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Why Jimmy Garoppolo’s 49ers journey is one worthy of celebrating

Try not to focus too much on the big-game disappointments.

Miami Dolphins v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

To say Jimmy Garoppolo divided opinion during his time with the San Francisco 49ers would be putting it mildly. Though that time came to an end on Monday with the news he has agreed a free-agent deal with the Las Vegas Raiders, debates over Garoppolo’s place in franchise history will likely continue to rage long after he has called it a career.

Garoppolo is an easy target for criticism. A quarterback who does not push the ball down the field often and who lacks the athletic gifts to make second-reaction plays consistently, Garoppolo has a limited ceiling, one which he continually banged against in the biggest moments of his 49er career.

For many, the abiding memory of Garoppolo as a 49er will be of the missed third-down deep shot to Emmanuel Sanders in the Super Bowl LIV defeat to the Chiefs, with that agonizing incompletion closely followed by his inability to get San Francisco over the line in the closing moments of the NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams two seasons later.

Then there are the injuries. So many injuries. There was the torn ACL in Week 3 of 2018 (fun fact, that happened a few hours after my daughter was born).

The 2020 campaign was ruined by an ankle injury for Garoppolo, his absence for most of that year facilitating the Trey Lance trade, and 2021 ended with him fighting through a shoulder injury on that run to the NFC title game.

Yet for as much as you could criticise Garoppolo for being unreliable on the big stage and often being unavailable through injury, arguably his primary selling point throughout his time with the Niners was reliability.

From the second Garoppolo stepped onto the field in 2017 after arriving in a Halloween trade with the Patriots, he provided true starter-level play at the game’s most important position.

He processed Kyle Shanahan’s complex offense quickly and enabled his head coach to turn the San Francisco attack into one of the most efficient in the NFL. Though there were lows and back-breaking interceptions, there were plenty of moments where Shanahan was not coaching around Garoppolo, who proved he is capable of putting a team on his back.

Garoppolo may not have been a driving force for the 49ers during his first postseason with the team, and he didn’t deliver when it mattered against the Chiefs, but the reality is the Niners don’t get the number one seed in the NFC in 2019 without a series of hugely impressive showings from the oft-maligned signal-caller.

He had two four-touchdown displays in one-score wins over the Cardinals, coming from 16-0 down in the latter, in the space of three weeks and threw another four as he out dueled Drew Brees in a phenomenal Super Dome shootout in New Orleans.

A little under two weeks later, he converted twice in succession on 3rd and 16 on a game-winning drive against the Rams to give the 49ers the opportunity to clinch the one seed in Seattle.

The offensive production down the stretch in 2021 may have been more about Deebo Samuel than Garoppolo, but the 49ers would have been watching the playoffs from home without a game-tying drive from Garoppolo in the final 90 seconds of the Week 18 meeting with the Rams, which featured a 43-yard laser to Samuel that ranks among his best throws in a 49er uniform.

Fittingly for Garoppolo, injury forced an unexpected return to the 49ers on a reworked one-year deal last offseason after they failed to trade him, and brought about the end of his spell as quarterback.

The play in between that offseason saga and the foot injury that ended what looked to be a storybook 2022 campaign was arguably the best of Garoppolo’s career and saw him finish the year third in EPA per play behind only Tua Tagovailoa and Patrick Mahomes.

Perhaps the sole disappointing aspect of Brock Purdy’s emergence after Garoppolo’s injury in the Week 13 win over the Dolphins last year is that it quickly overshadowed everything Garoppolo had done to not only keep the 49ers afloat after losing Trey Lance, but firmly establish them as Super Bowl contenders again.

When healthy, that is what Garoppolo did for the 49ers. He may not always have been the chief architect of their success, but he consistently helped put the Niners in a position to make a run.

As teams and players are ultimately judged by championships, Garoppolo will ultimately be chiefly remembered for his failures under the largest of spotlights, but to focus solely on the games where he fell short does a disservice to a player who did so much to turn the Niners back into a force in the NFC.

Garoppolo did not manage to deliver the ending 49ers fans wanted but, in a league where 31 teams end the season disappointed, it is important to cherish the journey.

The 49ers’ journey with Garoppolo was unique in its sheer number of twists and turns but, ultimately, it is one that should be remembered fondly by a franchise that is back among the league’s elite in no small part because of that transformational October 31 trade.