SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The news spread slowly through the San Francisco 49ers locker room, leaving gazes of disbelief and disappointment in its wake.
Jimmy Garoppolo, the beloved quarterback who handled an awkward and trying year with class and grace, going from being told he would be traded to not being traded, from being part of the team to not really being part of the team, from being a backup to returning to the starting lineup, from being forgotten to being celebrated -- yes, that Jimmy Garoppolo will not have a chance to author a fairy-tale ending to the 2022 season.
One series into the 49ers' 33-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday in Levi's Stadium, Garoppolo fractured a bone in his left foot when sacked by linebackers Jaelan Phillips and Jerome Baker, ending his day, his season and, possibly again, his career with the organization he helped reach two NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl after being acquired in a 2017 trade with New England.
It was a sobering and dispiriting reality for teammates, who used words like "brutal" and "sad" upon learning of the severity of the injury, which will require surgery. And though they immediately threw their support behind Brock Purdy, the final selection of the 2022 NFL Draft and someone who performed capably on Sunday, there was no mistaking the bond that exists between them and Garoppolo. Many marveled at how he handled what can best be described as a surreal situation over the last year.
Garoppolo, like everyone else, knew at the end of last season the staff was ready to hand the reins to Trey Lance, the player for whom they traded three first-round picks and a third-rounder to move up and draft third overall in 2021. But Garoppolo's departure, which began with him saying goodbye to locals during his final press conference after last season, took an unexpected turn when teams backed away from trading for him following offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder.
That set off a weird sequence in which Garoppolo did not practice with the team in the offseason or training camp. He reworked his contract before the season to remain as a backup instead of a starter, but in Week 2, Lance sustained a fractured fibula and ligament damage, opening the door for Garoppolo to return to the field. He struggled to find consistency over the next month-plus, but turned the corner after the trade for running back Christian McCaffrey in late October. Suddenly everything fell into place and the offense began humming. He threw for seven touchdowns with no interception over the next four games, all wins.
And just when the 49ers were being mentioned as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, his foot got caught beneath Phillips as Phillips and Baker pulled him down.
"I feel so bad for him and everything that he has had to go through," said fullback Kyle Juszczyk. "It just seems like we've been down this road so many times, and it's truly unfortunate."
"My heart goes out to Jim," said linebacker Fred Warner. "The way that he competes, the way he prepares every week -- it's just a freak thing. That sucks."
And yet the cold reality is that the season goes on. Players may change, opponents may change, seasons may change, but the goal of winning a Super Bowl never does.
"Football is football, and the plan is going to be the plan," said McCaffrey, who had 146 yards (80 receiving) and a touchdown from scrimmage. "It's going to be on us to execute every single play (as an offense)."
No team has ever won a Super Bowl with a quarterback who opened the season third on the depth chart. According to NFL Research, four teams (2016 Patriots, 2010 Steelers, 2005 Steelers, Washington in 1987) have had three different QBs start multiple games for them and still reach the Super Bowl, but of those, all four had their Day 1 starter back for the Super Bowl itself. Tom Brady was the last of three quarterbacks to start for the Patriots during their Super Bowl season in 2016, but that was because he served a four-game suspension to start the year. And in 1987, Doug Williams was the third quarterback to start for Washington, but that was due, in part, to the team using replacement players during the strike.
Purdy legitimately opened the season third on the depth chart. A four-year starter at Iowa State, he impressed enough during the preseason to keep a roster spot despite being the final selection of this year's draft. The odds would appear to be against him making history this season, but odds don't play games. Players do, and there was no shortage of confidence in him among teammates.
"I have the most respect and confidence in him because I see him every single day on the scout team. The way that he comes out and prepares and competes, the confidence he has, the swag he has -- I got all the confidence in Purdy," said Warner. "It's a lot to ask of a rookie, obviously, being thrust into the position that he's in, but at the same time, he doesn't have to do too much. He has so many weapons on that side of the ball to just get the ball to. His job is just to protect the football."
The 49ers, winners of five in a row and leading the NFC West at 8-4, believe they have the ingredients to make a run even without Garoppolo. Their defense leads the league in a handful of categories and has allowed a total of just seven points in the second half of its past five games. The unit ostensibly closed out the game Sunday, forcing turnovers on its final three series (downs, fumble, interception). In fact, it intercepted three passes overall, including two on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. It limited a Miami team that had scored at least 30 points in four consecutive games to just 10 points over the final 59 minutes and 50 seconds. The Dolphins got a 75-yard touchdown pass from Tua Tagovailoa to Trent Sherfield on the first play from scrimmage and did not reach the end zone again until the fourth quarter.
The 49ers' defense took advantage of the Dolphins being without their starting offensive tackles to harass Tagovailoa all afternoon. He entered the game leading the league in several efficiency categories but was just 18-of-33 for 295 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Tagovailoa missed the Dolphins' final possession with an ankle injury, one that's not expected to be serious, and backup Skylar Thompson threw an interception to effectively end the game.
Tagovailoa was sacked three times, all by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Nick Bosa, who finished with four quarterback hits and a forced fumble. Miami had 12 possessions, excluding the end of the first half, and 10 lasted four plays or fewer.
"We want to be the best defense in the world," said tackle Arik Armstead, who returned from a foot injury for the first time since early October. "We said that in the offseason, that's our goal. We have to keep going, keep executing at a high level, keep playing hard and everything's going to take care of itself."
The 49ers also have solid special teams, including kicker Robbie Gould, an 18th-year veteran who entered Sunday with a career success rate of 86.5 percent on field goals. He is known for coming through in the clutch, which means the only thing standing between the 49ers and a Super Bowl run could now be Purdy.
It's difficult drawing conclusions from one game or even a handful. But the Arizona native didn't wilt in the moment Sunday. Perhaps things happened so fast that he didn't have time to think about the circumstances. He simply went out and played, relying on his preparation and ability.
His routine since Week 1 has been to prepare as if he's going to play, if not start. During practice, he runs the scout team, which simulates the offense of that week's opponent, and refuses to concede anything to the No. 1 defense. He attacks it with confidence, sometimes to the surprise of the defenders. He also meets with the quarterbacks staff on the field after each practice to mentally go through the installation for that week.
If you didn't know better, Purdy looked a lot like Garoppolo on his first series, leading the 49ers on a nine-play, 54-yard touchdown march to give San Francisco a 10-7 lead. He converted on a third-and-3 with a short pass to McCaffrey, then found Juszczyk in the right flat for the score.
Coach Kyle Shanahan showed his trust and confidence in the rookie by having him attempt 37 passes. He completed 25 for 210 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception that was a giveaway considering the 49ers were too close to punt and too far to attempt a field goal. So they took a chance on fourth down, which resulted in the turnover.
"He has a savviness to him," said Juszczyk. "He has an understanding, he has a confidence to him. I thought he did a really good job today in the huddle, just commanding everyone's respect and getting the plays in and out, delivering some confident passes out there. So I think we can definitely still do some things with Brock."
"You know he's going to slam the ball, throw it and fit it wherever he can," said wideout Brandon Aiyuk. "He's super confident and that confidence bleeds into [the confidence] that we have in him. We're ready to go."
Purdy was forced to react Sunday. There was no notice he would play. But now he will have a week to get ready for Tampa Bay. There is no reason to believe he won't be up for the challenge, but there also is no reason to expect that he will. He'll be facing a Todd Bowles-coached defense that is loaded with talent, though the unit's play has been inconsistent in 2022.
Then again, it doesn't matter if he's ready. The job is his, the moment is his.
"I know that coaching staff and that team is very confident in him," said Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, who spent the previous five seasons on the San Francisco staff. "It's always a tough task, but when you're able to lean on some good playmakers and get the ball in their hands, and when you're able to kind of control the clock with a lot of first downs and the run game, I'm sure he'll have some plays they'd want to have back, but that team will be fine moving forward with him.
"I'm sick for Jimmy and having to go through that, but at the same time, that's football and teams get tested with their depth all the time. No one really cares at the end of the season. It's results-based. So they'll be all right."