SANTA CLARA – Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since suffering a right high ankle sprain Week 2, but that doesn't mean he's certain to start for the 49ers Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
What's also unclear: who head coach Kyle Shanahan would start if Garoppolo can't play, even though he already knows the answer between Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard.
"I'm going to hold that just because there is a difference between them and if Jimmy can't go, I'd like Miami to find that out on Sunday," Shanahan said. "I've decided that. We'll get both of them reps because both of them do have to be ready in case Jimmy doesn't go."
Garoppolo was listed as a limited participant Wednesday and has missed two straight games. Mullens, of course, started the last two in Garoppolo's place and struggled mightily in the recent loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Mullens threw a fourth-quarter pick-six that essentially put the 25-20 loss out of reach, leading to Shanahan replacing Mullens with Beathard, the third-stringer, who hadn't appeared in a game since 2018.
Shanahan said he remains cautiously optimistic about Garoppolo given he's taken an important step in returning to practice. But the 49ers have been conservative with many of their injured players and practicing during the week hasn't always meant playing on Sundays. George Kittle practiced before the Giants but didn't return until following week against the Eagles.
Shanahan was asked if his optimism surrounding Garoppolo's status has increased.
"Well the fact he's coming out today and getting a little more reps, it has," he said. "I haven't seen him yet. He did a good job in walk through and we'll see how he goes, if we're going to throw him in there today. That'll give me more of an opinion at least."
Mullens played well replacing Garoppolo in the second half against Jets and in his first start of the year versus the Giants. Combined, he completed over 70% of his passes and averaged 8.8 yards per attempt. Against the Eagles, he threw two interceptions and fumbled once while Philadelphia scored two touchdowns off his turnovers in the five-point defeat.
Garoppolo, meanwhile, struggled in the season-opening loss to Arizona but looked sharp in the Jets game even while he played through the injury, completing 14 of 16 passes with two touchdowns before leaving the game at halftime.
The former Patriot would be going against a familiar face Sunday if he makes his return. Dolphins coach Brian Flores coached safeties and linebackers in New England while Garoppolo was backing up Tom Brady. Garoppolo's duties often included practicing against Flores' defense as a scout team quarterback.
"He was very talented. He would make throws and make you turn back and say, 'wow, that was a good one,' " Flores said in a Zoom call with Bay Area reporters Wednesday. "I think just watching the preseason games and practice, I think we all knew he was going to be a good player and it's definitely turned out that way."
The 49ers on Wednesday opted not to officially open the practice window for cornerback Richard Sherman, who remains on short-term injured reserve with a calf injury suffered in the season opener. Shanahan said the expectation is Sherman won't practice this week, making it more likely he returns to practice next week before the Oct. 18 game against the Los Angeles Rams.
"He was hoping he can get back and practice this week. Just looking at him (Tuesday), we're going to hold him a little bit longer," Shanahan said. "I'm hoping he continues to improve and I'm hoping he'll be ready for next week. I'd be surprised if he got in later in this week."
The 49ers without Sherman allowed 173, 165 and 174 passing yards to opposing quarterbacks in three games. But the Jets, Giants and Eagles were all banged up at receiver while their quarterbacks struggled. Getting Sherman back against the Rams, who have the league's seventh-ranked offense through four games, might be more important than bringing him back early for the Dolphins, who rank 23rd.
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