SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- He is a 315-pound mountain of a man, and he had just spent three-and-a-half hours burdened by circumstance, having stood his ground against the NFL's most statistically fearsome defense. And yet, as San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley shimmied off the Levi's Stadium turf late Sunday afternoon, he felt an unfamiliar lightness of being -- and smiled like a child racing to the tree on Christmas morning.
"Football's fun again!" Staley declared, by way of explanation, as he neared the tunnel at the south end zone. And though it seemed like an obvious question, it was my journalistic duty to ask for clarification: How much of that has to do with the presence of No. 10?
Staley's answer, in a word: "Everything."
As an 11-year veteran who has experienced the NFL's highs and lows, and everything in between, Staley has every excuse to be jaded -- especially as his Niners finish out a losing season that will leave them locked out of the playoffs for a fourth consecutive January. Instead, like his teammates, coaches, the 70,133 fans in attendance Sunday and football-watchers everywhere, he's got Jimmy G. Fever, and he is not in search of a cure.
In a game that provided further evidence that San Francisco has found its franchise quarterback, and served as the best possible Christmas Eve gift for a frustrated fan base, the 49ers rolled to a 44-33 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was an outcome that, on paper, defied logic: Earlier Sunday, the Jags (10-5) had clinched their first division title since 1999, while the Niners (5-10) have merely been messing up their draft position for the past month.
And yet, this game said everything about the 49ers' future, which currently looks brighter than the North Pole after a fresh coat of snow: Between the schematic brilliance of rookie coach Kyle Shanahan and the cool precision of the young man now executing his offense, this was a Sunday smackdown steeped in giddiness.
"He's doing everything we hoped for, and more," Shanahan said of Jimmy Garoppolo as he sat at the desk of his private dressing room at Levi's on Sunday evening. "And all the guys around him -- I can't even explain to you how much better everyone is playing since he got here. He has rubbed off on everyone. It's too bad we have to take a break here soon."
It may be a good thing for the rest of the NFL that the 49ers won't extend their season beyond next Sunday's finale against the newly crowned NFC West-champion Rams in Los Angeles. They're now 4-0 since handing the ball to Garoppolo, a little more than a month after trading a second-round draft pick to the New England Patriots to acquire the 26-year-old quarterback.
And while Garoppolo had shown great promise at the start of last season while filling in for suspended future first-ballot Hall of Famer Tom Brady, the hysteria he's currently provoking in Northern California is now next-level. He's now something of a cross between Santa Claus and Steph Curry, and gaining steam.
From running back Carlos Hyde's proclamation that the Niners will win next season's Super Bowl, to the sardonic (but only partially so) 'MVP' chants emanating from the Levi's crowd with 10 minutes remaining, to the holiday-themed "Jimmy Jesus" nickname being tossed around the press box, any semblance of restraint has long since been whisked away in the wind.
"It's exciting, man," Staley said afterwards. "I was telling our offensive line coach, I wish it was Week 6. I can't wait -- next year's gonna be pretty special. Now the pressure's on the rest of us: We can't [screw] it up!"
Even better, for the first time in four Decembers, the Niners will head into the offseason without conducting a search for a new head coach. And though Shanahan struggled through a 1-10 start, he's now demonstrating the bold brilliance he showcased as the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator last season -- well, at least until Brady and the Patriots suddenly and stunningly stomped on his Super Bowl buzz.
Now that Shanahan has his apparent franchise quarterback, things are likely to get a lot tougher on opposing defensive coordinators, as the Jaguars' Todd Wash can attest.
"He's playing really well," veteran Jags middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said of Garoppolo (21 of 30, 242 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) following Sunday's game. "But they did all the hard s---, the stuff that stresses our defense. They know our defense so well, and they kept us off balance. They'd run the ball with the Y (receiver) coming across the formation; they'd run a play that looked like a boot, and then they'd run the boot, and a whole lot of other stuff that is difficult for us to defend."
Whereas Garoppolo had directed game-winning drives in two of his previous three starts, this was more of a surgical evisceration, though a couple of Niners rough stretches made it far more stressful than it had to be. Shanahan kept the Jags' D off balance with a steady diet of play-action fakes, designed quarterback movement and receiver and tight end motion, frequently causing Jags defenders to swarm to the ball in pursuit of an apparent run, only to leave a fullback or tight end wide open on the backside. Eventually, the Jags became tentative -- except when they were incurring foolish personal fouls after the whistle.
"I don't feel like it was him so much as the scheme," Jacksonville nose tackle Marcell Dareus said. "They made tremendous plays, all up and down the field. It's a pretty cool scheme. Their guys were ready. They knew their assignments and executed to a T."
Said one Jags veteran: "They exposed us. We weren't ready for it."
That's an assessment that's sure to draw the ire of Jags coach Doug Marrone, who has had a largely successful first season in Jacksonville. He's surely even less thrilled about the lack of composure displayed by defenders Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue, who each incurred unsportsmanlike conduct penalties late in the third quarter, and Malik Jackson, whose unnecessary roughness infraction with 1:43 remaining helped hasten the Niners' game-clinching score.
"All they wanted to do was talk trash the whole game," Hyde said. "I'm like, 'Those guys are easy to get out of their game.' S---, they helped us out. They can keep on talking. They need to learn to keep their composure. They're going to the playoffs; we're not. It'll be something good for them to learn."
Garoppolo concurred, saying at his postgame press conference, "Especially towards the end of the game when they started yelling at each other before they were yelling at us."
The Jaguars were rattled from the start, falling behind 16-0 before Jalen Myrick blocked Robbie Gould's extra point, and fellow cornerback Aaron Colvin scooped it up and scored to make it 16-2 four minutes into the second quarter. Somewhat improbably, Jacksonville rallied to take a 19-16 lead on its first possession of the second half, only to see the Niners take control with a trio of touchdowns.
The second of those scores, which came on the drive buoyed by the personal fouls on Jack and Ngakoue, was the most impressive. On third-and-goal from the Jaguars' 5, Garoppolo took a shotgun snap, surveyed his options and saw no one open. As the pocket collapsed, he slid to his left to buy time, and Colvin came charging toward him. At the last second, Garoppolo smoothly sidearmed a ball that somehow found well-covered slot receiver Trent Taylor in the front of the end zone, giving the 49ers a 30-19 lead with 10:39 remaining the game.
"Trent was there," Shanahan said, "but not that many people can throw to their left with that arm angle. I mean, very few. It's body mechanics."
Said Garoppolo: "The guy (defensive end Calais Campbell) was in front of me so I had to throw it around him. Playing baseball paid off I guess today."
Sixteen seconds later, Garoppolo was in the red zone again, thanks to counterpart Blake Bortles' third interception, this one by cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. (Bortles' first pick, which was returned 50 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Dontae Johnson, had ended a streak of 98 consecutive throws without an interception.)
A pair of runs by Matt Breida set up Hyde's six-yard touchdown; in between, the fans busted out their "MVP" chant for Garoppolo, nearly causing Shanahan to crack up on the sidelines.
"I was actually trying to get the crowd to quiet down," Staley said. "It was a serious moment; I needed to hear the cadence. But I can't wait to hear those chants for real next year."
The Jags managed to put a real scare on the Niners, thanks to a pair of late touchdowns sandwiched around an onside kick. Clinging to a 37-33 lead after recovering a second onside kick, the Niners got a jumpstart when Jackson's roughness penalty (after Hyde's drive-opening four-yard run) pushed the ball to the Jacksonville 32.
The Jags still had one timeout as the Niners lined up for a third-and-8 at the 30. Shanahan, as is his nature, decided not to play it safe. After the snap, continuing a day-long theme, he sent wideout Marquise Goodwin behind the quarterback for a fake reverse to the right. Garoppolo then turned and tossed a semi-dangerous pitch to Breida, who swept to the left sideline and raced through a slew of defenders for the clinching score.
"It was between the toss and a pass," Shanahan said later, smiling. "I went for the conservative call."
As Shanahan and his players celebrated this cheery Christmas Eve, their 5-10 record be damned, there was nothing conservative about the Jimmy G. hysteria.
"I don't know," Staley admitted. "I never played with him. But it feels like it would be. And after where we've been, trust me, we'll take it."
After next Sunday, the Niners will take an eight-month break from meaningful competition, secure that when it finally ends, a whole lot of fun is on the horizon.