SANTA CLARA – Jimmy Garoppolo wore a red ballcap, crouched on the 49ers sideline, and watched from afar as Trey Lance huddled the offense to start Sunday’s home opener.
Some 20 minutes later, Garoppolo had on his gold helmet and joined solemn teammates in consoling Lance, who was placed on a cart with a right-ankle injury that requires season-ending surgery Monday.
Just like that, the 49ers’ season took a dynamic yet almost predictable turn, far beyond Sunday’s 27-7 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
Most figured the only way Garoppolo would reclaim his job was through a Lance injury. For that to happen so early in the season, so early in the 49ers’ home opener, in such gruesome fashion, it was a seismic shift that reverberated throughout the NFL.
“I’m happy about the win,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said, “but it’s somber in the locker room when you get in there.”
The 49ers led 3-0 when Lance got hurt on a 2-yard, zone-read keeper, colliding with defenders Cody Barton and Bryan Mone at the Seahawks’ 19-yard line. Shanahan defended it as a “very normal” play call. Afterward, center Jake Brendel tried to pull Lance to his feet, but the 2021 draft’s No. 3 pick crumpled back to the rain-laced grass and withered in pain.
“I tried to prepare this whole time like I was a starter, anyway, so it was like riding a bike,” Garoppolo said. “I’m not saying I knew this was going to happen but I was ready if it did and just want to take advantage of the opportunity.”
That Garoppolo returned for this task was last month’s shock. Three weeks ago, he agreed to be Lance’s backup with a restructured contract, dropping his base salary from $24 million to $6.5 million. He has a chance to recoup some cash via incentives that now seem very plausible, and when told that he reportedly earned $350,000 for Sunday’s relief appearance, he replied: “Now that you said it, it feels good. You’re not thinking about that stuff out there. You’re flowing with the game, trying to get guys ready.”
It was the best Garoppolo could do after his March 8 shoulder surgery scuttled his trade market. That led him back to the 49ers, although he was confined to a throwing program on the side field throughout camp. “It was more about getting the shoulder ready. Mentally I knew the scheme,” Garoppolo said. “Some of the new plays took a while to learn and there’s always wrinkles in the offense. Once my shoulder was good, I was ready to roll.”
That’s how a quarterback, with two NFC Championship Game appearances in the past three seasons, became the 49ers’ insurance policy, and one that could dictate their playoff path once again.
“I’m real proud of Jimmy how he came in,” Shanahan said. “He was ready for the moment and helped us get a win.”
Asked how Garoppolo looked, Shanahan broke the tension in the postgame press conference by replying: “He looks good. Still handsome.”
Garoppolo iced Sunday’s win with a 1-yard, fourth-and-goal touchdown dive with 1:51 remaining, after a daring third-down run saw him collide with right tackle Mike McGlinchey’s knee just short of the goal line.
Um, didn’t the 49ers already lost a quarterback to injury on a run earlier in the game? “Wasn’t my call, man. I just run the plays,” Garoppolo replied. “It worked out.”
Garoppolo prevailed, of course, and now he’ll look to improve on his 35-16 record as the 49ers’ starter, including his 4-2 playoff mark.
By the time the 49ers filed into their locker room at halftime, they owned a 20-0 lead over the Seahawks, who would lose for only the second time in nine years of Levi’s Stadium’s existence. At halftime and after the game, players filed in to check on Lance. “All of us are heartbroken,” backup quarterback Brock Purdy said. “To see him in that training room and on the table, that’s what sucks about this sport.”
Garoppolo finished 13-of-21 for 154 yards with one touchdown pass, one sack and no turnovers. Then came that familiar winning feeling, which he last enjoyed in playoff wins at Dallas and Green Bay, as well as the regular-season finale at the eventual Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams.
Garoppolo came out winging it and compared that to his December 2017 debut. He completed his first five passes, although he got drilled by linebacker Uchenna Nwosu on that first pass since his NFC Championship Game-closing interception. That initial drive in relief of Lance resulted in a Robbie Gould field goal, like the 49ers’ first drive Sunday.
Then came two touchdowns and three takeaways to pull away from a Seattle team coming off an emotionally charged win Monday night against their former icon, Russell Wilson, and the Denver Broncos.
The 49ers stretched their lead to 13-0 when Garoppolo completed a 38-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Ross Dwelley, who was among the tight ends covering a second straight game for George Kittle (groin). Once Dwelley dove to stretch the ball across the goal line, Deebo Samuel was among those to congratulate Garoppolo, who rushed down to congratulate Dwelley on the 49ers’ second touchdown this season.
Seattle’s response: Geno Smith threw a high pass that Talanoa Hufanga tipped to fellow safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. for an interception at midfield, 9:53 before halftime. That takeaway produced no points, but then came more interceptions – one by Fred Warner that got nullified by an Emmanuel Moseley pass-interference penalty, and one in the end zone by Mooney Ward on a halfback-option duck from running back DeeJay Dallas.
Again, the 49ers offense struggled to convert, until Dwelley recovered a fumble on Tyler Lockett’s muffed punt return. Garoppolo completions to Jauan Jennings and Samuel set up Kyle Juszczyk for a 1-yard touchdown run that had so much brute force, it popped the helmet off Mone, the Seahawks’ nose tackle.
Leading so comfortably must have felt so foreign to the 49ers. That’s not because a 10-0 lead didn’t hold up in their opener at Seattle. Go back to last season when they were in survival mode so long just to make the playoffs en route to more harrowing wins.
The 49ers’ shutout bid ended, however, with 5:25 left in the third quarter, when Michael Jackson returned a blocked field goal 86 yards for a Seahawks’ touchdown to cut their deficit to 20-7. One snap earlier, center Jake Brendel botched his snap from the 2-yard line and Dwelley recovered the loose ball.
Nick Bosa notched 1 1/2 sacks, and his first one came to open the second half, leaving last 29 minutes until the 49ers could rightfully exhale as victors, albeit after losing Lance.
“I talked to him a little bit. It’s the worst part of the game, obviously,” said Bosa, with a nod to his 2020 knee injury, also in Week 2. “It happens instantly and there’s no going back. Once it happens, obviously you feel your life is over for a certain amount of time. (Surgery) starts your road back. It’s not going to be easy but he’ll be back and he’ll be fine. It’s just really tough right now.”