SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Barring a surprise, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will not play again this season. Which raises another, bigger question: Has Garoppolo played his last game with the Niners?
As the 49ers have dropped to 5-9 and out of postseason contention, all eyes turn toward what figures to be a busy and pivotal offseason by the Bay. And while coach Kyle Shanahan's team has 40 players set to hit some form of free agency, it's what happens with Garoppolo that will shape so much of what comes next, not only during the offseason but also for the future of the franchise.
"Jimmy is a very good football player and I think it's just going to be whether Jimmy is the guy that Kyle wants for the next five years," said Steve Young, a former 49ers quarterback, a Hall of Famer and an ESPN analyst. "We're at a moment here where it's not like for another year or two but, 'Who do I want for the next five years, next eight years while I'm going to be coaching the Niners for a long time.' ... And I think it feels like there's this moment in time where those two need to sit down and figure out how much they trust each other and how much they really fit, and if they don't, can they conform, or is there something new that they can learn about each other that could help?"
When it comes to Garoppolo and the 49ers, there's a lot to consider.
Injury issues and money matters
If, as expected, Garoppolo doesn't play again this season because of his ankle injury, he will have missed 23 games the past three years. Garoppolo has started 25 games for the 49ers since signing a five-year, $137.5 million deal in 2018.
Undoubtedly, Garoppolo has been San Francisco's best option at quarterback when healthy. But his injury history now includes a sprained right shoulder, a torn ACL and a pair of high ankle sprains. It's fair to wonder whether the 49ers can continue hoping that Garoppolo can make it through entire seasons without having to miss time.
"It's always a factor," Young said. "Availability is everything. You've got to be on the field."
For most teams, losing your starting quarterback for large chunks of the season is a death knell for a season. In the case of Garoppolo, who still has just 32 career starts, the injuries prevent him from not only playing but also developing.
"People get better when they play more, and that's what I feel for Jimmy on," Shanahan said. "One, Jimmy gives us the best chance to win. He's proven that. ... Regardless of that, I want Jimmy playing as much as possible because I know when he does, he'll only get better from the experiences of it."
The Rams once took a similarly patient approach with Sam Bradford, who offered promise as a rookie but then missed 31 of a possible 64 games over the following four years. Seasons slipped away, and Bradford never ascended to the next level. Unlike those Rams teams, though, a healthy Niners roster is capable of going deep into the postseason with average quarterback play.
It's more difficult to swallow when you consider that Garoppolo is due to count $26.4 million and $27 million against the salary cap the next two seasons and the Niners are about to enter an offseason in which the cap will shrink, giving them limited resources to fill many of their forthcoming roster holes.
That price tag isn't exorbitant if Garoppolo is healthy and productive, but it's especially burdensome if Garoppolo is unable to stay on the field.
Elevating the offense
When healthy, there's evidence that Garoppolo is a top-half-of-the-league quarterback, ranking 16th in the NFL in Total QBR since joining the 49ers in 2017. He's proved accurate on short and intermediate throws, allowing his pass-catchers to rack up yards after the catch, which is why his 8.3 yards-per-attempt average is second in the league since 2017.
But the Niners have been unable to add a consistent downfield element to the passing game with Garoppolo averaging 7.1 air yards per attempt, tied for 40th, and just 7.2% of his attempts have traveled 20 or more air yards, which is last in the league among 44 qualified quarterbacks since 2017.
Could Shanahan's offense reach another level if the deep ball, among other concepts, became more of a staple?
"I get the sense that Kyle is frustrated he can't do more," Young said, "and that's where I've kind of wondered if Kyle was thinking about something or someone different."
Young points to 2019's 48-46 victory against New Orleans as an example of the type of expansive game plan that showed off the depths of Shanahan's scheme. But games like that, which had to become a shootout for the Niners to win, have been few and far between. That can partially be attributed to Garoppolo's penchant for turnovers, as he's thrown 26 interceptions in 30 regular-season starts with San Francisco.
When Garoppolo missed 13 games in 2018, he spent time with Shanahan's father, Mike, breaking down film and doing his best to stay involved. He's done what he can while rehabbing his ankle injury this year, too, as he's been spotted on television with a pen and a notepad charting games.
"If Kyle feels like he's seen it and knows it and now knows that it's not enough, there's no question of what he's going to do, he's going to go find someone because he's already made that decision," Young said. "If he hasn't made that decision yet, is there something that Jimmy can do? If Kyle has come to the decision and he knows it and it's done, then it's done. But if it's not, my point for Jimmy is don't just sit around and wait for it. Go figure it out. Go press on it. Go find out what's really happening, what he can do different, how can he lean in? Don't let it just be."
In November, Shanahan said he expects Garoppolo to be his starter in 2021. He then added, "but to think that we've made any decisions on anybody going into the future isn't the case." Which means the 49ers, as they do at every position every offseason, will at least take a look at what their options are.
Whether the Niners move on will depend on what those choices are. Although Garoppolo has flaws, but he's also 22-8 as San Francisco's starter and won an NFC championship. So while it looks appealing to gain $24.1 million in cap space by making a change, they'd still have to be certain they're upgrading.
As it stands, the 49ers are slated to have the 12th pick in the NFL draft, but they could surge into the top 10 with a couple more losses and find themselves positioned to land a top prospect such as Ohio State's Justin Fields, BYU's Zach Wilson or North Dakota State's Trey Lance. They could also wait until the second round or move back into the late part of the first for someone like Florida's Kyle Trask, Texas A&M's Kellen Mond or Alabama's Mac Jones.
Drafting a quarterback early wouldn't necessarily mean the 49ers would part with Garoppolo, either. He could remain the starter while a rookie learns and also potentially regain trade value in the process.
If the Niners wanted a veteran, they could take a flier on a reclamation project such as Chicago's Mitchell Trubisky or the Jets' Sam Darnold to back up or compete with Garoppolo. If they wanted to go all-in on a change, perhaps they could swing a trade for a veteran like Detroit's Matthew Stafford.
One way or another, change is coming to San Francisco's quarterback room, as backups Nick Mullens (restricted) and C.J. Beathard (unrestricted) are headed toward free agency. Just how big that reconstruction is will depend on what happens with Garoppolo.
"That's why there's a moment in time here," Young said. "This is the moment, and Kyle is in control of that decision. The question is, has he already made it or is there something that Jimmy can do?"