Football writers love to talk about how difficult it is for a quarterback to win his first playoff game. I’m here to tell you that’s a bunch of crap.
It’s hard for any quarterback to win any playoff game. Every year, half of the playoff QBs lose their first game. But there’s nothing special about a first career playoff game, aside for a couple of loose correlations.
Correlation is not causation
Correlation #1 - experience. Good NFL quarterbacks play 15 or 20 years. Of course, they won’t be as good early in their career, which is when their first playoff game is likely to happen.
Lamar Jackson is a perfect example - he had only started seven games before Baltimore faced the Chargers last January, and he simply wasn’t that good yet, before he spent his first off-season working on his throwing motion.
The other correlation is team quality. Young quarterbacks usually helm mediocre teams that sneak into the playoffs as wild cards, or winners of a weak division. They’re low seeds on the road against some 13-3 juggernaut, so yeah, it’s going to be tough to get a win.
Neither correlation has anything to do with a first playoff game.
In fact, a lot of losing playoff teams have QBs who just aren’t very good, so if you want to gin up stats “proving” that a first-time QB won’t win, it’s not hard. Jared Goff lost to Matty Ice in 2018, but he was the second-best quarterback in that game. Ditto, Dak Prescott vs. Aaron Rodgers the same year.
Even then, playoff games often turn on missed field goal kicks, fumbles, and other highly variable events. Such mighty talents as Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota, Case Keenum, and Tim Tebow won their first postseason start.
Tom Brady won his first game, but only because of the “tuck rule;” he then won the next two, including Super Bowl XXXVI. Drew Brees lost his debut because the Chargers missed a 40-yard field goal in overtime. First playoff games are rare, and random twists are often the deciding factor.
Not in San Francisco
Whatever you think might be haunting January first-timers, the 49ers are immune to it. Joe Montana and Steve Young won their first playoff tiffs. So did Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick (destroying the Packers and setting the record for quarterback rushing). So Jimmy Garoppolo can breathe easy.
This mythical curse also didn’t apply to Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Mike Vick, Matt Schaub, or Patrick Mahomes. (Or Bortles, Mariota, Keenum, and Tebow.)
And Garoppolo has an advantage over 8 of those 11 first game winners: a week off. Only Brady, Keenum, and Mahomes from that list had bye weeks.
What Really Matters
The traits that win playoff games are the same ones that win during the first 16 — steady nerves, leadership, passing accuracy, mobility, avoiding sacks, and the ability to read defenses.
Josh Allen definitely crumbled in crunch time against Houston, blowing an 8-point lead. But that’s Josh Allen. It’s not like he was a rock-steady and highly consistent team leader in the regular season.
Pressure is obviously higher in the postseason, but players face pressure all season long. Unless it’s a backup QB starting due to injury, we know how they handle the heat, and this is good news for Niners fans.
Jimmy Garoppolo has been granite in high-stakes games this year against the Packers, Ravens, Rams, Saints, and Seahawks, under a wide variety of circumstances. The only time he looked rattled was in the first Seahawks game, and since that was before all of his other big games, I’m not worried.
The big playoff difference
The only really significant difference postseason is that your opponent has lots of time to scheme against you specifically. A quarterback with a limited skill set or glaring weakness (Goff, Goff) will be in trouble.
This also emphasizes the value of being adaptable, of being able to adjust to different situations on the fly — another Garoppolo strong point.
There is no doubt that NFL experience (and playoff experience in particular) is helpful for a quarterback, whether it’s one game, five, or forty. Every additional game is better. But Garoppolo has an unusual amount of experience for a guy who hasn’t started a playoff game.
Specifically, he was on the Patriots (riding the pine) for eight playoff games, including three Super Bowls, and he owns two rings. That’s not the same as playing, but it’s not nothing.
Jimmy G has also started more games before his playoff debut (26) than the majority of recent quarterbacks. Most of the quality QBs who lost their first playoff start had started 16 or fewer regular-season games, while many of the winners played more.
As far as I can determine, the quarterback with the most pre-playoff experience ever is Ryan Tannehill. Thanks to playing for Miami, he started an even 100 games before he helmed a postseason showdown.
If there is ever a situation where a lack of playoff experience would show its impact, it was Tannehill’s debut facing off against Tom Brady. The Patriots legend had started 40 playoff games with 30 wins, ten losses, 9 Super Bowls, and six rings.
Now Brady has 11 losses.