49ers are being cautious with Jimmy Garoppolo for good reason

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- At various points throughout Sunday's loss to the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo grabbed a football and began playing catch on the sideline. When he wasn't doing that, he was reviewing recent offensive plays on a tablet or grabbing a rubber band to stretch.

No matter the movement, it left everyone in attendance wondering if that was going to be the thing that led to Garoppolo making his 49ers debut. In the midst of an 0-9 season, Garoppolo's first snaps with the team are just about all the fans have to look forward to over the final seven games.

Alas, Garoppolo was simply going through the steps he's always done on the sideline in case he was called upon to step in for rookie C.J. Beathard.

"It’s kind of a normal routine after three years with the Patriots," Garoppolo sad. "You never know what’s going to happen so you just have to always be ready. I never really think that [I'm going in] until it actually happens but I mean you have always got to stay ready."

That Garoppolo and everyone watching the 20-10 defeat were on high alert should be no surprise given what was happening to Beathard. Working behind an offensive line with a new left tackle (Trent Brown), right tackle (Erik Magnuson) and banged-up right guard (Brandon Fusco) and without his best receiver (Pierre Garcon), Beathard was under pressure for most of the day.

Taking a cue from previous Beathard opponents like Dallas and Philadelphia, Arizona blitzed Beathard relentlessly and when it wasn't dropping him for five sacks, it was hitting him 11 more times.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Beathard finished five-of-17 for 61 yards when the Cardinals brought five or more rushers. That 29 percent completion rate was tied for the second-worst by a 49ers quarterback attempting at least 10 passes in a game in the past 10 seasons.

Despite the brutal hits, Beathard cemented his reputation as one of the toughest quarterbacks around, popping back up and going back to work after each hit. Even after a late hit by Arizona safety Antoine Bethea that sparked a fight that resulted in three players being ejected, Beathard forged ahead.

"That’s what’s so impressive to me about him," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "I think those hits affect almost everybody. I haven’t seen them affect him.”

Beathard finished his third NFL start with a career-high 294 passing yards but was just 24-of-51 with an interception for a passer rating of 57.1. The Niners offense stumbled its way to just 10 points for the third straight week with Beathard in the starting lineup.

Amidst all those hits and offensive woes, Shanahan said he was never close to bringing Garoppolo in unless an injury forced his hand, saying Garoppolo replacing Beathard because of his struggles "wasn’t going to happen today."

The reason for that was simple: nobody playing quarterback for the Niners on Sunday was going to be in a position to succeed. While Beathard struggled -- Shanahan said last week that he wasn't put in a position to play well and would probably offer a similar analysis this week -- there's little chance Garoppolo could have done much better.

What's more, putting Garoppolo, whom the Niners hope can be their quarterback of the future, in to take a similar beating could result in a costly injury that would make evaluating Garoppolo and understanding his value moving forward an impossibility. Not to mention the fact that Garoppolo arrived on Tuesday and has limited understanding of Shanahan's offense, which would have only complicated matters further.

"You’ve got a bunch of guys out there and you’re trying to get through it," Shanahan said. "To just throw out a quarterback who has had three practices with extremely limited reps, who doesn’t know your offense, that’s kind of an unfair position to put him in.”

Of course, putting Beathard in as a rookie with this current supporting cast isn't all that fair, either. Such is life for a third-round pick who isn't being viewed through the lens of a potential franchise quarterback. So while Beathard takes a beating and keeps wowing his teammates with his toughness, it's on Garoppolo to keep learning the offense while the Niners work to get some of their key offensive pieces back to full strength.

During Sunday's game, Garoppolo listened to every play call that went to Beathard and tried to run through each one in his head and then read the defense as though he was under center. Some of those calls, Garoppolo already grasped. Others, he didn't. When he wasn't doing that, he was there to play catch with Beathard and offer support where he could.

All of that is a work in progress for Garoppolo, who grew accustomed to instant recognition of plays from his years in New England.

"Some of the calls I know and some I don’t right now so I was just trying to get as much as I can as fast as I can," Garoppolo said. "It’s a process so I’m just working every day to get better."

After the game, Shanahan's stance on when Garoppolo would get an opportunity didn't change. He reiterated that it will be a week-to-week proposition and the Niners won't put Garoppolo in until they believe he is being put in a position to play well.

At the top of the list of things that must be in place: better health.

“Hopefully we can get healthier," Shanahan said. "I know we have a bye week the next week, so hopefully that will add some too. But, we’ve got two quarterbacks on our roster. I’d love to give both of them the chance to play this year. I’d love to get Jimmy in eventually, but it’s a lot that’s going to factor into that. Hopefully, we can get healthy and hopefully we give Jimmy a chance to pick this stuff up as he goes.”

So long as whoever is playing quarterback finds himself under siege the way Beathard did on Sunday, it's safe to say Garoppolo's debut will have to wait.