Three weeks into the 2021 season, the 49ers already have a pair of wins and a quarterback conundrum. Jimmy Garoppolo continues handling the Lion’s share of reps under center despite inconsistent play while the Niners’ first-round draft pick Trey Lance remains on the bench.
The decision to draft Lance with the third overall pick will be judged for years to come. However, the 49ers made a significant decision last offseason to keep Garoppolo as well. Several veteran quarterbacks were available on the free-agent and trade markets, but the Niners opted to stick with Jimmy G. How does that decision look through the season’s first three games?
Eight veteran quarterbacks around the NFL have started a game this year with a new franchise. While some may not have fit the Niners’ circumstances, it’s worth examining how Garoppolo’s play stacks up against several players the team could have acquired in his place.
Standard statistics comparison
The 49ers tried to acquire Matthew Stafford last offseason but fell short in the sweepstakes for the former Lion. Had they pulled off that trade, the franchise certainly wouldn’t have Lance. Once they decided to move up in the draft to select a quarterback, players like Carson Wentz and Sam Darnold no longer fit the Niners. At the same time, Jared Goff’s contract ensured he wouldn’t end up in San Francisco.
With that said, veteran signal-caller Tyrod Taylor, Jacoby Brissett, and Andy Dalton all hit free agency and signed relatively cheap one-year deals. Last year, Teddy Bridgewater, a solid starter for the Panthers, was traded to the Broncos for just a sixth-round pick. Had the 49ers moved on from Garoppolo, they easily could have topped any offer for one of those four veterans and created salary-cap space to invest elsewhere on the roster.
It’s hard not to be underwhelmed by Garoppolo’s standing in this group. He is the only quarterback on the list who did not have to adjust to a new organization and learn a new system last offseason. He also probably has the best supporting cast. Furthermore, the 49ers haven’t faced any of the league’s best defenses in their first three games. Yet, he still fails to stand out.
While it may leave something to be desired, Garoppolo’s numbers do compare favorably to a few quarterbacks in the table above. Moreover, the Niners have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. They were afraid to enter the season without a quarterback familiar with their organization, and Garoppolo has been passable, at least on the surface. However, a closer look reveals a far uglier assessment of Jimmy G’s performance.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) evaluates players by grading every play relative to a league-average player. When reviewing quarterbacks, they record exceptional throws as Big-Time Throws (BTT) and classify dangerous plays that cross a certain threshold as Turnover-Worthy Plays (TWP).
There’s reason to be cautious of PFF’s highly qualitative method, but it has consistently produced quality evaluations. For example, back in 2018, PFF evaluated the results of plays they classified as BTT and TWP. The findings reflected favorably on their grading.
Consider that all big-time throws resulted in a completion percentage of 87.6 percent, a touchdown percentage of 29.6 percent and a perfect passer rating of 158.3 in 2017. On the other hand, turnover-worthy throws resulted in a completion percentage of 1.9 percent, a passer rating of 1.2, and two lucky touchdowns.
It’s essential for a quarterback to avoid turning the ball over. If they can generate big plays downfield, though, teams are willing to handle some added risk. Here’s the same group of quarterbacks ranked by these metrics over the first three games of the season:
Big-Time Throws vs. Turnover-Worthy Plays
*Net is calculated by subtracting TWP% from BTT%.
By these two metrics, Garoppolo’s been the worst quarterback among this group. It’s not close. He amassed the most TWP while failing to record a single BTT.
There’s a chasm between Garoppolo and the other veterans. Even if we assume PFF has made several mistakes evaluating Garoppolo, misclassifying a pair of BTT and TWP, he would still rank last.
Granted, it’s a small sample of a pair of low-frequency statistics, but Garoppolo’s higher-risk and relatively little reward play isn’t a new trend. In 2019, easily Garoppolo’s best professional season, his BTT% was tied for 39th with Jeff Driskel out of 42 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts. Likewise, his TWP% was tied for 18th with Mitchell Trubisky.
Some might point to head coach Kyle Shanahan, saying he builds his system to make a quarterback’s job easier, leaving Jimmy G fewer opportunities to make noteworthy plays. However, previous quarterbacks under Shanahan, like Matt Schaub and Matt Ryan, didn’t exhibit any significant changes to their BTT% or TWP% while Shanahan was their offensive play-caller.
Garoppolo has always performed best on short and intermediate throws, particularly in the middle of the field. To his credit, that has remained true this season. Still, that raises an important question: can a quarterback with his limitations do enough on short and intermediate throws in the modern NFL to justify a starting job?
Are there starting quarterbacks who turn the ball over at a concerning rate? Yes (e.g., Josh Allen).
Are there starting quarterbacks who struggle to push the ball downfield? Yes (e.g., Joe Burrow).
Are there starting quarterbacks who don’t generate offense with their legs? Yes (e.g., Matthew Stafford).
But are there any starting quarterbacks, other than Jimmy Garoppolo, who have all three limitations?
The answer is no.
Usually, the 49ers wouldn’t have a viable alternative to their starter at this point in the season. Instead, however, they drafted Lance. That move showed the franchise doesn’t view Jimmy G as their quarterback of the future. Still, Shanahan insisted they needed a veteran quarterback all offseason, not just any veteran but also Garoppolo.
The Niners sacrificed millions of dollars in cap space to keep Garoppolo over far cheaper options. Yet Garoppolo has underperformed several of them this season. If the 49ers wanted Lance to develop on the bench, they needed to find an adequate veteran to justify keeping him there. Unfortunately, through three games, Jimmy G hasn’t been good enough.