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49ers positional review: Let’s start with quarterback

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Taking a look at why Jimmy Garoppolo was better than the national media thinks, and why he needs to take the next step if the 49ers are going to make it back to the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Now that the season is over and the San Francisco 49ers had their “exit interviews,” it’s our turn to do positional reviews for the team. There isn’t a better place to start at quarterback, where Jimmy Garoppolo is one of the most polarizing, misunderstood quarterbacks in the league. The diehard, homer fans will cling to any stat that has Jimmy G near the top and refuse to acknowledge any of his flaws. The national media or the people that have already made up their minds about Garoppolo will show replay the miss to Emmanuel Sanders over and over and ignore any good the Niners quarterback does.

Garoppolo isn’t as good as the fans that watch the Niners with rose colored glasses on. Garoppolo is a lot better than the talking heads on TV will lead you to believe. Context in football is everything but it’s the one thing that often is left out of the majority of conversations. Jimmy G had his first offseason under Kyle Shanahan, while coming off an ACL injury. There aren’t too many examples of a quarterback coming back from that type of injury inn the last 15 or so seasons. Off the top of my head there is Sam Bradford, Carson Palmer, Robert Griffin III, and Tom Brady. Here are their numbers the year after they tore their ACL:

Brady was entering his ninth season and is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time. As far as the stats, these are to help paint a picture and that’s it. Quarterback is impossible to quantify. There are so many pre-snap reads, checks, mid-play decisions, and what-ifs that there isn’t a stat out there that will do justice for anyone. Here are the stats above explained.

Quarterback rating includes all of a quarterback’s contributions to winning, including sacks and fumbles. It also takes into account a team’s level of success or failure on every play, which helps provide that context word again. DYAR, or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. “AV” gives the value of the quarterback ‘s performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation, and opponent and then translated into yardage. Adjusted net yards per attempt per passing attempt include passing yards, passing touchdowns, interceptions thrown, times sacked, and yards lost to being sacked. Sack percentage is self-explanatory, as is game-winning drives. AV is Pro Football Reference’s “approximate value stat,” which is explained as:

AV is not meant to be a be-all-end-all metric. Football stat lines just do not come close to capturing all the contributions of a player the way they do in baseball and basketball. If one player is a 16 and another is a 14, we can’t be very confident that the 16AV player actually had a better season than the 14AV player. But I am pretty confident that the collection of all players with 16AV played better, as an entire group than the collection of all players with 14AV. Essentially, AV is a substitute for --- and a significant improvement upon, in my opinion --- metrics like ‘number of seasons as a starter’ or ‘number of times making the pro bowl’ or the like. You should think of it as being essentially like those two metrics, but with interpolation in between

In short, it gives you an idea of the ballpark that the player was in for the season. Garoppolo’s 2019 “AV” was higher than Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and the same as Russell Wilson.

What to make of Jimmy G

2019 taught us a lot about Garoppolo, and, at the same time, left a lot of unanswered questions that we’ll find the answers to in 2020. Garoppolo has strengths that are good enough to lead you to a Super Bowl. He’s one of the best 3rd down quarterbacks in football. Garoppolo also has very good ball placement. He has a quick release and minimal lower body movement that allows him to get throws off that most quarterbacks can’t when a defender is in his face. Finally, his pocket movement was above average this season, and it helped him avoid quite a few sacks.

On the other side of the coin, Jimmy’s timing was off, and he lacked a sense of urgency. Too often, he’s “going through the motions,” which led to inaccurate throws. I don’t think he saw the field very well at all this season, and that’s my biggest worry moving forward. Knowing where to go with the football is what makes Brady who he is. Finally, Jimmy G needs to learn that it’s okay to punt the ball or take a sack. Not every play needs to be a home run. The saying goes, “every possession needs to end with a kick,” whether that’s an extra point, field goal, or punt. I’ll explain each, using one play as a reference. Knowing that it’s one play, understand that this is what I saw from Garoppolo consistently during the season. The one play is simply a reference. Let’s review through Jimmy’s first full season as a starter.

Tearing it up on third down

If I were building a stat, I’d weigh it to where what the quarterback does on third down (and fourth down) is more valuable than first and second down. Can you convert when the offense needs a first down? Garoppolo was second in the NFL in the percentage of throws that went for first downs on 3rd & 8 or more. Jimmy G was first in the same stat on 3rd & 3-7. Overall, 50% of Jimmy’s third-down throws went for first downs, which was two percentage points better than second place. For a “first-year starter,” Garoppolo was excellent on third downs this season.

There is no question that Shanahan’s scheme allows Garoppolo to be successful, and many will point to that as an attempt to take away what Jimmy G accomplished. We saw on numerous occasions that Garoppolo had no issue threading the needle on third downs time and time again this past season. This third-down throw to Bourne is a good example of both Garoppolo’s ball placement and threading the needle:

The throw looks routine, and that’s the point. 85-90% of NFL throws are just that. Yet, the majority of quarterbacks struggle on third down because the pressure ramps up. For whatever reason, Garoppolo’s play rises as the stakes do.

Ball placement

Because Jimmy G missed a few throws in the Super Bowl doesn’t mean he has poor ball placement, or Garoppolo is not good in critical situations. He didn’t make throws that he made all season. That same throw to Sanders Garoppolo made to seal the win against the Rams. I know there was offensive pass interference on the play, but the throw to George Kittle toward the end of the half was special:

You see, his placement and accuracy suffer when Garoppolo is going through the motions. We’ll get to that. When I think of accuracy/ball placement, I think of a quarterback throwing a receiver open. This third-down throw to Kittle Week 17 is a prime example:

That’s excellent. The defender is all over Kittle and had Jimmy left that ball inside; it’s a pass breakup. Instead, it’s high and away, where only the intended target can make a play.

Timing issues

The 49ers offense featured plenty of timing routes where there were rhythm throws for Garoppolo. He does this thing where he pats the ball, and that split second is a world of difference. It drives me insane because it consistently costed the offense all season. It wasn’t big plays; it was the underneath timing routes. A 3rd & 5 out route to Kendrick Bourne against the Falcons is a prime example where Bourne has a step. Still, the patting of the ball and hesitation gives the defender a chance to gain ground on Bourne while the defensive linemen get another step closer to Jimmy, and that affects the play. There was a play against the Packers in the NFC Championship game where Garoppolo had Emmanuel Sanders open on a crossing route, but the hesitation led to a pass breakup.

This play below has made the rounds because Jimmy G should have gone to Kittle, who had Terrell Suggs guarding him over the middle. Bourne is open, and if Garoppolo throws the ball on time, it’s a first down. Garoppolo knows that Bourne is running a stop route. This is where feel/anticipation comes into play.

He shouldn’t have to wait until Bourne is out of his break to release the ball. Right as Bourne is coming out of his break around the 36-yard line is when you throw this pass. Garoppolo’s release is so quick that he’s almost able to get away with it, and you can’t tell, but this is a timing issue. That split second allows the blitzing linebacker to hit Garoppolo and ultimately affect the throw. Jimmy G will need to speed up his processes this season if he’s going to take the next step from being good to great. On play-action, where the reads are defined, this isn’t an issue. It’s the dropback passes where Garoppolo will need to improve his timing moving forward.

Seeing the field with a sense of urgency

The Super Bowl highlighted Garoppolo’s flaws, both with a clean pocket and under pressure. When the pocket was clean, there were four or five occurrences where it appeared Jimmy was “going through the motions.” When you do that, your accuracy plummets and throws look like this:

The greats of the game make every rep look the same, no matter if there is a three-man rush or the defense blitzes. When you see receivers diving/sliding for passes as we did during the Super Bowl, that’s a sense of urgency issue on the quarterback. This season we saw far too many “wow” throws from Garoppolo at every level of the field to say he’s not an accurate quarterback. That’s not true. If you don’t treat every rep the same, you end up with throws above. When Garoppolo “plays fast,” it looks like this:

Consistency will be the name of the game for Garoppolo this offseason. As will knowing where to go with the football. Baldy did a nice job of highlighting the missed opportunities in the Super Bowl:

Seeing the field, and specifically underneath defenders, has given Garoppolo trouble all season. This throw below in the Divisional Round is a prime example where linebacker Eric Kendricks is reading the quarterback, and Jimmy has no idea he’s there:

Though a prominent issue all season, sense of urgency and seeing these underneath defenders are coachable and can be fixed in the short term future.

There is nothing simple about Shanahan’s offense. The 49ers run a lot of “quick game,” which are those throws that are coming out of Garoppolo’s hands in two seconds. That’s what we saw late in Super Bowl LIV, where Chris Jones batted two passes. In the quick game, you teach your quarterback to get to his primary target right away. That’s what makes it tricky, as the route above, and a good portion of Shanahan’s offense require the quarterback to scan the field and go through reads. That’s why having another offseason will big for Jimmy G’s development. Not just physical, but mental muscle memory will go a long way in his improvement.

Pocket movement

Garoppolo’s pocket movement was impressive in his few starts as a Patriot and has been in his time with the 49ers. It’s the subtle movements he makes like climbing or sliding a step or two to either buy his receiver another split-second or avoid the rush. You don’t hear many announcers mention it, but being able to navigate in that five-yard radius behind the line of scrimmage and keep your eyes down the field is one of the most important traits in a quarterback. If you can’t play in the pocket, you can’t play in the NFL. He has an innate feel in the pocket, whether it’s sliding:

Watch Garoppolo’s helmet. His eyes stay down the field. No, the blitzer doesn’t get there, but the subtle slide to the left ensures Garoppolo’s throw isn’t affected.

Jimmy is a lot more mobile than given credit for—I think we’ll see him use his legs more next year a season removed from injury— and when you combine his patience in the pocket it, you get this:

That is what I call a sense of urgency. Garoppolo could sense the “bullets start to fly,” and he sped up his process and made a play on 3rd & 11. I’d show this rep in a clinic. More of that, please, and thanks.

Every drive needs to end in a kick

I hope Garoppolo never changes his aggressive mentality. I can name about ten quarterbacks that are starting in the NFL that wouldn’t attempt that deep pass to Sanders, or several other “ballsy” throws Garoppolo makes over the middle. That aggressive, gunslinger mentality is the mindset of every Super Bowl-winning champion in the last decade. You have to let it fly.

Garoppolo’s gunslinger mentality hurts him as he tries to make the big play when it’s not there. He needs to know that it’s okay to live for another down. Sometimes, sacks are fine. His Super Bowl interception was an awful decision that should have never left his hands. Then there are other plays where Garorppolo holds the ball too long instead of throwing it away or to his check down, and now the offense is behind the chains. PFF charged Jimmy G with 15 total pressures this season, including seven sacks. Part of that ties into some other areas of opportunity mentioned move, like knowing where to go with the ball. These are the sacks that are killer:

You can tell Garoppolo studied and watched Brady for years with how he moves in the pocket. He can take a lesson from his mentor on getting rid of the ball. When is nobody open, throw it to your check down receivers’ feet and keep so you keep your offense ahead of the chains.

Jimmy G summed up

Garoppolo was good enough in his first true season with Shanahan. Getting to the Super Bowl again won’t be easy, and he’ll need to improve in the areas mentioned above if the 49ers are going to be perennial playoff contenders. Knowing who is calling plays and the young weapons around him, Garoppolo should improve as a quarterback in 2020, even if his numbers don’t. Think Kittle from 2018 to 2019. Next season is everything for Jimmy G. We’ll know if he’s good is “good enough” next season. Year 1 was a success, but there weren’t expectations. That changes in 2020.