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Jimmy Garoppolo injury robs 49ers of leader, perhaps season

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- All the high hopes for a rapid resurrection in San Francisco vanished the moment 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo crumpled to the turf in the fourth quarter of his team's 38-27 loss to Kansas City. It's difficult to know if the 49ers would've pulled off an amazing comeback. It's even harder to determine how much this team would've grown over the next few months. About the only thing that was certain on Sunday afternoon -- just seconds after 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan announced the team feared Garoppolo sustained a season-ending knee injury -- was that this franchise just took a huge step in the wrong direction.

Indeed, Monday's MRI confirmed Garoppolo suffered a torn left ACL that will sideline him for the rest of the season. While the injury hadn't officially been diagnosed on Sunday, the disappointment in Shanahan's eyes after the game was impossible to ignore. This was the worst possible news this franchise could've received this weekend.

Garoppolo is the man who's supposed to make the 49ers respectable again, as he energized them down the stretch last season before signing a five-year, $137.5 million deal in February. Now the lasting memory of this season could very well be of him sitting on the back of a cart leaving the field, with his helmet still on and his head bowed dejectedly.

"It sucks," 49ers tight end George Kittle said. "Jimmy's a great quarterback and the leader of our team. But it's football and it's just the nature of the game."

The 49ers did their best on Sunday to put some kind of positive spin on this tragic news. They pointed out that Garoppolo's backup, C.J. Beathard, at least has a little bit of experience to rely on himself. The difference is that Beathard started six games as a rookie last season, five of which ended in defeat. The minute Garoppolo moved into the starting job -- after arriving in a trade with New England last October -- he led the 49ers to victories in each of their final five games.

That was the magic of Garoppolo. He inspired this team from the moment he became its leader and provided the confidence that comes with knowing the most critical position on a football team is stabilized. Even a slow start to this year -- Garoppolo had completed 55.9 percent of his passes in his first two games with three touchdowns and three interceptions -- didn't kill the notion that he was destined to be something special. Those struggles were merely the typical growing pains that every young signal-caller endures in this league.

The hardest part for the 49ers is that their growth has been unquestionably linked to the maturation of Garoppolo. With him done for the year, their chances of producing their first winning season since 2013 look feeble at best.

"We're really trying to take that next step," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said. "We're trying so hard. We gotta come out and execute like we did in the second half. We can't have those mental lapses. If we want to take the next step, we have to take the opportunity to score points on every single series."

The crazy part of Garoppolo's injury was that few people even realized he'd hurt his knee until he'd made his way back to the bench for evaluation. Shanahan thought his quarterback had sustained a concussion. Others assumed it was a shoulder problem, since Garoppolo had barreled into Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson before falling to the turf. The players inside the San Francisco locker room all agreed that it was yet another example of how far Garoppolo would go to help them win.

Most quarterbacks would've slid or dashed out of bounds in that moment. Garoppolo decided it was a better move to take everything he could get. The 49ers had gone into halftime trailing the Chiefs by a score of 35-10. Garoppolo then rallied his team to two scores in the third quarter -- cutting the deficit to 35-24 -- and he sensed the chance to put another touchdown on the board with just under six minutes left in the game and San Francisco facing a third-and-20 from the Chiefs' 20-yard line.

Garoppolo dropped back to pass on the play, then ran up the left sideline. He made a sharp cut as he neared the boundary, then his left knee buckled. The 49ers inserted Beathard after that -- and settled for a 35-yard field goal by Robbie Gould -- but San Francisco never came any closer, falling to 1-2.

Garoppolo finished the day with 20 completions on 30 attempts for 251 yards and two touchdowns. Beathard -- who completed 54.9 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and six interceptions last year -- will have to find a way to be similarly efficient moving forward.

"I have a lot of confidence in C.J.," Shanahan said. "He got a lot of playing time last year and led us to our first win. He came in today and made a hell of a throw on fourth down (a seven-yard touchdown pass to Kittle that was called back because of offensive pass interference). C.J. is a gamer. Everyone in here has a ton of respect for C.J. and how he handles himself."

If the news of Garoppolo's injury wasn't bad enough, the 49ers also have to move Beathard back into the starting lineup with even more daunting challenges coming on the schedule. They'll travel to the Los Angeles Chargers next week, Green Bay two weeks after that, and then host the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 21. That would've been a rough road with Garoppolo healthy. Without him, it's conceivable the 49ers could have three more losses on their record before midseason.

Of course, that wasn't the focus for San Francisco on Sunday. The 49ers simply were sifting through the trauma for positives they could rely on in the coming days. They'd already known what it was like to lose a key offensive player this season, as running back Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL in practice just before the season kicked off. What they couldn't imagine was what life would be like without Jimmy G under center for the foreseeable future.

"You do what you always do," Shanahan said. "You show up for work tomorrow. You study the heck out of this film on the plane. We are hard on ourselves. We will show up tomorrow and we will be men about it. When we show up Wednesday, it will be time to go."

That is about all the 49ers can do at this stage. They realize this league often comes down to the next man up, the ability to adapt when adversity finally arrives. But the thing about the 49ers is that Garoppolo was supposed to be the guy who made it possible for a young team to dream big. Instead, San Francisco now will be reminded of how difficult life was before he ever came to town.

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