SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jimmy Garoppolo’s favorite — and essentially only — receiver this training camp: Cam Bustas, the 6-foot-3 49ers’ 22-year-old health and performance manager.
“He really had a good catch radius, man. He was in high school,” Garopalo said admiringly. “I got his whole story. We spent a lot of time together.”
Haropala to Kitla, it did not happen.
Instead, the 49ers’ sideline camp was a strange sight on a daily basis — a field with artificial turf, a Navy SEAL obstacle course, a field goal and, during August, a former Super Bowl quarterback working between jobs.
On Sunday night, Garoppolo will go up against Herd All-Pro Dib Samuel, tight end George Kittle in his likely season debut and other NFL targets, all against the host Denver Broncos on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” global arena.
“It takes a few days and you’re back to normal,” Garoppolo said of his chemistry with those receivers, including rookies Ray-Ray McCloud and Danny Gray.
Garoppolo returned to his former starting role when Trae Lance broke his right ankle in the first quarter of Sunday’s 27-7 home win over the Seattle Seahawks.
What prepared Garoppolo for this? Well, a lot, starting with shoulder surgery on March 8 that left his career at a standstill. Arriving in camp two months ago with everyone expecting him to eventually join another team, Garoppolo was allowed to throw to the outfield.
His teammates didn’t ignore him, and when time allowed, some happily chatted with him, as kicker Robbie Gould often did.
“Everybody understood what the script was,” Gould said. “As far as that goes, there was really no need to talk about what was going on. More so that I would be me and destroy his opinions about whether it is rehab or throwing to the trainer.
“It was great to see how hard he worked,” Gould added. “It was cool for me to see him prepare to make every shot and stay in it.”
The 49ers’ receivers, of course, have been busy with team workouts, so Garoppolo has had one-on-one sessions with Bustas, who was promoted to administrative assistant this spring, to help with “special projects.”
“He made some good plays, man. I give him credit,” Garoppolo said this week inside the only 49ers locker he’s called home since Oct. 31, 2017.
At the time, media cameras were prohibited from recording Garopal’s month-long banishment to that sideline. Under the watchful eye of Ryan Donahue, the 49ers’ “director of rebuilding,” Garoppolo positioned Bust in specific spots on the field and fired passes at NFL-level speed.
“I was in rehab in Los Angeles, throwing up. “I’ve been going for quite a while to this,” Garoppolo said. “It was really more about, and I really couldn’t figure it out until I met the guys, but timing with the receivers.”
Ever since his contract was reworked to make the original 53-man roster — dropping his salary from $24 million to $6.5 million, plus incentives that could/should bump it up to $15 million — Garoppolo has been in catch-up mode at practice , with all due respect to his side field.
“You can throw point routes all day. This is different from a 4.4 receiver (speed) running down the field. Do you know what I’m saying?” – said Garopala. “That was the hard part with Cam. I would say, “Try to run this one.” However, the effort was good.”
Garoppolo’s own efforts didn’t go unnoticed, whether it was coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch watching from their office windows or teammates admiring through loyalty-inspired lenses.
“Jimmy has such an amazing head on his shoulders. A lot of people would have handled this situation differently,” Gould said. “From Jimmy’s point of view, that’s just who he is. He knows he’s going to get an opportunity someday, and it’s just a matter of time. He’s the best person to take advantage of those opportunities. all the way back to New England.
“Obviously, I don’t want anything to happen to one of your teammates like Trey or anyone else, but as far as Jimmy goes, you’re happy that he’s getting a chance to get what he deserves.” Gould said. “We’re glad he’s playing and we wish Trey a speedy recovery.”
McCloud said he “felt good” to Garoppolo after first meeting him in the locker room this summer. They connected on a 16-yard pass before Garoppolo’s touchdown pass to Ross Duelli on Sunday.
“It starts with Kyle, where we need to be,” McCloud said. “And Jimmy just puts it where it needs to be.”
Gray, a rookie deep-threat specialist, added: “Jimmy, he’s a vet. He’s a stellar quarterback, and a Super Bowl quarterback at that. I feel like it takes time to deal with my type of speed, but I feel like we’re going to pick it up quickly.”
Shanahan called it “a little bit of an overstatement” to highlight how much time Garoppolo will need to bond with the receivers, even though his first practice as QB1 didn’t come until Wednesday — eight months after the NFC title game
“When they’re open, he usually hits them,” Shanahan said. “… You basically coach guys on offense and then they become very similar, and Jimmy is used to all the other wide outs, and those guys are a great fit.”