If the 49ers cannot sell the Cleveland Browns on trading for Jimmy Garoppolo now, then the Niners’ quarterback cannot be sold.
And seeing as how the Browns don’t seem to have any interest in Garoppolo as of Thursday morning, that means we’re nearing the end of the quarterback’s time in the Bay, most likely with his release before or on Aug. 30.
Garoppolo deserves some blame in the mess — his March shoulder surgery certainty didn’t help his trade value — but there’s no escaping that the 49ers have spent months actively trying to trade Garoppolo and more than a year being open to offers. They came up with nothing.
And so general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan waited, holding onto their former starting quarterback, hoping one of the league’s other teams would develop a late need for a player of his caliber. The Browns, who run the same offensive system as the Niners, were seen as an ideal trade partner with the Watson suspension looming.
Now that Watson’s suspension is here, one would expect talks between the Niners and Browns to heat up.
So far, there’s no smoke. I don’t expect that to change.
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Perhaps the radio silence is just posturing by the Browns — an effort at leverage with the Niners — but it must be said that Cleveland expected a long suspension for Watson the moment they traded for him. That’s why he is signed to a deal worth only $1 million this season. Even with that expectation, the Browns signed Jacoby Brissett as Watson’s backup. They knew they’d need a fill-in starting quarterback — perhaps for the whole season — and they chose Brissett. There’s a commitment there — one that paired with Brissett’s performance in training camp appears to supersede trading any assets for Garoppolo, not to mention taking any of the $25.55 million the Niners still owe Garoppolo for this season.
It must be stated that Garoppolo is a better quarterback than Brissett and that Cleveland has the salary cap space to trade for Garoppolo. But the Browns cannot be held up as rational actors.
Perhaps they’ll sober up, send a conditional Day 3 pick to San Francisco, and restructure Garoppolo’s deal, too.
But isn’t it telling that the Browns are thinking about it? That trading for Garoppolo isn’t a no-brainer for Cleveland?
This is why the Niners’ quarterback transition plan was doomed not from the moment Garoppolo went under the knife in March, but from the start.
They held Garoppolo in a regard that no one else in the league shared. That difference persists to this day.
So where does this leave the Niners and No. 10?
Well, the Niners can either keep Garoppolo and pay him to be Trey Lance’s backup — a move I think the Niners should seriously consider, despite the hefty cost — or they could cut him.
The latter option is what will happen. The Niners will set Garoppolo free to sign with any team he wants, creating more than $25 million in cap space they can roll into next season.
How ridiculous is that?
But perhaps it’s the most fitting exit.
Head coaches and quarterbacks define NFL teams, and Garoppolo’s era was enigmatic. It was both disappointing and successful. Garoppolo pushed a moribund franchise forward, only to then hold it back on the biggest stages.
There’s no question that a quarterback transition was necessary for the 49ers, though. Garoppolo was squeezing the team by raising the team’s floor and limiting its ceiling at the same time. His injuries torpedoed seasons, but any time his health cooperated, he played well enough to win — including in the playoffs — and the Niners approached moments of immortality, Garoppolo found himself subject to the Peter Principle, the belief that people rise to their level of incompetence.
For other organizations, this kind of floor-raising quarterback would be a godsend. For the Browns, who are now looking at 11 games without Deshaun Watson, Garoppolo — who is in the last year of his contract — would be a perfect substitute.
And yet no one wants him so long as he’s playing on his current deal.
Another team will surely sign him once he’s released. Perhaps it’s the Browns. Maybe it’s the Seahawks. The New York Giants are an option, too. There is, ironically given the circumstances, a need for a quarterback like Garoppolo. He might even make a decent salary on the open market.
But for the Niners and Garoppolo, it’s a finish that is both clumsy and apt.
Super Bowl LIV, last year’s NFC Championship Game, and his Niners’ tenure — when it came to Garoppolo and the 49ers, they could never get it right at the end.
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