If he performs within an area code of the hype, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo soon could be the (extremely handsome) face of the NFL.
“If he lives up to expectations, he could become the top endorser in football. He has no ceiling at this point,” said sports marketing expert Bob Dorfman.
It’s easy to see the appeal, unless, perhaps, you’re an NFL defensive back. Garoppolo, 26, heads into his first full season as the 49ers starter with an undefeated record and the second-hand glint of the Tom Brady influence.
After coming from the New England Patriots in a trade last season, Garoppolo went 5-0 as a starter and threw for 1,542 yards, the most ever by a quarterback in his first five starts for the 49ers.
If you think that face is everywhere now just wait until the Arlington Heights native plays, like, a full season or something.
As it stands, his brief success and toothpaste-ad smile were enough to vault him into star status.
Just how wild is Garoppolo’s kingdom? The San Francisco Zoo named a snow leopard “Jimmy G.”
“Garoppolo has the Bay Area in the palm of his hand right now,” Dorfman said. “He’s extremely good-looking. He’s the most eligible bachelor in the country notwithstanding dating porn stars and he could pretty much do anything that he wants to in terms of endorsements.”
The 49ers certainly paid the former Eastern Illinois quarterback a superstar contract, forking over $137.5 million to a player with 12 career touchdown passes and five career interceptions.
Now, they just need him to justify it. And if he does, Jimmy G will become an A-lister. While the Seattle Seahawks defense was known as the “Legion of Boom,” the 49ers offense could soon be the “Legion of Swoon.” His jawline might make it tough to tell if the vendors are hawking game programs or romance novels.
The definitive statistical database Pro-Football-Reference.com lists the quarterback’s nicknames as “Jimmy GQ,” “Prince Aladdin” and “Great Garoppolo.” (Definitely not “Ickey.”)
And yet Jimmy GQ is also somehow still Jimmy Gee-willikers. It’s that first nickname that landed him a date with a porn star, while the second allowed the Midwest kid to defuse the ensuing controversy with an aw-shucks grin and a one-liner. Garoppolo called it “a learning experience,” and, voila, it was back to football questions.
“Who could say THAT’S a learning experience?” said Andy Dolich, a sports marketing consultant who has worked with the 49ers, Warriors and A’s. “It was like, ‘OK, fine,’ and then it just sort of bounced off him like it was a gnat.”
Wouldn’t a family-friendly corporation looking for a celebrity face have concerns about someone TMZ caught out with Kiara Mia?
“I don’t think this time it will hurt him. I really don’t,” said Robin Carr, a former San Francisco Giants publicist who went on to work for noted athlete endorsers including Nike, EA Sports and Kodak. “I think the way he handled it ‘Oh, I didn’t know my life has changed’ kind of made it a humorous situation. I think that to his credit, and to his coaching staff’s credit, they definitely took a light-hearted approach.”
Still, there are two big reasons why the all-out Jimmy G marketing blitz is at least a year away.
No. 1: Jimmy Garoppolo hasn’t done squat yet on the field compared to the likes of Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Peyton Manning or any of the other NFL marketing icons.
No. 2: Jimmy Garoppolo understands No. 1 as well as anyone.
The quarterback, in conjunction with his agents and with the 49ers organization, has actively worked to keep Garoppolo from getting too famous too fast, sources said.
Yes, he’s one of just five quarterbacks since the 1970 merger to win his first seven NFL starts. (Garoppolo won two with the Patriots.) But the previous four quarterbacks to do it show that the train can slip off the tracks. Ben Roethlisberger and Daunte Culpepper became stars; Mike Tomczak and Dieter Brock became largely forgotten.
And Garoppolo’s team record for the most passing yards over his first five starts with the 49ers? The next names in the list, in order, are Jeff Kemp, Elvis Grbac, Steve Bono and Brian Hoyer.
So you can understand why Garoppolo will take it slow with his marketing machine until he can prove he’s not a flash in the pan. “With his contract from the 49ers, it’s not like he has to say, ‘I’d better do a nacho chip commercial or the family is in trouble,’ ” Dolich joked.
Instead, Garoppolo reported to training camp this summer by focusing on the blandest things possible: learning Coach Kyle Shanahan’s playbook, building camaraderie with his receivers and taking every day step by step.
“I don’t think he needs to seek attention. I think he gets plenty of it,” Shanahan said. “So he’s kind of the same guy he’s always been.
“I think that’s why guys like him. Guys liked him right when he got here, they liked him as he played well, and everyone knows the contract he signed this offseason. He’s not going to come in and act differently. He’s been the same guy each day, and I think that’s why the people here really appreciate him.”
When national magazines came calling for interviews, Jimmy GQ minded his p’s and q’s. He declined to speak to Sports Illustrated, even for a flattering and detailed story about his blue-collar career path. (Garoppolo’s lone interview with a major national outlet was with Bleacher Report, which dubbed him “Superman in Disguise.”)
The 49ers, meanwhile, include Garoppolo in their promotional materials, but not at the expense of other key players. Jimmy G is on banners around Levi’s Stadium, but so are Marquise G, Jerick M and DeForest B.
About the only nod to Garoppolo’s megawatt power is a bobblehead giveaway in the Sept. 16 home opener. (Note to readers: It is not life-sized).
Garoppolo did sign some major endorsement deals, such as with Bose noise-canceling headphones. But Dorfman, the Bay Area-based marketing expert who tracks these kind of things, said while top-end football endorsers tend to make $12 million to $13 million a year in endorsement deals, Garoppolo will be around $1 million for 2018.
He could make more, Dorfman said, but it’s clear the quarterback wants to build his football resume first.
“I get the feeling that that’s what his camp has been instructing him to do. I think that’s what he wants to do,” said Dorfman, an executive at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. “You’re not seeing him all over the place now in terms of marketing. He certainly could have gone that way. He could almost be the face of the league at this point, if he really wanted to.
“But I think he’s focusing on performing on the field. He may be taking a page out of Brady’s book, which is more about being one of the guys and less about being a superstar in media.”
Until then, Garoppolo works. Because, crazy as it sounds, he was trapped in a brutal situation last season. As a midseason acquisition, he had time to memorize the plays but not to learn them. Garoppolo hadn’t drilled them in practice, on those quiet afternoons in April and August. He hadn’t had time to master every route of every play.
“Last year was so difficult because you’re preparing for a defense that you’re learning in a week, but at the same time, you’re learning brand new calls, new verbiage, all that stuff,” Garoppolo said.
“Being able to start this year from the ground up means I can learn the ‘whys’ of the offense. How does it all tie together? How does one play help dictate the next play? It will just make more sense.”
Then again, Garoppolo’s challenging learning curve is not how tight end Garrett Celek remembers things.
“As soon as Jimmy came in, he just took control right away,” Celek said. “He didn’t ease into it at all. It was pretty awesome. He owned the role. We always say, in our offense, ‘You have to overcome coaching.’ And he’s really good at helping receivers overcome coaching.”
That phrase “overcome coaching” was one of the buzzy phrases of camp. It’s a misleading motto that, in truth, means to be coached so well that players understand how to adjust on the fly if a play breaks down or if an unexpected defensive alignment opens up a new opportunity.
On that front, it’s hard to imagine how much Garoppolo could improve when it comes to improvisation. He had the highest completion rate in the NFL when under pressure last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The 49ers passer hit on 62.3 percent of such throws to rank ahead of the Minnesota Vikings’ Case Keenum (55.7 percent), Brady (55.5 percent) and the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees (54.4).
“Jimmy has learned a lot from Brady,” Celek said. “He knows, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do exactly what they tell us to do. Get open. Get the ball. Let’s make plays.’ ”
The Brady comparison is a frequent one, and not by accident. Even before he spent three-plus seasons backing up the three-time league MVP, Garoppolo emulated Brady’s throwing style. His personal quarterbacks coach in high school, Jeff Christensen, would show him videos of Brady’s rapid-fire release and perfect footwork and say, essentially, “Do it like this.”
The Brady influence is so profound that a video clip surfaced in April of Garoppolo echoing his mentor’s pet phrases on the field. The 18-second clip juxtaposed Brady’s in-game patter with Garoppolo saying the same things to his 49ers teammates: “Have a day! ... Let’s make them pay ... Need a good drive. ... What are we doing, man? ... Let’s go!”
The clip racked up more than 237,000 views, including a click from Garoppolo himself.
“I did see that. It kind of creeped me out,” Garoppolo said sheepishly. “I don’t know. We were always kind of similar. Obviously, I picked up some stuff from him.”
But this training camp, Garoppolo went out of his way to mimic a wildly different brand of Hall of Famer. He said he occasionally experimented with different arm angles, mimicking Brett Favre, one of the greatest improvisers of all-time.
“Oh, yeah, I kind of work on it. It’s kind of fun to work on those weird throws,” Garoppolo said. “I’ve always heard Brett Favre did it when he played, and he had some of the craziest angles that you’ll ever see. When you get into a game, you never know how you have to throw it.”
Whatever the method, it worked. From Weeks 13-17 last season, when Garoppolo was the 49ers’ full-time starter, only two NFL quarterbacks racked up more passing yardage than his 1,542. Philip Rivers of the Los Angeles Chargers threw for 1,567, and Jameis Winston of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers threw for 1,584.
Now, along with learning nuances of the playbook, Garoppolo is learning more about his new weapons. He’ll get his first chance to work with Pierre Garcon, the 49ers’ lone accomplished receiver, because the veteran was out for the season with a neck injury by the time Garoppolo took over for C.J. Beathard.
To get a head start, Garoppolo led informal workout sessions with his receivers at San Jose State in the spring.
“It kind of gets us away from the coaches and everything,” Garoppolo said. “And it allows me to talk to the receivers about specific things, or the tight ends or running backs. ... It was just to be on the same page with those guys, talking through route concepts and how they see it versus how I see it. It just gets us on the same page.”
Garoppolo’s days of being isolated from coaches or from anybody are over for the foreseeable future. He will be under the microscope from Sept. 9, when the Garoppolo Era begins in earnest with his Week 1 game against the Minnesota Vikings.
And if he can somehow extend the season into January, getting the 49ers back into the playoffs, he can expect representatives from Gatorade, Nike, Esquire, Tiger Beat and Pepsodent camped out on his front lawn.
Dolich, who knew Dwight Clark well, noted that Garoppolo is on the precipice of stardom just as Clark’s passing makes fans nostalgic for the time when so many of the glory-days 49ers were larger than life. There’s a yearning for a new wave of stars.
Carr, the consultant and longtime sports PR ace, also sees the connection.
“Dwight Clark was stunningly handsome, too,” she said. "(Garoppolo) is good-looking. He’s very welcoming. He’s non-threatening. He’s one of those guys where women love him, kids love him, and guys will like him.
“But he’s going to really answer everything with how he plays on the field.
“So far, so good,” she added.