Former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh’s famous rallying cry is “Who’s got it better than us?” to which his players respond, “NOOO-BODY!”
The most recent head coach prior to Kyle Shanahan on Sunday to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl, Harbaugh of course has since taken his tagline to Ann Arbor. But isn’t it apropos that the answer to his question might be a 49er player with whom he shares only one indirect red-and-gold connection?
Who’s got it better than Harbuagh’s Niners? The 2019 Niners, quarterbacked by the pride of Rolling Meadows and Eastern Illinois Jimmy Garoppolo, that’s who.
Sure, Garoppolo’s Super Bowl LIV counterpart, Patrick Mahomes, is the reigning MVP with the most dangerous pass-catching weaponry in the league. However, the old adage is that a quarterback’s best friend is his run game, and nobody’s got one better than Garoppolo’s Niners’, designed by the brilliant Shanahan.
Mahomes also had the luxury of learning behind the scenes as a rookie from consummate professional Alex Smith. But with all due respect to Smith, there’s only one GOAT, and Tom Brady and Garoppolo formed a "Wolfpack" during his apprentice’s first three-plus years in the league.
"He's earned the trust of his teammates and the respect of his teammates and that's all you can ask for as a player," Brady said in 2017 following Garoppolo's trade from the Patriots to the 49ers. "He's put in all the effort. I've watched him for 3½ years and really enjoyed working with him. Hopefully he goes on and does a great job."
Most already know about Garoppolo’s impossibly good looks, his $137.5 million contract and his place on the doorstep of becoming the first quarterback to bring Lombardi back to the Bay since Hall of Famer Steve Young, who of course took the reins from Brady's childhood hero Joe Montana.
What everyone should know is that as great as Garoppolo has it now, as soft of landings as he’s consistently found following hard times, he’s made his own breaks every step of the way.
A multi-sport star at Rolling Meadows High, Garoppolo switched from linebacker to quarterback halfway through his career and was lightly recruited before committing to Eastern Illinois. Kyle’s dad, two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Shanahan, fellow Super Bowl champion coach Sean Payton and former Pro Bowler-turned-CBS star broadcaster Tony Romo are among the more famous Panthers alumnus, but it’s unlikely to be confused anytime soon for a football factory.
Still, Garoppolo rewrote many of the EIU records previously held by Romo and Payton en route to receiving the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, given to the top FCS performer. But he faced the usual questions during the pre-draft process for players attempting to make the jump from FCS to NFL:
How will he fare against far greater competition and more complex defenses?
Can he transition from a college, spread-style offense?
Why didn’t he dominate the pre-draft All-Star games?
Because Eastern Illinois didn’t host NFL clubs at a pro day, Garoppolo participated in Northwestern’s in Evanston in 2014, where Harbaugh was preparing for what ultimately would be his final Niners draft and sought out the quarterback for a relatively private 45-minute throwing session away from most onlookers.
“It went real well,” Garoppolo, whom Texans coach Bill O'Brien also worked out privately that day, told reporters at the time. “We were back there slinging it around. I mean, [Harbaugh] can still throw it pretty well for being an ex-quarterback and all. I learned a lot from him. He was teaching me little things here and there. I learned a lot. It was fun.”
Mind you, Harbaugh was fresh off guiding the Niners to consecutive NFC title games and helping consummate the trade that would send Alex Smith to Kansas City and initially vault Colin Kaepernick as his unquestioned starter. Arguably no coach, save of course for Bill Belichick and perhaps Harbaugh’s NFC West rival Pete Carroll of the Seahawks, was hotter at the time.
But the 49ers wound up drafting Garoppolo’s fellow Illinois collegiate star Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois in Round 1, following up that pick with Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde in Round 2, where Garoppolo was scooped up by Belichick and Brady’s Patriots.
So much for becoming an early NFL starter.
Being drafted by the Patriots turned into one of the many blessings in disguise for Garoppolo, who built a reputation in Foxborough for being as hardworking and prepared as any backup in football, albeit one who’d attempt only 97 passes in four years.
When Brady’s Deflategate suspension finally opened the starting door for the first four games of the 2016 season, Garoppolo was marvelous in three halves as the starter before suffering a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder. And with Patriots’ third-stringer, then-rookie Jacoby Brissett, replacing Garoppolo and enjoying his own success, it begged the question: should their results be attributed to the Patriots backup signal callers or "The Patriot Way?"
Clearly, Kyle Shanahan and 49ers GM John Lynch thought it was the former, striking a deal a little more than a year later to acquire Garoppolo in exchange for merely a second-round pick. Garoppolo was going from the greatest coach in NFL history to an up-and-comer in his first stint in charge in Shanahan, who guided Matt Ryan to league MVP and Robert Griffin III to Offensive Rookie of the Year in his previous two stops as offensive coordinator. It was a perfect match, one carefully cultivated by Belichick. Reports suggest that he dealt Garoppolo begrudgingly, and for a pittance, but PFW has confirmed he made the initial inquiry to Shanahan and was determined to choose a strong landing spot for the quarterback.
Belichick shared at the time his "tremendous respect" for Garoppolo, a "great teammate" whom he said the Patriots simply ran out of options with as Brady remained entrenched. Dating back to the time of Garoppolo's selection in the 2014 draft, Belichick lauded his smarts, arm talent and production among the "qualities that we admire in a quarterback."
All Garoppolo did was promptly lead the left-for-dead Niners to five consecutive wins to close out the season, breathing energy back into a fan base and team brass to eschew the franchise tag and make him at the time the highest-paid quarterback in the league, despite having a total of NFL seven starts.
Opening the 2018 campaign, finally, as a full-time starter for the first time, Garoppolo tossed three picks in a miserable home loss to a hungry Vikings club fresh off its NFC title game dismantling. He steadied over the next two games, with 4 touchdowns and zero picks, beginning to rediscover the form he flashed briefly in the previous two starting stints, when his knee buckled awkwardly on a fourth-quarter scramble at Arrowhead against the Chiefs, of all teams. Surely, the season-ending ACL tear less than 200 snaps into the season Garoppolo spent more than four years preparing for wasn’t another blessing in disguise?
Mahomes is the most electrifying young player in football, but no defender in his early NFL infancy — if not at any career juncture — is more explosive than 49ers Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa. He and venerable Richard Sherman were the two key catalysts as the Niners leapt 21 spots (!) in Football Outsiders defensive DVOA (No. 2 overall) and went from generating the fewest takeaways in NFL history (7) in 2018 to 32 (including postseason), ranked fifth in the NFL this season.
Suffice to say, Bosa, the best overall prospect in last year’s draft, isn’t a 49er right now if not for Garoppolo’s knee injury.
"Things have a way of working out," Garoppolo recently told reporters. "I always told myself it was a blessing in disguise, the ACL. We got (Nick) Bosa out of it. That's a pretty good trade-off, I guess. But yeah, things have a way of working out I guess. This ride is crazy."
And also suffice to say, the Niners don’t cruise to the Super Bowl if Garoppolo doesn’t come back from his knee surgery with vengeance. Among his more impressive numbers in, officially, his first full season as an NFL starter: 8.4 yards per attempt (No. 3 in NFL), 69.1 completion percentage (tied for 4th), 5 game-winning drives (tied for 4th), 27 touchdowns (tied for 5th) and a 102.0 rating (8th).
Garoppolo was nearly perfect in NFL Game No. 256, the NFC West title bout in primetime to culminate the regular season, leading the Niners to their first win in Seattle in eight years and the NFC’s No. 1 overall seed.
Yet a postseason in which he’s completed only 17 combined passes in two games — including only 6-of-8 to beat the Packers and advanced to Super Bowl LIV — Garoppolo still has plenty of detractors.
Does Shanahan truly trust him?
Is he more than a game manager?
Are his stats inflated by the system?
Rest assured, those questions aren’t coming from Garoppolo’s coaches and teammates. They rave about his toughness, his consistency and perhaps above all else his selflessness.
“There's lots of games this year that we haven't been able to run the ball and we've had to win it by passing. That's what I'm proud of with Jimmy and proud of our team, that you can't really say that we have to win a game a certain way," Shanahan said. "... I know Jimmy doesn't care how we win it, whether we're running it, throwing it, whether we’ve got to do it on defense and protect the ball, or whether we’ve got to air it out and get some points. A lot of guys say that it doesn't bother them, but I promise it doesn't bother [Garoppolo]. I've never had to call him in and talk to him about it, he's so locked into whatever the plan is or whatever we're doing, and he's just trying to distribute the ball.”
For the 49ers to upset the Chiefs, currently listed as 1½-point favorites Sunday, dominant defense and run game or not, it'll likely require Garoppolo distributing the football more than six times.
Rest assured he'll be ready, just as he was in December, when he led the Niners in their signature win past Drew Brees' Saints in the Superdome by tossing four touchdowns and accounting for 350 yards of offense.
“The thing that impressed me the most was just how he handled the noise. I’ve been in that stadium a lot, but it was louder than usual to me," Shanahan said. "You never can hear at the line, but it was very hard for him to hear in the huddle. ... That stuff was happening a lot and for him to just still keep his poise and try to fix things a lot in the game, he kept our guys pretty cool throughout the whole time.”
Sounds pretty familiar, yes?
“I think just how calm [Brady] was, everyone says you’ve got to treat it like another game, just the way he actually he did it," Garoppolo said of the benefits of watching Brady in two Super Bowls. "I was up close and personal, picking up everything I could, seeing how he went about his business and everything. And obviously it worked out the two times that I was there with him. Try to transfer that over to my game.”
In his rapid ascension from Rolling Meadows High to FCS star to the world's biggest stage Sunday, Garoppolo has made the best of every situation he's encountered. And if nobody's got it better than him, it's because no one did more to earn it.