Kurtenbach: The 49ers tried to hide lame-duck QB Jimmy Garoppolo all season — now they need him to carry the team

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been asked by a lot of people if Jimmy Garoppolo could keep his job as the 49ers’ starting quarterback in 2022.

The answer I give each of them — and you, as well — is “no”.

Now, the Niners want the rest of the NFL to believe Garoppolo can return to the starting job in 2022, because they want to trade him and such a stance gives Kyle Shanahan and Co. some leverage in a deal where they have next to none.

It’s all artificial. The Niners’ starting quarterback in 2022 will be Trey Lance. Garoppolo remains a lame duck for this team.

But here’s the funny thing about this lame-duck season for Garoppolo: It’s going pretty well.

If San Francisco wants this season to be one to remember, though, Garoppolo will need to be better in the coming weeks.

In fact, the Niners will need him to do something he hasn’t done since 2019: put the team on his back and carry them to a win, as he did that outstanding season in games at New Orleans, Arizona, and Seattle.

If Garoppolo can do that just a couple of times, the Niners will make the playoffs without any stress and they might have some leverage in trade negotiations this offseason.

If Garoppolo cannot, the final third of this 2021 season is going to be a continuation of this season’s roller coaster.

There’s a paradox to the way the Niners have been playing as of late.

Yes, so much is riding on the play of a lame-duck quarterback who knows he’s not long for Santa Clara.

And credit to Garoppolo for this — he’s handled this unsavory situation with the utmost professionalism and a bit of humor, too. That’s not a small thing, at all.

But on the field, the best editions of the 49ers — including the edition we’ve seen the last three weeks — have hidden Garoppolo behind a dominant run game, relegating him to being a third-down-only quarterback.

Just take a look at the standings in this or any recent season and you’ll see that model is not exactly one that correlates with winning. No, the top two teams in a division almost always boast that season’s two best quarterbacks.

But San Francisco faces something close to an existential threat on offense with Deebo Samuel’s groin injury. It jeopardizes Shanahan’s plan to only use Garoppolo on third down (where he is paradoxically one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this season).

While there are many ingredients to the Niners’ offensive rebirth in the last few weeks, the key one has been the usage of Samuel. Shanahan’s ability to move Samuel in and out of the backfield — and Samuel’s unique ability to be an elite running back or receiver — has effectively guaranteed that the Niners are facing defenses in disadvantageous positions.

But Samuel is out for at least Sunday’s game against the Seahawks with a groin injury that will surely prove persnickety for the remainder of the season.

And while the Niners have tremendous offensive weapons and an offensive line that is playing cohesive, impressive football, we have seen San Francisco without the fully actualized Samuel. It was uninspiring.

I think George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, and Elijah Mitchell are great, but not one can do for the 49ers’ offense what Samuel did. Those players are mismatches against their defenders. Samuel was a mismatch for the whole defense.

The Niners aren’t back at square one, but something has to give.

In this case, it’s Shanahan’s desire to hide Jimmy G.

I’m no fan of Garoppolo’s play. I’m certain I’ve made that much clear in the last two years, but, I’m not betting against him here.

Shanahan’s decision to move him — a quarterback who doesn’t see the field well — to the shotgun nearly full-time, eschewing his beloved play-action looks, was difficult but inspired. Garoppolo’s best games — the final five in 2017, those three aforementioned wins in 2019 — involved a tremendous number of shotgun snaps. That’s his football home.

The Niners’ other offensive weapons don’t allow Shanahan to play chess while the other team plays checkers, but they are still excellent players who can win matchups and games.

Ultimately, though, I’m not counting out Garoppolo because his third-down mentality seems to carry into so much of what he does. He’s a procrastinator and an outstanding one at that.

It would be the ultimate Garoppolo move to play his best football right as he’s walking out the door.

The 49ers wouldn’t mind that at all. A playoff berth and a nice draft pick — maybe even a Day 2 pick — would be an outstanding parting gift from No. 10.

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