SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Shortly before the San Francisco 49ers met the Los Angeles Rams in a must-have Week 18 game, fullback Kyle Juszczyk approached quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo with a message he could no longer keep to himself.
"I didn't know when the right time was to say something to him," Juszczyk said. "But I did want to say something because at the end of the day, he's been my quarterback for five years and I just wanted to let him know that I appreciated him. All the ups and downs that we have had, he's been such a pro and such a friend and a great teammate throughout the whole thing."
For the better part of the two weeks before that game, Juszczyk had become increasingly aware of the real possibility that any game the Niners played, especially the season finale, could be their last one together in San Francisco.
"Me and Juice had a cool moment there," Garoppolo said. "It's these guys on the team, I love this team, love the players, love everything about it. It's a good group to be around, fun group. And we want to keep this thing going for as long as we can."
That moment between Juszczyk and Garoppolo might seem small, but it's instructive of how the Niners have arrived at Sunday's third meeting with the Rams, this time in the NFC Championship Game (6:30 p.m. ET, Fox). It's another chance for the Niners to seek their Super Bowl redemption, after losing two seasons ago to the Kansas City Chiefs, and for Garoppolo to shape his NFL future.
Soon after the Niners traded up to the No. 3 pick in March to draft Trey Lance as their franchise quarterback and Garoppolo's replacement, neither side shied away from the reality of the situation.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch let Garoppolo know what was happening, and Garoppolo, after taking some time to contemplate his situation, didn't request a trade, let alone complain about what was going on.
Instead, Garoppolo took it all in and addressed it with teammates, coaches and the media. Has that attitude and the acknowledgement this could be his last ride with the team helped this season?
"A ton," Shanahan said. "That is the reality we're at. It's been that way for a while, since we made that trade, and the more that we all can accept it and know it and not beat around the bush, the easier it is to go on with your jobs. And that's what we've all done and we've all enjoyed each other as people, we all respect the hell of each other in our profession. And I think it's just allowed everyone to move on and be themselves. And I think throughout the year, that's allowed him to get better, it's allowed our team to get better, it's allowed me to get better and focus on what we should focus on and just trying to be as good at our jobs as we can."
'Never a point where I thought of switching to Trey'
Although the 49ers never openly acknowledged their quarterback plan was to emulate what the Kansas City Chiefs did with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes in 2017 -- with Garoppolo in the Smith role and Lance playing the part of Mahomes -- that's essentially how it played out.
There was a brief period in which Shanahan wanted to work Lance into games in certain packages, but the plan was scrapped before the halfway point of the season. Lance started two games because of Garoppolo injuries.
Even after deflating defeats such as the 14-point loss to the banged-up Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 7, Shanahan didn't consider benching Garoppolo for Lance.
"There was never a point where I thought of switching to Trey," Shanahan said. "I didn't think Jimmy was the issue. I thought Jimmy, there was games that he could have played better in, but I didn't think he was playing the way that everyone was saying. And just watching the tape with our team, I didn't think our team was there, and I didn't think it was the best thing for Trey.
"But when we did have a 3-5 record, I knew we were not one game away, but it was getting close to where the best thing for the team was focusing on some other things and maybe getting some guys some chances to play, but I never felt that at 3-5."
Shanahan's instinct was correct. After the loss to Arizona, the Niners walloped the Rams 31-10 on Monday Night Football as Garoppolo got rolling and other pieces began to fall into place.
In the games that followed, the Niners found their rushing attack, the defense dominated and Garoppolo discovered his groove. Garoppolo ranked seventh in QBR (56.4), 11th in passing yards (2,056), second in yards per attempt (9.02) and second in completion percentage (71.1%) as the Niners went 6-2 in his final eight starts and 7-2 overall to surge back into the postseason.
But even as the Niners knocked off the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers in the playoffs, Garoppolo remained the team's biggest enigma. His career postseason numbers -- 62% completion rate, one touchdown and three interceptions for a QBR of 43 in five contests -- continue to underwhelm. Garoppolo's 127.8 passing yards per game are the second fewest of any quarterback with at least four playoff wins since 1950, more than only Craig Morton's 124.6.
And yet, there was Garoppolo doing just enough to get the Niners in position for the winning field goal in Green Bay with a torn ligament in his right thumb and a sprained right shoulder.
"You can't say enough about that guy," tight end George Kittle said. "The s--- that he takes, consistently people just try to pull him down, and all he does is try to deliver. He leads this team. He's the sense of calm in the huddle. He's the sense of calm in the storm, and he allows us to play football at a high level."
'Respect for the way he's handled it'
Since his retirement in the offseason, Smith and his family moved back to the Bay Area nearly a decade after departing for Kansas City. It's allowed him to reconnect with the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2005 and with a city he says helped him grow as a man.
Returning to the Bay Area has also immersed Smith back in 49ers football frenzy. Driving around and listening to sports talk radio, Smith repeatedly heard the calls for Lance to take Garoppolo's job.
Like Garoppolo, Smith was twice in the lame duck seat, once for Colin Kaepernick with the Niners and again for Mahomes in Kansas City. Smith found the chatter "ridiculous" but recognized that it wasn't getting to Garoppolo or the Niners.
"Obviously, I have been in similar situations in my career and just watching from afar, I have a ton of respect for the way he's handled it, the way he's confronted it, the way him and the organization have handled this," Smith said. "It's hard, I think everybody is trying to rip them apart, and they've been able to defy that."
Smith believes Garoppolo's attitude has only fortified his place as a team leader, allowing Garoppolo to be the player everyone rallies around when things aren't going San Francisco's way.
"I love the fact that he has openly confronted this," Smith said. "Because it's there. And I think a lot of us would love to pretend that it's not there. It's hard to deal with, but that's the reality of it. ... To confront this head on is the only way to deal with it and move past it and to focus on the details. For him to dial in and for the entire team to see that in the face of all of that and he's able to lock in and focus for his teammates, I think that's amazing. I think they've certainly responded to him."
Even after two playoff wins, the question of what happens next at quarterback looms.
Despite the Niners' record of 33-15 with Garoppolo starting, all signs point to them attempting to trade him and handing the reins over to Lance in the offseason. But what if Garoppolo is under center for a second Super Bowl? What if he wins it?
There are Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have never been to any Super Bowls, let alone two. While that has obviously a "problem" the Niners would be happy to take on, it's possible Garoppolo could do enough in the final weeks to alter how his future is viewed inside the organization.
And even if that doesn't change, Garoppolo playing well against the Rams and in a potential Super Bowl would undoubtedly boost his potential trade value as well as his earning power on the likely contract extension that would come on a new team.
"It's mutually beneficial for us for Jimmy to play well for us and for him personally," Juszczyk said. "Jimmy is our quarterback right now, and we're trying to win a Super Bowl with Jimmy. We don't know what the future holds in front of us, but him playing well will benefit and bode well for us and himself personally."
Multiple teams -- New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Washington, Denver, among others -- would be considered playoff contenders with even a middle-of-the-pack starting quarterback on their roster. With this year's NFL draft light on elite quarterback prospects and the future for the likes of Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers unclear, Garoppolo could be a more valuable commodity than some might think.
Mike Tannenbaum, ESPN's NFL front-office insider, believes Garoppolo could fetch a second- or third-round pick sometime before the draft, noting about a dozen organizations could use a quarterback.
"He's a starting NFL quarterback," Tannenbaum said. "There are a lot of teams that will look at him and say he upgrades us at the most consequential position. I think they'll let it play out and there will be some team that's sitting there like, 'Wow, Jimmy Garoppolo is a major upgrade for us.'"
A lack of supply to meet the demand could increase that return, especially if Garoppolo delivers on the NFL's biggest stage.
Of course, there will be time for all of that to play out. Garoppolo and the Niners are still playing, and every round they advance offers him another opportunity to cement his legacy in San Francisco and change the way he's perceived.
It's something that is never far from Garoppolo's thoughts, not as a distraction or even inspiration. It's just reality, and Garoppolo is at peace with that for as long as he gets to keep playing quarterback for the 49ers.
"It's always in the back of your mind," Garoppolo said. "It has been in mine, you know, really this whole season. I knew what type of season it was, knew everything that was going on behind the scenes. It was a little different. But at the same time, it's like you're saying you've got to toe that line because you don't want to get too emotional in those moments. And you've just got to go play football when it comes down to it."