Almost a year ago at this time, the 49ers were desperate. The once-proud franchise had just come off a 2-14 season and had churned through three head coaches in three seasons. After reaching the NFC Championship Game in the 2013 season with a 12-4 record, the Niners’ record fell to 8-8, 5-11 and 2-14.
So, hiring the right general manager and head coach after the departure of Trent Baalke and Chip Kelly was not just important, but crucial for the success of the franchise. Since moving to Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers' crowds had dwindled and the much-loved Bay Area team was under fire for ineptitude from fans and media alike.
A year later, all that has changed.
By signing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo Thursday to a whopping five-year contract worth as much as $137.5 million, the 49ers have signaled they're on the fast track back to contention — a ridiculous proposition after the 2016 season.
Lynch and Shanahan saw what they needed to see in Garoppolo in a late-season audition. The former Patriots quarterback guided the 49ers to five straight wins to get the team to 6-10. They now go into 2018 with: a good, young quarterback, plenty of salary-cap space, a full parcel of draft picks, a head coach with a history of offensive success, and some young, exciting talent on both sides of the ball.
Miraculously, the 49ers appear to be an NFC West contender in just Year 2 of their makeover.
Wrote columnist Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle, after the Garoppolo signing: "It is also further evidence that the 49ers have a plan, that their new leadership is not fooling around. That they are going to be a serious contender."
In one swoop, by trading for Garoppolo at the trade deadline – and then signing him Thursday — the 49ers "revitalized the franchise," wrote Killion.
Terrific quarterbacks do that. They produce a ripple effect throughout the team. And, that’s what Garoppolo did over the last five games of 2017. As Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com pointed out, the 49ers:
- Went from 21st in the NFL in offense pre-Garoppolo to No. 3 with him;
- Averaged nearly 12 points more per game with him;
- Averaged more than 75 yards per game passing;
- Improved in first downs per game, rushing yards per game and time of possession;
- Improved even on defense, giving nearly 75 fewer yards and six points per game.
So, while the 49ers did, indeed, give Garoppolo a massive payday, every sign points to San Francisco making the right move under a leadership team that now appears – with another good offseason in free agency and the draft – to be building a team that could be playoff-bound in 2018.
"I think once you have a lot of confidence in what the quarterback is doing, it kind of raises everybody’s level around him," said veteran 49ers tackle Joe Staley on SiriusXM NFL Radio Thursday. "I think you just kind of saw that at the end of the year. He was raising everybody’s level of play throughout the season as he went. We’re excited to have him for the entire offseason and training camp and then the full season."