49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo decision is Schrödinger’s roster move

Chris Mezzavilla

Of course. Of course they kept him.

The 49ers told us all offseason that they wouldn’t just get rid of Jimmy Garoppolo.

“No, really, we’ll keep him,” they told us, with the same cadence as a kid threatening to follow through on a dare proposed as a joke. We — and the rest of the NFL — all nodded our heads, thinking, “sure you will.”

Six months later, and those crazy (see scene below) actually did it. Jimmy Garoppolo is back.

When the notifications rolled in on Monday, I nearly spit out my breakfast laughing.

After a protracted offseason saga in which they claimed time after time they intended to get rid of him, the 49ers just couldn’t quit Garoppolo.

It’s simultaneously genius and confounding. It could be a move that assures the 49ers make the playoffs if Lance gets hurt or plays terribly, and/or a decision which threatens Trey Lance’s future. Until we open the box of this season, it is both of these things, and many others.

What we learned on Tuesday from Shanahan and Lynch is that they didn’t expect to get to this point. At least, up until about a month ago — if you take their statements at face value — it wasn’t even a consideration.

By the conclusion of the final preseason game, with Garoppolo and his agents realizing there weren’t any appealing suitors in the trade market or in potential free agency, both sides moved to agree on a reworked, one-year deal with him as the backup at a reported $6.5 million base salary and $13.99 million cap hit (due to prorated bonus money and likely incentives based on last year’s performance).

This is a rare situation where I find pretty much everyone’s take valid.

You think this is a horrific decision that threatens Trey Lance’s future and undermines his present? Sure, I get that.

You think this is an ingenious bit of business and gives the 49ers the best talent pool possible at the most valuable position? Totally fair.

You think the 49ers actually wanted to keep Garoppolo all along, or at least decided late in the process they’d rather keep him than let someone like the Seahawks get him? Why not.

It’s a move that’s easy to criticize because it looks silly. Like, you’re really keeping this guy? After all that?

Shanahan and Lynch have had a sort of “we know, we know, it’s a little ridiculous” tenor to their responses. On Friday, Lynch told KNBR’s Murph and Mac that Shanahan looked at him like he was “crazy” when he first brought up the possibility of retaining Garoppolo.

Once you get past the silliness, which is mostly a cosmetic criticism, the result is that the 49ers have a very capable backup who’s taking, at minimum, a $10 million pay cut, and much more likely a near $18 million pay cut.

But… if Trey Lance falters with Garoppolo waiting in the wings, things might get very uncomfortable; even with the apparently solid relationship the two have, and the Shanahan proclamation that it is only Lance’s job.

So the move exists in this space of maximizing talent, while also potentially threatening their prospective franchise quarterback’s future.

There’s no real clarity on how this will play out, unless Shanahan is 100 percent earnest that it’s Lance’s job, even if things go completely sideways.

That suits Garoppolo. The grey area has always been his home. He’s both good and bad, incredible and terrible.

We live in a world insistent on black and white but founded in opacity. Folks have long sought to define what Jimmy Garoppolo is in cut-and-dry terms. But he’s always been somewhere in the middle.

It’s like the age-old question posed in Community, “Nicolas Cage: Good Or Bad?” The question itself is flawed, and trying to find an answer is enough to drive you to the brink.

But it’s ok to say you don’t know. It’s ok to say you don’t know what Trey Lance will be.

The 49ers don’t know what Lance will be.

But they believe in Lance… at least I believe they believe. Do you believe?

They believed enough to invest three first-round picks and try to usher Garoppolo out the door. That would have happened if not for his shoulder surgery, and may still have happened if he’d gotten the surgery earlier, instead of trying to rehab it for the first three-to-four weeks of the offseason.

If you think San Francisco is hedging its bet on Lance, I understand that.

But Shanahan firmly sees Lance as the quarterback of the present and future; a future, which, after this year, should not include Garoppolo.

In keeping Garoppolo, though, they invited this speculation… while also probably making the right choice.

The simplest answer is that talent wins, especially talent at the quarterback position. It’s just that Lance is not definitive at this stage in his career, so the “is he ready?” questions will only multiply until he proves otherwise.

That’s not to say he won’t be an excellent quarterback, but he’s still extremely young — he would have been the second-youngest quarterback in this year’s draft class — and inexperienced. His preseason performances were a mixed bag. No alarm bells were ringing, but there were head-scratching moments followed by others that impressed.

But given what it took to get here, just how bad would Lance have to be to get benched? Let’s say the 49ers are 2-6 heading into Week 9. Is that enough to make a switch?

Or at that point, do you say, “Hey, our playoff chances are slim anyway, we might as well stick with our quarterback of the future, and let him work through his struggles.”

The likeliest path is that Lance retains the job and Garoppolo plays a handful of games if/when Lance gets hurt.

Unless a team offers at least a third-round pick for Garoppolo — and/or an enticing player — the 49ers keep him, and recoup a likely compensatory third-round pick when he signs elsewhere next offseason.

Shanahan has seen what happens when quarterbacks get injured, and probably expects Lance to run enough that the prospect of leaning on a backup quarterback looms fairly large.

If you can keep the guy you almost won a Super Bowl with as your backup at a $10-20 million discount, potentially trade him during the year, or at the very least, get a compensatory pick out of it when the year is done, how would Shanahan see that as a negative?

This all rests on Lance’s shoulders. It’s a situation which asks Lance to establish himself, and hopefully early, or the birds will start chirping.

But the 49ers are betting on Lance’s talent and their ability to manage relationships of guys who have long appeared to be low maintenance.

I’m of the belief that while Lance will have some poor moments, he will keep the 49ers competitive. His inexperience will show — sometimes glaringly — but his ability to extend and create off-schedule plays is an element that has not existed with this offense before. He’s a playmaker, even if it’s not always the “right” play.

And this team is going to run. A lot. Lance has a plethora of weapons at his disposal and a very likely top-10 defense at the minimum. While he might make some head-scratching errors, this projects as a high-floor group. That defense and run game carried Garoppolo, why not Lance?

Get your takes off. I support them all in a situation this ridiculous. But if the 49ers’ guy is indeed the 49ers’ guy, all these concerns will be rendered moot.


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