It's still a bit surreal to think about the San Francisco 49ers five-game winning streak to close the 2017 season. In just five weeks with Jimmy Garoppolo under center, San Francisco pulled itself out of the cellar in the NFC and back into the national conversation. San Francisco missed the postseason and pundits still found ways to work Garoppolo and the 49ers into their takes of varying temperatures.
Garoppolo threw for 1,560 yards and seven touchdowns last season with the 49ers, but it was his 1-yard touchdown run against the Jacksonville Jaguars that may have left the biggest impression on his teammates.
"That play in particular is probably my favorite Jimmy story," said 49ers nose tackle Earl Mitchell.
Garoppolo opened San Francisco's 44-33 win in Week 16 against the Jaguars with a statement drive. The 10-play, 79-yard march through the teeth of Jacksonville's top-ranked defense culminated in Garoppolo's 1-yard touchdown run as he powered across the goal line on a QB sneak. Fans roared as the quarterback spiked the ball to the Levi's® Stadium grass. Jubilation on the 49ers sideline was mixed with a shade of confusion.
That's because the 49ers had never practiced that play. In fact, Shanahan's playbook was void of a QB sneak all together. So how on Earth did Garoppolo end up keeping it himself? He called his own number, of course, and here's why.
On the previous play, Kyle Juszczyk caught a 17-yard pass and took it all the way to Jacksonville's 1-yard line. Garoppolo's initial thought was that his fullback had scored.
"I was borderline celebrating, and then I saw that he was just short," Garoppolo recalled.
What felt like "just short" was a full yard in reality. Juszczyk hobbled back to the huddle after getting banged up on the reception. After a quick hesitation, he pivoted and ran back to the sideline to get looked at by the training staff. Mitchell – yes, the 49ers 310-pound nose tackle – came sprinting into the game to play fullback in front of Carlos Hyde.
This wasn't completely random. Mitchell practiced with the 49ers offense each Friday during goal line work. There were three-to-five plays each week that included Mitchell, but that package was never utilized up until this point.
"All of a sudden Earl was running in," Garoppolo said. "I looked up at the play clock, and it was already down to 16 or 17 seconds. The comms system goes out at 15 seconds. I remember seeing Kyle (Shanahan) on the sideline super animated getting people in, yelling at coaches or whatever it was. Then he looks at me, and once he started to call the play, I hear, 'I-right' and then this beep goes off and the sound goes out."
It's important to remember that at this juncture, Garoppolo was barely through the 101 course of Shanahan's offense full of minute complexities and nuances. Calling timeout was one option, but that was never in the cards.
"We were rolling, so in the back of my head, I was thinking, 'We're on the 1-yard line, we can get this in right now,'" Garoppolo said.
Instinct took over, and the quarterback went with his gut.
"I went, 'I-right, QB sneak on one,' or something like that," he said.
Blank stares washed over the other 10 players in the huddle. The fact that Garoppolo butchered the formation didn't help sell his teammates on his moment of ingenuity. Former 49ers tight end Logan Paulsen was the first to speak up. Paulsen, a player lauded for his football IQ, attempted to help set Garoppolo straight.
"I don't remember exactly what it was, but Logan goes, 'Whoa whoa whoa. Jim, we can't do that,'" Garoppolo laughed as he mimicked Paulsen's voice. "It's funny if you know Logan because he's such a detailed and smart dude. He was all concerned about the formation, and I thought, 'Why does it matter what formation we're in for a QB sneak?'"
The quarterback was far less playful in the moment. He remembers interrupting Paulsen firing back.
"I said something to the effect of, 'We're running the (expletive) play!'" Garoppolo yelled, now impersonating himself. "Everyone just kind of looked at me like, 'OK, we're running it!'"
Mind you, this all transpired within 10 seconds. San Francisco broke from the huddle, hurried to the ball and snapped it with five seconds left on the play clock. The execution ended up being the easiest part of the entire ordeal. Jacksonville's defensive line was fairly spread out with the nose left relatively uncovered. The quick count also helped catch the Jaguars before each player was completely set.
"I put my leg back, got in a sprinters stance and just stayed low," Garoppolo said. "Earl gave me a pretty good push I remember."
Garoppolo shared that he ran sneaks all the time in high school and at Eastern Illinois. The New England Patriots – Tom Brady specifically – are also fond of the play. That's why Garoppolo's spike drew obvious parallels to his former mentor. Brady has never been shy about using the same celebration with equivalent gusto.
But Garoppolo made it clear that his spike had been in the making long before he made it to the NFL.
"Since I was a little kid, I've always thought the spike was pretty sweet," he said. "I told myself that whenever I scored my first rushing touchdown in the NFL I was going to spike the hell out of the ball. So I had to."
Shanahan was there to greet Garoppolo on the sideline with a high five and one question: "What did you call?" The quarterback responded with "I-right QB sneak" in an "I totally made it up" sort of way.
Externally, the 49ers have been tabbed as a potential breakout team since January. Internally, John Lynch and Shanahan decided that Garoppolo was indeed the team's quarterback of the future and showed their commitment by signing him to a five-year contract extension. At the time, it was the largest deal in league history.
Excitement continued to build around the 49ers throughout the offseason. Media outlets around the country shared their own angle as to how San Francisco captured lightening in a bottle and reignited the slumbering army of 49ers Faithful. But it was Garoppolo's in-the-heat-of-battle decisiveness that sold some 49ers players on their quarterback.
"It's a great example of him being a leader and taking control," Mitchell said. "I think at that moment, you knew he was the right guy to lead this team into the future."
While some had already bought into the Jimmy G craze, many naysayers expected the Jaguars to swiftly and definitively terminate the bandwagon's late-season joy ride. Jacksonville strutted into Levi's® Stadium fresh off of a 45-7 pounding of the Houston Texans. Even the rosiest of 49ers fans never expected their team to hang 40 points on the Jags.
Joe Staley said he learned something about Garoppolo during that Christmas Eve contest. Staley, who was another initial skeptic of Garoppolo's play call, shared his admiration for how the quarterback took the reins in the situation.
"I'm much more analytical," Staley said. "I like to be in the right play. But sometimes in football, you've just got to say 'screw it' and make the play happen."
Garoppolo quite literally did just that. His thoughts on the play are best summarized as all's well that ends well.
"Thankfully we got in," Garoppolo joked. "If not this would be a completely different feeling telling this story."
It's a fun anecdote to reflect on. Now the task at hand is to recreate last season's magic. The secret is out, though, and Garoppolo won't be sneaking up on anybody in 2018. The pressure that comes with hope and expectation isn't likely to faze the quarterback. He'll have a prime opportunity to showcase his mettle in Week 1 on the road against the Minnesota Vikings, one of this year's Super Bowl favorites.