s week two foe), and interfering with the Niners’ contention plans.
With or without the solitary figure on the practice field, this team is Lance’s now. And I would advise patience for Niners fans. It’s absurd to expect a savior to show up at Soldier Field in the opener. Shanahan will be ready to take some pain in 2022. Will Niners Nation?