SANTA CLARA, Calif — The San Francisco 49ers managed to turn around a season that looked lost halfway through the season.
After going from 3-5 to the NFC title game, the Niners fell one quarter short of a return to the Super Bowl when they failed to hold onto a 10-point lead and lost 20-17 to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
Now after blowing a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead for the second time in three postseasons, the 49ers head into an uncertain offseason that will likely see the departure of Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback and other changes.
“We lost a game. While it’s terrible and it’s not fun and it does suck, you got to enjoy the moment that you did have,” tight end George Kittle said Monday. “I’m not a person that’s just going to sit in my airplane seat and wallow for the hour flight and just be sad about it. You got to enjoy the moments with the people that you’re around. I think Jimmy said it best last night, ‘Smile because it happened.’ You just want to embrace those moments.”
The end of this game had similarities to the Super Bowl loss to Kansas City two years ago as Garoppolo struggled in the fourth quarter and the defense couldn’t deliver the big play, with Jaquiski Tartt’s dropped interception the most consequential against the Rams.
Garoppolo went 3 for 9 for 30 yards in the fourth quarter and threw an interception on what could have been his final pass with the 49ers. San Francisco traded three first-round picks last spring to draft Trey Lance third overall to be Garoppolo’s successor and the team will most likely move on this offseason.
“I’m not going to sit here and make a farewell statement or anything right now, that’s the last stuff on my mind,” coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game. “But Jimmy has battled. … He battled today. And he did some unbelievable things today and I love coaching Jimmy.”
While the 49ers made two deep playoff runs the past three seasons with Garoppolo at quarterback, his limitations were also evident. His 28.0 passer rating in the fourth quarter of his six playoff starts ranks last in the NFL over the past 30 seasons among the 70 QBs who have started at least three playoff games in that span.
But he also was adored by teammates who stood up for him whenever he faced criticism and were emotional about the possibility of their final game together.
“It didn’t feel like things were coming to an end until it actually did happen,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “Afterwards we had time to hang out in the locker room, hang out on the plane and whatnot and kind of process those emotions. It wasn’t easy. I’ve expressed to you guys and to him privately just how much I’ve appreciated Jimmy and when an awesome teammate and just a brother, he’s been to me and all the other guys. So it wasn’t easy. But we love him and we we wish him the best.”
While Garoppolo took the bulk of the work this season, Lance spent most of his time learning the NFL and playing on the scout team. He did make two starts when Garoppolo was hurt and finished the season 41 for 71 for 603 yards, five TDs, two interceptions and a 97.3 rating. He also rushed for 168 yards and a TD.
The Niners now hope Lance’s work behind the scenes will pay dividends next season.
“I got to learn from Jimmy, one of the best dudes I could have learned from, as a person, as a pro,” Lance said.
While Lance barely played and second-round guard Aaron Banks got on the field for only five offensive snaps all season, a couple of later-round rookies made big contributions and look like building block pieces for the future.
Third-round cornerback Ambry Thomas played very well down the stretch and looks as if he will lock down a starting role next season.
Sixth-round running back Elijah Mitchell set a franchise rookie record with 963 yards rushing in 11 games.
The Niners were led this season by their top two picks from the 2019 draft. Defensive end Nick Bosa tied a franchise record with 19 1/2 sacks combined in the regular season and playoffs after missing almost all of last season with a knee injury.
“I’m going to get in the best shape of my life,” Bosa said. “And I was in the best shape of my life last year, so it’s going to be another level.”
Deebo Samuel joined Jerry Rice as the only players in franchise history with at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 16 TDs in a season.
Both are now eligible for contract extensions for the first time and locking those two up will be a priority.
While figuring out what to do with Garoppolo is the first task of the offseason, the Niners also have to make decisions on key free agents such as Tartt, guard Laken Tomlinson and defensive tackle D.J. Jones. Two other potential free agents are stars who went down with season-ending injuries in the opener in running back Raheem Mostert and cornerback Jason Verrett.