SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Considering the success Jimmy Garoppolo enjoyed as the San Francisco 49ers‘ starting quarterback in the final five games of the 2017 season, it’s easy to forget just how little experience with and knowledge of coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense he had at the time.
Still, after arriving in an Oct. 31 trade with the New England Patriots, Garoppolo was held out of the starting lineup for a few weeks before he replaced rookie C.J. Beathard for the season’s final five games. Then Garoppolo guided the 1-10 Niners to five consecutive victories while posting more passing yards in his first five starts with the team than any quarterback in franchise history.
That was enough to land Garoppolo a five-year, $137.5 million contract from the 49ers last week and solidify his place as the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future. That contract came, in part, because of what Garoppolo has done for the 49ers. But more than that, the record-setting deal was made with an eye toward what he can do in the future.
“I think if we take it day-by-day, one year at a time, and we’ve got a big offseason ahead of us, I think getting in the playbook and fully understanding that this offseason with Kyle will really help me going into next season, and we’ll take it small steps at a time,” Garoppolo said.
Garoppolo and the Niners are well aware of those who question giving him such a massive contract despite the small sample. Some argue that if the league’s defensive coordinators have a chance to study Garoppolo in the offseason, they will find weaknesses and ways to expose him. Of course, Garoppolo isn’t running some sort of gimmick offense with which it’s just a matter of time before defenses catch up to him. He’s a pocket passer with a lightning-quick release and the ability to process coverages and get through progressions in short order.
One of the many reasons the 49ers believe so strongly in Garoppolo is they think he is just scratching the surface of his potential. Beyond using free-agent and draft resources to bolster his supporting cast, Garoppolo is about to get his first offseason diving fully into Shanahan’s offense.
Garoppolo spent three-and-a-half years learning New England’s offense, a scheme with few similarities to what he is doing in San Francisco. Upon arrival in the Bay Area with two months to go, there was no time for Garoppolo to learn the intricacies of Shanahan’s playbook.
Instead, the Niners gave him bits and pieces of the overall philosophy while he learned game plans specific to each week’s opponent. In a radio interview last week, Garoppolo said he hadn’t so much as seen the entire Shanahan playbook yet, let alone studied it.
When the 49ers begin their offseason program in April, Garoppolo and Shanahan can really dig in for the first time.
“It’s nice to start from scratch and to go at a slower process,” Shanahan said. “He got a crash course, and he did a helluva job picking it up, but some things he’s out there and he’s just going, but he doesn’t truly understand why and things like that. But he did a great job of getting through the week to where he had a chance to do it on Sunday, and now where the rush isn’t quite the same, I think you start from the beginning, start on the first page, not the 50th page, and you get a better foundation.”
Indeed, Shanahan has earned a reputation for building an offense in which one play often sets up the next and can set something up for much later in the game. It’s a complicated scheme that can take some time to fully grasp. For example, Shanahan and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had a rough first season together as Ryan adjusted to Shanahan’s offense.
In 2015, Ryan finished with a still-impressive 4,591 passing yards but had a career-high 16 interceptions, a passer rating of 89 and a 64.1 QBR. Aside from the yards, those numbers represented a drop-off from his previous four seasons and led to rumored friction between Ryan and Shanahan.
But after a full season together and another offseason to keep working through it, Ryan had his best season with Shanahan in 2016. He threw for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions, for a passer rating of 117.1 and a 79.4 QBR on his way to NFL Most Valuable Player honors.
Garoppolo had no such growing pains despite little time in the offense, but he does have plenty of work ahead of him to learn Shanahan’s offense in full.
“Everything will kind of be new for me, just like the season was,” Garoppolo said. “But I think getting into phase one, phase two and really being able to talk through the offense to some of the finer things that I didn’t get to get involved into during the season, I think it’ll really help me take steps forward in learning this.”
When that time comes, Shanahan believes it will only make Garoppolo better and validate the team’s investment in its franchise signal-caller.
“When you have a better foundation of where you’re coming from when you’re learning, I think it gives you a chance to play at a higher level,” Shanahan said. “You know the whys and things like that. Obviously, I think everyone knows he played very well in the games he’s played for us. But I think when he goes out there, it’ll give him a chance over a longer time to be more consistent and just really understand it better.”