A year ago, the 49ers reported to training camp feeling absolutely sure they had stolen Jimmy Garoppolo from the New England Patriots.
Garoppolo shouldn’t have been available. The Patriots drafted him in 2014 and spent four seasons grooming him to replace Tom Brady. But Brady doesn’t need replacing yet, even though he’s 41.
So, rather than let Garoppolo leave in free agency when his contract expired at the end of 2017, the Patriots traded him to the 49ers for a mere second-round draft pick, because Bill Belichick respects Kyle Shanahan and wanted the 49ers to succeed. That’s what the 49ers thought at the time. They believed the Patriots had given them Garoppolo out of the kindness of their hearts.
Since that trade, Brady has won his sixth Super Bowl, and Garoppolo has played just eight games and torn his ACL. Last season in particular, Garoppolo played like a mistake-prone rookie, even though he’s 27, while his backup, Nick Mullens, a former undrafted free agent who’s only 24, played like a veteran.
Now, the 49ers have to wonder if the Patriots duped them, put one over on them. Have to wonder if Garoppolo is yet another former Brady backup — like Matt Cassel, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett — who failed after leaving New England.
This season is critical for Garoppolo. If he plays well coming off a torn ACL and leads the 49ers to the playoffs, he could remain the 49ers’ starting quarterback for years and years and ascend to the level of Joe Montana and Steve Young. But if he struggles coming off a torn ACL, the 49ers could bench him or cut him. His contract is easy to terminate after this season.
Here’s what Garoppolo must prove to stay employed in Santa Clara: