SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The memories are far from pleasant. Mention what happened the last time the San Francisco 49ers played the Philadelphia Eagles to anyone in the Niners organization and you're bound to get some combination of choice words, gritted teeth and facial expressions resembling how one would look after taking a big bite out of a lemon.
"That was a game I tried to forget," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "That was a very miserable game."
General manager John Lynch takes a deep breath. "A massacre," Lynch said.
For many reasons, Oct. 29, 2017 feels like an eternity ago. It's a day the 49ers would like to forget, a 33-10 loss that dropped them to 0-8 in Shanahan's first season. But it's also a day they'll remember because of what it preceded: The next day they traded for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, a first step in returning the organization to prominence.
Hitting rock bottom
Just last week, tight end George Kittle and quarterback C.J. Beathard reminisced about that loss to the Eagles, who visit the 49ers Sunday (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) in their first matchup since. The "highlights" of that day in 2017 included Beathard getting hit so hard by Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox that Beathard's shoe flew off. It also included then-rookie offensive lineman Erik Magnuson playing three spots on the line because of injuries that had the Niners one play away from tight end Garrett Celek moving to offensive tackle.
It's the game when Joe Staley broke his orbital bone after Cox threw a crushing block on him during an interception return. And the game when receiver Pierre Garcon suffered a season-ending neck injury when he was pushed after stepping out of bounds along the Eagles' sideline.
Everything about the 49ers loss made it feel like the team had hit rock bottom in the first season under Shanahan and Lynch. With 13 rookies on the 53-man active roster, 10 of whom started or appeared in the game, the Niners were overwhelmed by the eventual Super Bowl champions. They were down 17-0 at the half and 33-7 early in the fourth quarter as Beathard struggled to stay upright behind a battered offensive line.
Adding injury to insult, the Niners watched as Staley, Garcon, right tackle Garry Gilliam, defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, defensive tackle D.J. Jones and free safety Jimmie Ward departed and did not return. Garcon, Gilliam and Ward went on injured reserve without appearing in another game. Staley missed one game, Thomas missed two and Jones played one more before he, too, went on injured reserve.
A winless 49ers team boarded their plane for the six-hour flight back to the Bay Area with much to ponder.
"That was like the first one where we got beat pretty convincingly and with a big loss like that, and pile on the injuries, being 0-8, that was a tough one to swallow," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "It was a gut check, like, 'OK, what are we doing here? Are we getting better or are we moving in the wrong direction?'"
Little did anyone on that plane know that a move in the right direction would soon be boarding a similar cross-country flight.
Trading for Jimmy G
Back in 2014, Shanahan was the Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator heading to Northwestern University to work out a young quarterback named Jimmy Garoppolo. When Garoppolo was coming out of Eastern Illinois, Shanahan was already aware of him because his father, former NFL coach Mike Shanahan, was also an Eastern Illinois alum. Although Garoppolo wasn't coming from a powerhouse football program, Shanahan, liked what he saw on tape.
When Garoppolo showed up for the workout, there was a small problem: not enough receivers to throw to. So Shanahan, a former University of Texas wideout, volunteered. Shanahan and some Browns staff took Garoppolo out for dinner that night and though Cleveland didn't draft him, Shanahan had a positive impression.
Fast forward to February 2017 and Shanahan had been the Niners head coach for a few weeks when he arrived in Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine. Earlier that month, Shanahan had been the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator during a devastating Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots.
In Indianapolis, Shanahan and Patriots coach Bill Belichick had a chance to sit down and talk. The pair had known each other for many years because of Belichick's relationship with Shanahan's father Mike. But this was the first time they'd had a chance to chat in person as two of the league's 32 head coaches.
During the course of that conversation, Shanahan broached the idea of trading for Garoppolo. Belichick quickly rebuffed Shanahan, leaving the Niners to sign veteran free agent Brian Hoyer and draft Beathard in the third round.
Still, Garoppolo was never far from the Niners' minds. When Shanahan would meet with Lynch and the scouting staff and show them "teaching" tapes of what he was looking for in players at certain positions, Garoppolo showed up on the quarterback film despite having 94 NFL pass attempts to his name.
On the Monday morning after the loss to Philadelphia, Lynch and Shanahan fielded a stunning call from Belichick offering Garoppolo for a second-round pick. Within 10 minutes, Shanahan and Lynch agreed Garoppolo was worth the price.
Garoppolo was taking a nap at home in New England and woke up to what he estimates to be about 150 texts and calls. Although he'd heard rumors he could be traded, Garoppolo never thought much about it. So when the call came, he ran the gamut emotionally, starting with sadness, confusion and, eventually, excitement that he was going to get his chance to start after spending his first three-plus seasons behind Tom Brady.
By 6 a.m. Tuesday, Garoppolo was on a plane bound for the Bay.
“It seems like forever ago," Garoppolo said. "It was a much different vibe than it is now, I can tell you that. Just when I first got here, so many rookies were on the team. The team was kind of in a weird place as a whole. It didn't really have the identity that we have now, I would say, but I think just with Kyle and John, the people they bring in, it makes it so easy to adapt and get to know each other and be on the same page with everyone. That's what's really cool about the vibe of this team."
'Part of the journey'
Upon arrival in San Francisco, Garoppolo provided an instant jolt that teammates remember more clearly and fondly than what happened the Sunday before the trade.
"It brought us some brand new energy, brand new swagger and it was great having Jimmy in and being the professional leader he is," Thomas said. "... [It] gave us a lot of help and a lot of motivation like, ‘We got our guy now, so let’s go rock.’ It definitely was a huge change for the organization."
Garoppolo made his first start in Week 13 and led the Niners to five straight wins to close the season, making them the first team in NFL history to start a season 0-9 and win more than three games. Beyond the obvious improvement at quarterback and the dividends it paid on the field, Garoppolo's arrival sparked a chain of events -- including his 2018 season-ending injury that led to landing the No. 2 pick and defensive end Nick Bosa -- that would eventually land the Niners in Super Bowl LIV.
As San Francisco chief executive officer Jed York likes to say, everybody wants to get to the beach at the end of the movie "The Shawshank Redemption" but they never want to go through what Andy Dufresne did to get there. In NFL parlance, it doesn't get much worse than that long, rainy day in Philadelphia.
Just 20 players who were either on the roster or injured reserve that day remain with the Niners as they prepare to play the Eagles on Sunday night. They form the core of a team that now is capable of overcoming an unrelenting spate of injuries, as they did the past two weeks in winning by a combined 45 points against the Jets and Giants.
"What I know when you think back to that game is how much work we've done since then," Shanahan said. "I think we're a much different team. I think we've improved a lot. I think a lot of guys who did play that day are guys who also help us now. ... I think that's just part of the journey that we had to get where we're at."