SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jimmy G Fever covers the Bay area like fog on summer mornings.
San Francisco has embraced 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo the way it did Joe Montana, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, the Grateful Dead, Rice-A-Roni, and Tony Bennett.
He’s only started 24 games in a 49ers uniform, but he still had the fourth highest selling jersey in the NFL in November, behind Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes.
Garoppolo was Brady’s backup in New England for 3½ seasons, before being traded by the Patriots on Halloween in 2017 for a second-round draft pick. That deal now looks like more trick than treat for the Patriots, as Garoppolo is poised to lead the top-seeded 49ers into an NFC divisional-round matchup against the Vikings Saturday at 4:35 p.m.
Garoppolo already has two Super Bowl rings from his tenure with the Patriots, but he started (and won) only two games for them, and that was during Brady’s 2016 suspension for his role in “Deflategate.” Garoppolo was the only active player not to see action in the Patriots’ 34-28 Super Bowl LI overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons three years ago.
With San Francisco, he’s been a winner from the get-go. He went 5-0 in 2017 after taking the reins of a 1-10 team. In 2½ seasons, he is 19-5.
When he signed a five-year, $137.5 million contract in February 2018, he became, at the time, the highest-paid player in NFL history.
But last year, Garoppolo’s first full season with San Francisco, was heartbreaking. He played in only three games before being sidelined with a torn ACL.
This year, he has blossomed into a star, leading the Niners to eight straight victories, with four fourth-quarter game-winning drives.
Garoppolo finished the season 329 of 476 for 3,978 yards and a 69.1 percent completion rate. He threw 27 touchdown passes and had 13 interceptions, but just three in the final six games. He led all quarterbacks in completion percentage on throws that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, according to Playerprofiler.com.
“He’s been money,” said Mike Porteous, a longtime 49er fan who shouted to be heard over whirring blenders and blaring speakers in the raucous parking lot of Levi’s Stadium an hour before a Monday night game against Seattle.
But Jimmy G still has his critics. They say he’s not good at finding secondary receivers, that he holds the ball too long, and that he throws too many interceptions.
“Aw, c’mon, that’s brutal,” said Porteous. “I don’t think he’s overrated at all.”
49ers fans here say the Patriots made a big mistake by trading a franchise quarterback and getting very little in return. They don’t want to hear about impending free agency or other concerns.
“He’s better than Brady,” said Porteous. “Jimmy’s got a long career ahead of him. Brady is on the way out. Plus he’s more handsome than Brady.”
Away from the shadow of Brady, Garoppolo has turned the 49ers into Super Bowl contenders. He’s a winner, and his teammates love him.
“We will follow him into a dark alley, and I guarantee that you won’t touch him,” said veteran cornerback Richard Sherman in a press conference after a game this season. “You hear some of the noise and things said about him, and it’s frustrating, because we see him every day. We see what kind of work ethic he puts in, the hours he puts in preparing — the first one in, the last one out.
“The guy looks for no credit. All he does is encourage his teammates and put more work in.”
Garoppolo silenced those who said he wasn’t clutch when he tossed four TD passes to beat Drew Brees and the Saints in a gunslinging 48-46 December shootout. On a fourth-and-2 play with 39 seconds left, he hit workhorse tight end George Kittle for a hop-on-my-back run that set up the winning field goal and reminded Patriots fans of the clutch Brady-to-Gronk completions of the glory years.
The best tight end in football putting the team on his back. George Kittle setting the #49ers up for the game-winner.— Rob Lowder (@Rob_Lowder) December 8, 2019
But even earlier in the season, fans outside Levi’s Stadium who posed with the statue of Montana were predicting greatness. All agreed that they’ve seen the future of 49er football and his name is Jimmy Garoppolo.
“I think he’s fantastic” said Stacy Samuels, also known as the Banjo Man. “He looks like Montana in ’81. He’s better than Brady at this point.
“It’s too early to put him in there with those two all-time greats, Montana and Young. But he’s making the receivers look good.”
Lynda Vera, dancing to loud, pulsating music nearby, agreed.
“I’ve been going to 49er games for the past 15 years,” she said. “I went to Candlestick. Nobody can beat Montana, but he’s got the potential. I’ll take him. He’s cute, too.”
In the December rematch with Seattle, the 49ers won a 26-21 squeaker to clinch the NFC West title, stopping the Seahawks 3 inches from the goal line as time expired. Garoppolo completed his first nine passes in that game and threw for 285 yards.
On Saturday, many Jimmy G fans in New England will be rooting for him, knowing he has learned by watching the best. There will be another former Patriot on the 49ers sideline with a Brady connection: receivers coach Wes Welker, who caught more passes than anybody else in Patriots history.
So when does Garoppolo become Brady?
Welker flashes a smile, than pauses to ponder the question.
“He doesn’t have to be Brady,” says Welker. “He’s just got to be Jimmy.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.