The NFL trade deadline is usually a fairly quiet affair, with few players dealt. The salary cap often plays into it, but arguably more important is the difficulty of learning a new offensive or defensive playbook. It’s not a simply plug-and-play type of deal.
The San Francisco 49ers acquisition of Jimmy Garoppolo is a stunning move, primarily because of the timing. The 49ers needed a quarterback for the long haul, but I don’t think anybody anticipated this kind of move at this particular time. Garoppolo joins an entirely new offense, with the 49ers hoping he can get them moving in the right direction, and be someone they can invest in for the long term.
Garoppolo arrived in Santa Clara on Tuesday, and along with Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, he talked about focusing on getting into the playbook and taking this week-by-week. It’s safe to say that following the press conference, he spent most of the rest of the day deeply ensconced in Kyle Shanahan’s playbook. He has spent 3+ seasons in New England learning the Patriots playbook, and now he has to learn a new system both on the fly and for the long term. C.J. Beathard is expected to start this weekend, but Garoppolo will likely be in the starting lineup either next week against the New York Giants, or after the bye when the 49ers host the Seattle Seahawks.
A football playbook is thick enough on its own, but then there is also the weekly game plan for each opponent. The amount of rote memorization is pretty intimidating to me, and I don’t even have to worry about trying to avoid getting killed by pass rushers.
Last year, when the Patriots were dealing with QB injury issues and Tom Brady’s suspension, former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels put together an interesting hypothetical based on his own experience. He was traded three times during his career, and two of them came in the preseason. The most notable for this article was when he was traded to Miami on a Saturday, and played the second half of the game on the following Thursday.
Rosenfels wrote the column for Vice, in which he broke down the various nuances of learning the playbook on the fly after a trade. The article is a great read, but I also had a chance to follow up with Rosenfels about the many issues a recently traded quarterback faced.
The biggest question is learning the playbook. Although Rosenfels is not in the building with the 49ers, he offered some general insight into how quickly the 49ers could get him into game action.
“You have to sort of wait and see how he acquires the information that he gets when he gets there. What was his college offense like? It really is learning a new language, and I know for a fact that the Patriots language is French, compared to Shanahan’s language, which is Italian. There’s probably some similarities, but mostly it’s different.”
The 49ers have a host of injuries on the offensive line, and I was curious if that would impact how quickly they him out there. Rosenfels thinks it really comes down primarily to how he picks up the playbook.
“I don’t think very much ... I think if anything, it just has to do with how quickly does he pick up the offense, and understand what he’s doing. Because, if you don’t understand the offense, you really can’t protect yourself. There’s obviously a left tackle, a right tackle, but if you don’t know who’s picking up the blitzes, you can’t protect yourself as a quarterback. Until they figure out if he knows all the details of this offense, I think they’re not gonna put him out there.”
The 49ers will get Joe Staley back some time after their Week 11 bye. Trent Brown might be back this week, depending on how he recovers from his concussion. Garry Gilliam is out for the year with a knee injury. Brandon Fusco is banged up. Zane Beadles stinks.
The 49ers don’t want to see Garoppolo get killed this season, but they also need to get an idea of what he brings to the table in regular season action. He has two starts in his career, and I would be surprised if they are ready to give him a long-term extension immediately. Making the move now gives him a chance to get time in with Kyle Shanahan and the system. I doubt he looks like a superstar given the many other issues facing the 49ers, but this is definitely another example of process over results.
My guess is Garoppolo’s first start comes following the bye week. That gives him a little extra time to learn some basics of the playbook, but also buys him time to potentially get Joe Staley back on his left side.