Waiting for Jimmy Garoppolo

The burning question in the Bay Area is, When will he play? This weekend? Next year? For now, Jimmy Garoppolo represents the hope and promise of restored 49ers greatness
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On October 31st, the savior arrived at Niners headquarters via black Chevy Suburban. He waved. He smiled. And then he disappeared.

Three weeks, two games, no Jimmy Garoppolo. Won’t start ’til he’s ready, announced GM John Lynch. We like what C.J. Beathard gives us, said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “He’s keeping a low profile for now,” explained VP of communications Bob Lange, in turning down an interview request.

Good luck with that. Garoppolo was anointed by Belichick, understudied to Brady, interned at Romo U, and looks like he was plucked from an old “Tiger Beat” cover shoot. Within a week of his arrival, a headline read: “Even Kyle Shanahan’s wife wants to know when Jimmy Garoppolo will play for the 49ers.” Everybody has a take. Alex Smith suggested “sprinkling” Garoppolo into games. Steve Young was more adamant (“has to play immediately”). Reporters floated various scoops—he will play! Wait, he won’t play! Even Beathard, caught in the middle, weighed in. “It’d be different if it was a guy who was cocky, a guy nobody liked,” he said on Matt Maiocco’s podcast, “but that’s not the case here.”

So now we know that Jimmy is at least likeable. Which can’t hurt. Being good would be preferable, though, considering what he’s up against.

On one hand, immediate expectations for Garoppolo are modest. His new team is 1-9, after all. Big-picture expectations are grander: Make the city care about football again.

Not so long ago, in the halcyon Harbaugh days, that concept would have seemed laughable. But then the Bay turned its affection to the Warriors, a franchise that did most everything right, building a lovable, lasting dynasty. Meanwhile the Niners did most everything wrong, fleeing the city, dumping fan favorites, losing at an embarrassing clip and constructing a nightmare of a stadium. It takes some doing to make people nostalgic for Candlestick, but Jed York pulled it off.

Lynch and Shanahan, arriving this year, have inspired a modicum of hope. Still, Niners fans are a little hoped-out right now. They want more than just the concept of a star quarterback, or some Hinkie-esque promise of a long rebuild; they want the real thing.

That’s a high bar here in the Bay, where QBs are placed into one of two categories: worthy heirs (to Joe and Steve) or the second coming of Jim Druckenmiller (and Tim Rattay, and Gio Carmazzi…).

So which, and who, is Garoppolo?

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Your Garoppolo primer goes as follows. Grew up in Arlington Heights, Ill. Three brothers. Loves his mom (cook) and dad (electrician), who love him right back. Played running back and linebacker at Rolling Meadows High, then switched to quarterback, with limited success. Trained with Jeff Christensen, former NFL backup-turned-QB-whisperer, who force-fed the young man video of Tom Brady: Brady fades, Brady slants, Brady bombs. Jimmy studied, and mimicked, and got himself to Eastern Illinois, a small school with impressive alumni—including Romo, Sean Payton and the elder Shanahan—whereupon he once again had limited success. Until his junior year, that is, when new coach Dino Babers instructed Garoppolo to let it fly. Records fell. Young women swooned. And, on May 8, 2014, Bill Belichick called from a windowless room and, in his customary affectless tone, said, “Congratulations, we just made you a Patriot.”

Garoppolo celebrated, then began waiting. After which he played in a few games, got injured, and returned to waiting. For Brady to get hurt, or look mortal. Neither occurred.

In the end, Garoppolo threw only 92 passes for New England in games that counted. And yet that was enough for Belichick. He was ready to wait past the optimal trade window, and maybe even slap a franchise tag on the young man. Make him the heir apparent, indefinitely. And so the rest of the league, forever vacillating between hating Bill and emulating his every move, took note. If Bill thinks this much of him, well …

Which means that, in the big scheme, the Niners acquired Garoppolo for a relative discount, a second-round pick. They get half a season to figure out what they’ve got, if not longer. There’s no rush, the brass says. Garoppolo needs to know the playbook first. So that’s what he’s been doing these past weeks, we’re told: Studying.

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Is he ready? Does it matter?

If he plays this Sunday and fails, it won’t necessarily be an indictment. These are the Seahawks, after all. And these are the Niners.

Neither will a successful performance be indicative of future greatness, despite what the local talk radio population might decide. Many quarterbacks muster one shining moment.

Rather, it is how Garoppolo handles all this that may be most revealing. Consider the position he is in: graduating from backing up the best ever to inheriting the franchise once helmed by the best ever. Then again, to be 26 years old is to not think about such things. To be 26 is to believe that you truly are invincible. That there is time to do everything—climb Everest and learn Spanish and win five rings. Hell, Garoppolo’s already got two.

Chances are, Jimmy already knows who he is. We are the ones in the dark. For now, his public life lacks the beats that will come to define him—the successes and mistakes and conflicts resolved. Soon enough, he will accumulate narratives—some welcome, some perhaps not.

 But for now, the Bay Area gets at least a few more days of believing in the best version of Jimmy G. The one whose throwing motion Christensen once called “identical” to Brady’s. The one Babers called “not good—awesome” in the film room. The one that inspired Belichick to draft a quarterback higher than he ever had before. The one who will surely save a franchise, win a Super Bowl, go golfing with Steph Curry, and then humbly thank his mom. That is not too much ask, right?

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