What do we make of Jimmy Garoppolo? It’s a question that fans have been debating all offseason.
Garoppolo started his 49ers career 5-0 after being traded midway through the 2017 season. With the New England Patriots, he was 2-0 as a starter before being injured in the 2016 season. After 2017, Garoppolo started 1-2 for the 49ers in 2018, losing to the Vikings and Chiefs, but not before being injured for the rest of 2018 with a torn left ACL injury.
His performances have left many scratching their heads with what to make of him as a starter thus far. Is he elite? Is he even good? Should the 49ers roll with Nick Mullens instead? Many have pointed out that his stats that are similar to Nick Mullens as proof that they might be better with Mullens as the starter. However, these analyses lack context and nuance. Garoppolo is still the best quarterback on the 49ers roster.
But he’s not without his flaws. And he has some serious issues to correct this season. Garoppolo’s problems are not mechanical (as we’ll see later). He as elite mechanics. His issues reside between the ears. It’s all cerebral. In 2018, Garoppolo suffered from an inability to throw on time and lacked anticipation, was off-target on several throws and did not see the field well.
In 2019 during the preseason, Garoppolo started with a rocky three series first game against Denver but looked much more polished in week three against Kansas City, the scene of the crime in week three last season.
But first, in this three-part series, we’ll look at what Garoppolo does well (the good). In part two, we’ll look at where he struggles (the bad), and what he downright needs to improve on (the ugly). In part three, we’ll break down his mechanics and why they aren’t an issue.
What Garoppolo does well
Garoppolo made some big-time throws in his first five games as a 49ers starter in 2017. Would he continue to build on that in 2018 and going into 2019? It’s safe to assume yes, that as he became more familiar with Shanahan’s offense, that he would be able to operate and function the way a quarterback of his caliber should.
In 2017, he frequently made throws into tight windows and was skilled at throwing receivers open when they were covered through their entire stem. He had less chance to do in 2018 because the nature of Shanahan’s offense is that it schemes guys open first and foremost, so the quarterback does not have to rely on making difficult throws the majority of the time.
Still, there were throws that he made with anticipation, timing, and outside of the structure of the offense last season and this preseason.
Garoppolo had a fairly poor outing in the week one opener in Minnesota last season and into the first half of the game against Detroit in week two. He still made several nice throws regardless of the outcome of some plays.
Here against Detroit in week two last season, the 49ers were trying to close the game out on their final possession of the fourth quarter. The drive started with a play-action pass from Garoppolo to receiver Pierre Garcon. The concept they’re running is a play-action concept Shanahan calls “drift” where the Z receiver runs a “drift” route over the middle.
Garcon should take an outside release, but with press-man coverage taking away the outside, he takes an inside release to get upfield before he cuts or “drifts” across the middle. Garoppolo drops back and executes the play fake before turning and locating Garcon. He’s about to get hit as he throws so he needs to release and does so quickly.
He throws his pass before just as Garcon is breaking across the middle. Initially, it looks like there is no window to hit as the linebacker and safety have bracketed the drift route. However, Garoppolo anticipates this and throws Garcon open, hitting a window that allows Garcon to run past the defender (what’s called throwing him open). The pass is slightly behind, but this is by design since it allows Garcon to protect himself from a big hit.
He’s no stranger to hitting tight-window throws, most notably like the one he threw above against the Jaguars in 2017.
He also showed improvement in anticipation of deep throws in the preseason as well, something he’s struggled with in the past.
Against the Chiefs this past preseason, Garoppolo has receiver Richie James running a hitch-and-go route to the right side against single-high coverage. The throw was perfect has he hit James in stride for a long gain down the right sideline.
The key to this throw is that Garoppolo threw on time after going through his progressions and holding the safety in the middle of the field. As he drops back, he’s staring down the middle of the field at the safety to hold him while two receivers occupy the middle of the field.
After a hitch and subtle movement forward to avoid the rush, he throws the pass as James is still battling for position. The pass leads James upfield and hits him in stride.
Garoppolo’s performance in week three of the preseason was capped by a touchdown pass to running back Matt Breida. He would go on to play the entire second quarter as well, but the touchdown drive was the quintessential drive-in which both quarterback play and Shanahan’s offense were in perfect sync.
On the touchdown pass, Garoppolo hit a wide-open Breida in the end zone on a vertical go route on a Shanahan’s version of 4-verticals: dancer zorro. Dancer Zorro is a five receiver pattern where four of the routes are vertical go routes with an underneath slant or crossing route as one of the quarterback progressions.
The defense looks to be in some type of quarters coverage, but the corner and seam defender run into each other as they pass off the vertical and slant route to their side, opening up Breida down the numbers. The safety is occupied by the inside vertical and therefore can’t get over in time to make a play on the pass.
There are two places Garoppolo could’ve put this pass: deeper into the end zone or to the front pylon. The throw wasn’t perfect as it should’ve been more to the outside, back shoulder/pylon but it was in front of Breida just enough for him to dive out of harm’s way and make a spectacular catch for a touchdown.
One aspect that Garoppolo struggles with more than others throwing on time (separate from anticipation) within the structure of the play.
Running what Shanahan calls the “scuba” concept, the play has trips stack to the left with Goodwin running a deep out route (has the option to fade versus cloud coverages) while the inside receivers Kittle and Pettis are running a high-low concept with Kittle on the dig and Pettis on a short hitch underneath.
Garoppolo determines pre-snap that he’s going to Goodwin on an out route at the sideline based on the coverage shell. The corner is playing more than 10 yards off the ball, and the nickel defenders are more concerned with the inside slot receivers. Garoppolo drops back and holds the nickel safety in place while Goodwin runs his route.
Garoppolo hits the top of his drop, doesn’t hitch, plants and throws as Goodwin breaks. The ball is out as he breaks toward the sideline, thus not allowing the defender to recover and make a late break but also ensuring that Goodwin can make an easy catch before going out of bounds.
Late on this throw. That ball needs to be out as soon as he hits the top of his drop. Instead he hitches into it twice before he throws. Also didn't help that Breida ran his man off up the field into Garcon's route. #49wz pic.twitter.com/QfdaIOO9SD— rich madrid (@richjmadrid) June 21, 2019
In the past, Garoppolo would hesitate before throwing, allowing defenders to break on passes that should have been thrown a hair earlier. The play from this past preseason shows growth that will hopefully carry over into the regular season.
Plays outside the structure
Shanahan’s offense doesn’t ask the quarterback to go out of the play’s structure often but having a quarterback who can do so when the play breaks down can keep an offense on schedule and keep them in games.
Against Minnesota in week one last season, Garoppolo found receiver Dante Pettis for the 49ers’ only touchdown in the game when Garoppolo broke the structure of the play and found Pettis in the end zone after a scramble drill.
The play call is what Shanahan calls “smack,” which is an outside hitch or deep curl route and seam routes by the slot receivers. Garoppolo drops back and looks for Pettis over the middle to come open, but as he looks to throw, the backside safety cuts off the throwing lane, so Garoppolo is forced to leave the pocket and scramble.
Pettis goes into scramble mode and gives a quick look upfield, sees no one immediately over the top of him, and sprints to the only open area of the field, the end zone, as Garoppolo rolls out to his left. He throws a perfect pass rolling to his left as he puts the ball in the back of the end zone for Pettis to sprint under catch for six.
Really adept at changing the arm angle on several of his throws to account for defender positioning and this epitomizes that perfectly. On the run to his right and gives a quick flick of the wrist and side-arms the pass into Taylor for a TD. #49wz pic.twitter.com/yM5aidG6sD— rich madrid (@richjmadrid) December 26, 2017
Garoppolo has been making plays like the one above in Minnesota outside the structure since he arrived in San Francisco and became the starter. For example the play above where he found Trent Taylor for a touchdown against Jacksonville in 2017.
In the next part of this three-part series, we’ll look at areas where the quarterback struggled, as well as an in-depth look at his mechanics.