San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo (10) celebrates with center Daniel Kilgore after scoring a one yard TD against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first quarter at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, California on December 24, 2017. File photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo
It has been an intriguing season in the NFL, with the re-emergence of Todd Gurley, the continued brilliance of Tom Brady, four new division winners in the NFC and all manner of off-field diversions ranging from anthem protests to the status of Roger Goodell, the commissioner.
Yet, as we approach the season's final weekend, two of the biggest stories in the league involve none of that but, instead, a coach turned broadcaster and a quarterback on a losing team.
Coincidentally, the stories involve two men with the same initials.
Jon Gruden and Jimmy Garoppolo could emerge in 2018 as two of the league's biggest names.
That is, if Gruden finally emerges from the broadcast booth to take over a team that has a quarterback with whom he can win. Let's consider the Bucs or Raiders, places he has succeeded in the past, or the Colts or even the Texans, who have an owner willing to spend money.
And there is Garoppolo, whose four-game run in San Francisco has triggered memories of the 49ers' past glory. Consider if he can perform near that level over a full season for a team that has a Fort Knox full of salary-cap room to improve itself at other positions by next season.
For all of the NFL's well-known issues that have been front and center this year, what continues to make the league the country's No. 1 sport is the anticipation and excitement fueled by year-to-year and even week-to-week uncertainty.
Every team has a chance. Except, maybe, Cleveland.
All of those who thought the Eagles, Vikings, Rams and Saints or Panthers would be the NFC division winners this year, raise your hands.
Didn't think so.
And for bonus points, who thought the untested pairing of head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch would have the 49ers dreaming of the 2018 playoffs even before the end of the 2017 season, let alone the 2018 draft?
Yeah, again, didn't think so.
With that that sole change, the 49ers, who were 1-10 after 11 games with a victory only over the Giants while averaging 17 points a game, would go on to win four straight, averaging 27.5 points a game including 44 against the division-winning Jaguars, who had allowed the fewest points in the league.
Certainly, San Francisco is a team that needs help at multiple positions, but history has shown that stable, solid play at quarterback can cover for multiple problems at other positions.
In his four games for the 49ers, Garoppolo completed 69 percent of his passes, averaged 8.74 yards per attempt and compiled a passer rating of 98.9. He has not thrown enough passes to qualify for the league rankings, but if he had, those figures would rate second, first and seventh, respectively.
It is, of course, ridiculously early to make any comparisons or blanket statements about the future, but the Patriots' trade of Garoppolo late in their dynasty is reminiscent of what happened to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the early '80s.
Heading into the 1983 draft, Terry Bradshaw was about to turn 35 and had a sore arm. But Bradshaw and the Steelers believed he still had several years left, so the team passed on drafting Dan Marino, a hometown hero at the University of Pittsburgh. As it turned out, Bradshaw would start only one more game, and the Steelers would go more than two decades before winning another Super Bowl.
There is no comparable indication that Tom Brady's career is near an end, but Brady is, after all, 40 years old, and now, with Garoppolo gone, head coach Bill Belichick hopes Brady can continue to play until the coach finds and develops another potential successor.
Gruden's situation is potentially even more intriguing. He has not coached in the NFL since 2008, with Tampa Bay, and seems well settled in his TV role. But it's well-known that ESPN is cutting back on spending; whether that would touch Gruden's role is uncertain. But, it is believed he would only be willing to return to a team with a quarterback in place ready to win, which is why the volume may be turned up on a possible return to the sidelines during the coming offseason.
There are at least six non-playoff NFL teams that might be changing head coaches with either prime-of-career quarterbacks in place or top-shelf quarterbacks developing: Tampa Bay and Oakland, the places he worked before, plus Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and Houston.
Of course, what's also not clear is whether time and television have built Gruden into something he is not. After all, while he got great credit for developing Rich Gannon into an MVP in Oakland, there is a tendency to overlook Al Davis' hand in the background. And, in Tampa Bay, Gruden won with Monte Kiffin's defense, not his offense. Lest we forget, it was a defense that returned three interceptions for touchdowns in the Super Bowl.
Television time tends to make coaches look better and smarter. Gruden's Super Bowl victory came in his first Tampa Bay season; his record for the remaining six years was 45-53 with two playoff appearances and raise your hand again if you can name their quarterbacks in those years.
Furthermore, it's likely that Gruden would want complete control of personnel were he to return, and that could be a sticking point with some of those teams. Oakland, for example, has done a nice rebuild with general manager Reggie McKenzie, but a Gruden-led revival there would make the Raiders that much more attractive for their coming move to Las Vegas. And both the Raiders and Texans not only have young quarterbacks, but enough terrific defensive players already in place to build a contender around.
It's the prospect of rebuilds like that which make January just about as intriguing for the NFL's crummy teams as for the good teams competing for the Lombardi Trophy.
--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.