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49ers losses are reminder that they could have had Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski

What could have been? An even tougher NFC West

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The LA Rams had a disappointing loss to the San Francisco 49ers three weeks ago but despite the fact that these two teams are not separated by much in the standings, hope has been even harder to come by for the Niners this week. San Francisco not only fell hard in a loss to the Seattle Seahawks, they will be without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for weeks and tight end George Kittle for months.

Garoppolo has a high ankle sprain, Kittle has a broken foot.

The 49ers upcoming schedule is against the Green Bay Packers and road games against the New Orleans Saints and Rams before returning home to face the Buffalo Bills. It seems that Nick Mullens will be starting at quarterback for at least the majority of those games and Kittle is in danger of missing the rest of the season.

It brings up a topic that a number of teams have to be mulling at the midway point of the season: how badly did we screw up by not signing Tom Brady?

As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers improve to 6-2 with a win over the New York Giants on Monday Night Football, Brady draws more attention to the fact that with a quality supporting cast (something he did not have last season with the New England Patriots) he can put his teams in position to score and win: 28 of 40 for 279 yards, two touchdowns and no Jameis Winstons.

In the first half of the season: 20 touchdowns and only four Jameis Winstons.

Brady hasn’t had 40 touchdowns since 2007 and that’s the only time. Now at age 43 he’s proving that he may have been held back by Bill Belichick. Skepticism about Brady’s age and declining performance have been met with what it’s like to go from the NFL’s worst decision-maker to its best. The Bucs ranked 32nd in turnovers in 2019 and went 7-9. They rank seventh in turnovers this season but have only had three in the last six games.

There were a number of teams connected to Brady for media-driven reasons but then a few that had actual merit. I expected him to return to the Patriots, who are now 2-5, 29th in scoring and 30th in turnovers. My second most likely choice was Tampa Bay. Then the 49ers would have made a lot of sense, if only they could have been willing to cut ties with a quarterback who had cost a lot and then done enough for San Francisco to reach the Super Bowl with an efficient passing offense and an elite rushing attack and defense.

Unfortunately for the Niners, injuries to Nick Bosa and Richard Sherman headline a number of reasons why it is difficult for teams to maintain dominance on defense season-to-season. And even if Raheem Mostert were a first team all-pro running back, which he won’t be because of injuries, it wouldn’t matter if the 49ers couldn’t avoid mistakes at quarterback and failing to create explosive passing plays.

Which is what has happened.

San Francisco general manager John Lynch traded valuable assets for Garoppolo despite a lack of experience and a pending contract situation as he was headed into his fourth NFL season in 2017. This came after they decided to draft Solomon Thomas instead of Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson in the 2017 NFL Draft. The Niners then made Garoppolo one of the highest paid players in history based on five starts and then had to pause everything for a full season when Garoppolo was injured in 2018.

So I can understand why Lynch hesitated to replace Garoppolo after he “not bad’d” his way to a Super Bowl. But given just how unimportant Garoppolo was in the playoffs (27 pass attempts and 208 yards total in their two postseason wins, two interceptions and 4.81 adjusted yards per attempt in the Super Bowl), it’s questionable that a GM would say that his team looked at it for a day or two and then say, “I would tell you we’re more convinced than ever about who our quarterback is in Jimmy Garoppolo.”

Lynch even acknowledged rumors that Brady wanted to “come home” and to play near his home town of San Mateo. The 49ers would have had the cap space to do it if they had released or traded Garoppolo, the latter of which seems like a viable option.

Perhaps Garoppolo could have “not bad’d” the 49ers back to the postseason again if not for his and a number of other injuries, but San Francisco lacks a quarterback who can carry a roster like the Niners, which had clearly been good enough in their four wins. A quarterback like Brady.

And of course, if Brady was coming to a team, we found out that Rob Gronkowski was potentially joining him. Gronkowski had four catches on four targets for 41 yards and a touchdown on Monday. He now has a touchdown in three straight games and he seems to be as reliable in crucial moments as he was for the Patriots.

And agree or disagree with Tampa Bay’s decision to follow through or the merits of the move, but we also found out that Antonio Brown was coming with Brady too. Brown has been staying with Brady since he signed in Tampa and is expected to play next week against the Saints.

There are a lot of moving parts here to consider, none bigger than how Kyle Shanahan and Brady would fit together. In April, Shanahan repeated what Lynch said, confirming that they want to go on record that they believed the 49ers would be better with Garoppolo this season than with Brady.

Brady and whatever players come with him.

San Francisco isn’t the only team that talked themselves out of Brady this offseason — the Rams get to at least have the excuse that they talked themselves out of Brady with their wallets months earlier — but they seem to have had the best argument. A Super Bowl team, a respected offensive mind, a top-ranked defense, a hometown, a place to hang out with Joe Montana and Steve Young. Did he choose the Bucs or did the 49ers choose for him?

The standings are barely halfway to decided, but it’s too late for San Francisco to defend their decision to stick with Garoppolo. And that will benefit the three teams ahead of them in the NFC West.