This is where the painfully weak coaching phrase “next man up” rings just as hollow and insulting as it is.
Jimmy Garoppolo rendered his left knee useless for the rest of the calendar year Sunday in Kansas City, trying to gain an extra yard that his army of fans will curse for months to come. And while the 49ers lost the game 38-27 and might have lost cornerback Richard Sherman as well (an understandably undernoted development given the circumstances), the team, organization and customers now will watch the last 13 games with lifeless eyes as they wait for another year for the Garoppolo they've dreamed of seeing.
And it’s why C.J. Beathard just inherited a most difficult job, namely trying to make a devastated audience believe the movie still is worth watching. It won't work, through no fault of his own, because "next man up" usually is a lie.
Yes, quarterbacks get hurt every week. It’s part of the charm of the institutional carnage that is the National Football League. Most seasons drift off into the woods when that happens, so the mood is justifiable.
But Garoppolo had been granted the power to make people believe that he -- and he alone -- would usher the 49ers to a new world full of unicorns, winning lottery tickets, taverns that never give you a bill, and Joe Montana and Steve Young frolicking together in a leafy glade. Or something like that. That’s how eager people were to believe.
Thus, this injury carries a greater magnitude than most. The closest comparison might be Aaron Rodgers because (a) he has a larger profile and more impressive résumé , (b) he plays in a town where football is more important than the 49ers ever have been in the Bay Area, and (c) he has been a national cultural figure for years, as anyone who enjoys late night television and insurance commercials will tell you.
Garoppolo, though, still had that new-car smell and new-car feel -- no dents, no spills on the interior carpet, not even an oil change. Plus, he made Vegas sit up and take notice at the one place that matters most, which no quarterback with a 10-game résumé has done in decades. He moved betting lines and win totals.
And we’re not even getting into the good looks/dating stuff, which matters to a segment of the audience.
Mostly, though, acquiring Garoppolo was the smartest and most dynamic thing the John Lynch-Kyle Shanahan brain trust had done since coming to San Francisco, and now because his left knee chose to be catastrophically disobedient, the 49ers are collectively bent over and gasping, desperately trying to figure out how to reinflate its lungs. “Next man up” -- now there’s a joke that never starts being funny.
Of course, there is one thing that might cheer them up, and that’s knowing that Raiders fans are no better off, because their team has second halves as mangled as Garoppolo’s knee. So it’s a Schadenfreude Sunday all around, and the NFL draft is eight months away.
This season started in such promising ways for both teams, and now ... this. Well, maybe they can come together as brothers and sisters, commiserating together over their mutually destroyed seasons with empathy and kindness.
Yeah, because that will happen right after people start taking "next man up" as a compliment rather than the lament it is.