The dog days of the off-season are upon us. Not much to do but pass the time watching America’s Game marathons, reading Adrian Colbert tweets, and coming up with random column topics. Welcome to the latter!
I don’t have to tell you what a franchise-changer the Jimmy Garoppolo trade was for the San Francisco 49ers franchise. The difference in outlook, competitiveness, and attractiveness(!) cannot be overstated. Optimism abounds. And while there’s no way to know if our wildest dreams will be realized — I personally have dreams that would make Freud blush — it got me thinking about what other moves the 49ers have made during the Super Bowl era to drastically improve, and where the Jimmy G trade might eventually rank among them.
Besides it being way too soon to answer this, the question itself is so open to interpretation, its focus must be narrowed before any kind of potential answer can be found. For instance, sometimes the franchise-changingest moves a team makes don’t even involve players...
The DeBartolo purchase
The move: Eddie DeBartolo Sr. buys the 49ers and hands over control to his son, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. in 1977.
The Result: If there were an internet in the late 70’s, #EddieDSucks probably would’ve been a thing. He was the rich kid gifted a team. That never plays well. Then he burned through three coaches in two seasons. But before year three he hired Bill Walsh, and the rest is the stuff of football legend. But while it’s easy to say Walsh did the rest, that is selling DeBartolo short.
DeBartolo’s treatment of players was legendary, and made the 49ers the league’s most desirable destination. I don’t think it can be underestimated how much that helped build the 49er dynasty. Post-salary cap, the team signed a parade of ring-chasing Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers to below-market contracts -- sometimes all in one year (1994: Deion Sanders, Rickey Jackson, Richard Dent, and Charles Mann). Post-Walsh, both coaches DeBartolo hired — George Seifert and Steve Mariucci — took the team to the NFC Championship Game in their first season. You just don’t see that.
How it almost didn’t happen: DeBartolo Sr. considered buying the Buccaneers prior to his purchase of the 49ers, but never made a formal offer. If he had, Eddie Jr. may have never made it San Francisco.
The Walsh hire
The move: DeBartolo hires Bill Walsh away from Stanford to be the 49ers head coach in 1979.
The result: It didn’t happen overnight, but Walsh’s offensive philosophy forever changed not only the 49ers identity, but the league’s — ushering in the sophisticated passing attack which led to what we watch today. His player evaluation acumen stocked the team’s roster with talent well past his departure. His coaching ability led the team to three titles during his tenure, and two more after.
If I’m picking one single 49ers move as the greatest of all time, Walsh is it. It wasn’t possible without DeBartolo, but “Rock Around The Clock” isn’t the greatest rock song of all time. Sure, everything else built off that, but it’s not “Stairway to Heaven”. Bill Walsh was “Stairway to Heaven”, or whatever your choice is — let me know in the comments! (Sorry, no electronica.)
How it almost didn’t happen: As offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Walsh thought he was the heir apparent to Bengals head coach/owner/legend Paul Brown. Instead, Brown handed the reins to defensive coordinator Bill Johnson, reportedly because he thought Walsh lacked what it took to be a head coach. Or perhaps because he thought Bengals should be led by a “Tiger”. Bengals fans are still wondering “What if?” (If not WTF?) Slighted, Walsh left to join the Chargers, then Stanford, and then the Niners. Thanks, Paul!
The Harbaugh hire
The move: Jed York hires Jim Harbaugh away from Stanford to be the 49ers head coach in 2011.
The result: Harbaugh can’t compete with Walsh’s legacy, but he delivered something Walsh couldn’t — an immediate turnaround. Sure, there were no titles — but only because Crabtree was held, dammit! (among other things). Not that I’m bitter. Still, there were three NFC Championship Games in Harbaugh’s first three seasons after eight years of Mike-related misery, when the biggest innovations were sartorial.
Obviously, Harbaugh’s time in San Francisco was short. His tenure took a sudden and ugly turn, and his departure was abrupt. But whatever part you think he played in that -- victim or instigator -- once Harbaugh took the wheel, the franchise did a 180, heading in the right direction at 100 mph.
How it almost didn’t happen: Many thought the Dolphins would lure Harbaugh to Miami in part due to owner Steve Ross being a fellow Michigan alum. They certainly made an effort, but thankfully Harbaugh took the Niners gig. Otherwise, the team might have given the job to Mike Mularkey (seriously) and jive turkey gobblers may have never gotten their comeuppance. I for one don’t want to live in that world.
Ultimately, owners and coaches have more power than any player, so it’s unfair to compare their respective impacts. Once you limit the discussion to 49er player acquisitions, the list is so short you can count them on one hand -- even if you’re Jason Pierre-Paul...
The Montana selection
The move: The 49ers take Joe Montana out of Notre Dame in the 3rd round pick in the 1979 draft.
The result: Walsh’s first draft netted his star pupil. Montana picked up Walsh’s system and used it to throttle the rest of the league on his way to four Super Bowl wins, and a reputation as arguably the best to ever play QB. He set in motion a 49er offense which hummed along like a well-oiled machine for nearly two decades.
Montana is the single most important player acquired by the 49ers in my opinion. He established their identity — smart and clutch. His best moments came on the sport’s biggest stage. His best play gave birth to a dynasty and produced one of the most iconic sports images of all time (RIP Dwight). Come to think of it, this is in the conversation for the best acquisition any team ever made.
How it almost didn’t happen: Every team in the league had to pass on Montana (twice) for the Niners to be able to select him where they did. If anyone else decides to take a flier on him, well, there’s no telling how far the Butterfly Effect could go with that. We might have flying cars by now. We might be back to walking on all fours.
The Rice trade/selection
The move: Walsh trades up to pick WR Jerry Rice out of Mississippi State in the first round of the 1985 draft.
The result: In a word, greatness. You could argue once you remove the importance of the position a player plays, Rice was the greatest football player ever. For me, it’s Rice on offense and Lawrence Taylor on defense. They were the most devastating and disruptive football weapons I’ve ever seen, and each changed the way the game was played.
While Rice was drafted by a 18-1 Super Bowl champion who had Walsh at the helm, and Montana, Craig, and Lott on the roster, the second phase of 49er dominance in the 80’s and 90’s — including three Super Bowl titles — is most directly attributable to Rice. He did it with Montana. He did it with Young. When forced to, he did it with Jeff Kemp, Steve Bono and Elvis Grbac. Oh, and then there were the innumerable records, ridiculous highlights, unforgettable moments.
How it almost didn’t happen: Though Rice was a draft pick, selecting him was the easy part. Swapping picks with the Patriots move up to the #16 spot, just ahead of the Cowboys, who were poised to select Rice at #17, was Walsh’s real coup. But he did need a couple of breaks. First, the Jets decided to take the first WR off the board at #10, but chose Wisconsin’s Al Toon. Second, Walsh wanted to take Miami’s Eddie Brown and tried to trade for Cincinnati’s #13 pick, but failed -- and the Bengals took Brown instead.
While Montana is the single biggest player acquisition, and Rice is the greatest combination of player evaluation and draft position jockeying, what the 49ers are potentially looking at with Garappolo is the ultra-rare instance of a franchise drastically changing their fortunes by trading for a player. That rarely happens in the NFL. There aren’t the game-changing deadline deals or three-team swaps you see in baseball and basketball. You do see some late career Montana-to-Chiefs-type deals, but not one that forms a new long-term landscape. I can only think of one trade that even comes close in 49ers history...
The Young trade
The move: The 49ers trade a 2nd-round pick and a 5th-round pick to Tampa Bay for QB Steve Young.
The result: As with Rice, the 49ers were a perennial playoff team when they acquired Young, so they didn’t need turning around, Still, they had lost their first playoff game in back-to-back years scoring just six points total, and Montana was coming off multiple major injuries. Many thought his days were numbered. Young was the heir-apparent, he just waited four years as Montana’s understudy before becoming a star, Super Bowl champ, and Hall of Famer. Despite spending almost all his 20’s waiting for a sustained opportunity — compiling only 29 NFL starts before his age-30 season — Young still managed to begin nine seasons as the Niners starting QB.
This is the closest example we have to the Jimmy G trade. At least at the outset, the deals have striking similarities. Young and Garoppolo were the same age at the time, and the Niners gave up a 2nd round pick in each trade. Of course, Jimmy didn’t need to wait years behind an entrenched starter.
How it almost didn’t happen: Steve Young played for two professional teams before the 49ers -- the LA Express of the USFL and the Bucs. Had either been able to fully utilize his talent, it could have been a long-term home for him. But the USFL folded, and Tampa Bay was a complete mess, giving Young no foundation for growth. Their failures became the 49ers’ gain once the Bucs drafted Vinny Testeverde first overall in 1987, and there was no reason to keep Young around.
In all likelihood, the Young deal provides the ceiling for what the Jimmy G trade can mean long-term. But as lucrative as the trade was, it didn’t have an immediate impact due to the presence of Montana. Much like Eddie D taking control of the club, and Walsh being hired, it took time before the effect could translate into success on the field. Though one could argue the team wouldn’t have won the title in 1988 without his legendary late-game scramble vs. Minnesota -- remember, they finished the season in a three-way tie for 1st place, and may not have even made the playoffs without that win -- it was still Montana who lead them through the playoffs and their dramatic last-minute Super Bowl win. And the next year’s dominant Super Bowl win.
The point is, Young was incredible, but he joined an already successful franchise. He wasn’t desperately needed like Garoppolo was — at least not right away. So while it seems like heresy to say it, I think that leaves the door open just a crack for the Jimmy G trade to be greatest move in team history in terms of instant improvement. Long term, the odds are stacked against Garoppolo having a career that matches Young’s — there are just too many things which can go wrong — but his combination of talent, youth and immediate opportunity at least allow for that possibility. Plus, what if Tom Brady let Jimmy sip from Alex Guerrero’s Fountain of Youth before he left Foxboro. Just sayin’.