What if I told you that the 49ers’ championship hopes did not rest on their number one ranked defense but instead on the surgically repaired shoulder of the quarterback who they had all but replaced just a few short months ago?
The defense is this team’s heart and soul, and what they are doing through five games is nothing short of spectacular. They are the best defense in the entire NFL and have proven they can dominate games week after week. However, the greatness they have displayed can only take this team so far.
A team with a defense this talented is more than capable of winning ten-plus games. They could probably win the division and likely a playoff game as well. However, if they have realistic aspirations of hoisting the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy, they will need a certain level of dependability from the quarterback position.
The good news? Over the last two weeks, Jimmy Garoppolo delivered that and, as a result, provided a genuine belief that this group has what it takes to put together another deep playoff run with their often-maligned quarterback under center.
Since a brutal start in week three that everyone would like to forget, Garoppolo has rebounded in a major way to efficiently pilot the 49ers’ offense back on track. The 30 points they posted in Carolina was a season-high, and there was plenty to take away from in that game to feel good about the state of the offense moving forward.
The 49ers are averaging nearly 140 yards on the ground per game which puts much less stress on Garoppolo to deliver a heroic performance for the 49ers to be victorious. While he has risen to the occasion in the past with those kinds of games (Arizona on Halloween in 2019 immediately comes to mind), more often than not, the 49ers won’t require that level of excellence from Garoppolo to be successful as currently constructed.
I hate the term “game manager” because it is often used to minimize the contributions of the quarterback being assigned that label. Playing quarterback in the NFL is extremely difficult, even with the assistance of a strong running game or a stout defense.
Every team wants a quarterback who doesn’t turn the ball over and is able to keep the sticks moving on third down, yet when it is done without the riveting fanfare of an explosive passing attack, the “game manager” label quickly turns into a slight of sorts.
Call it whatever your heart desires, but over the last two weeks, Garoppolo has been that guy who has taken care of the football while keeping the chains moving with clutch throws on third down.
Let’s start with taking care of the ball aspect because right now, Garoppolo is having his best season to date in terms of not turning the ball over. Garoppolo has thrown just one interception on 107 dropbacks this season. That translates to an interception rate of just 0.93 percent, by far the lowest of Garoppolo’s career.
For perspective, in 2019, when the 49ers had the second-highest scoring offense in the league and went to the super bowl, Garoppolo’s interception rate was nearly triple what it is now at 2.7 percent.
Luck will always factor into these numbers to a degree (there was a dropped interception in Carolina that immediately comes to mind). However, even accounting for that variable, Garoppolo is still well below the rate he posted when the 49ers were on the brink of a Lombardi Trophy with him under center.
If Garoppolo can maintain an interception rate somewhere between where he is at now and what he posted in 2019, the 49ers are going to be in a great spot moving forward. Now let’s pivot and take a look at how spectacular Garoppolo has been on third down recently.
These are Garoppolo’s numbers on third down over the last two weeks:
14/18 ( 77% completion percentage)
232 yards (12.8 yards per attempt)
155.79 passer rating
Garoppolo has made some big-time throws on third down, including this one that came on 3rd & 4 from the 49ers’ own 37-yard line. Carolina shows a double A-Gap mug and ends up sending six, while the 49ers only have five in pass protection to block.
This leaves a free rusher barreling toward Garoppolo, who gets absolutely smoked just after getting rid of the ball. However, Garoppolo is able to get the ball deep downfield, where his intended target Tevin Coleman was able to make a play on it, and the result of the play was a 30-yard gain that moved the sticks.
Double A-Gap pressure by Carolina— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) October 11, 2022
Panthers D sends six, 49ers only have five blocking
Jimmy G gets absolutely smoked
Still delivers a clean ball to Tevin Coleman deep down the left sideline the for a 30 yard gain pic.twitter.com/eaEryUduIj
These plays often get lost in the shuffle during the seemingly never-ending Garoppolo discourse that permeates every corner of 49ers’ discussion.
The ability to stand tall and deliver a ball like that while getting knocked into next week highlights a level of toughness that is hard to quantify but plays a significant role in the resounding belief that his teammates and those within the organization have in Garoppolo.
Ideally, you don’t want your quarterbacks’ toughness tested like that very often. You would obviously rather have a smooth-sailing operation that blends a proven scheme with a quarterback who is efficient behind the controls and able to distribute the ball to playmakers in space.
A great example is this 3rd & 8 from the 49ers’ 47-yard line. The concept is “Skinner,” and it is basically a double dig with a high-low read. The primary read in this progression is George Kittle running a “Thru” route, and the secondary read is Brandon Aiyuk running “Widen Skinner.”
The Panthers’ defense is in a Cover 1-Cross coverage, which has the safety opposite of the trips side rob the middle of the field. The robber safety effectively erases Kittle’s “Thru” route from the list of viable options for Garoppolo, who quickly diagnosed this coverage and pivoted to his secondary read to deliver a good ball to Aiyuk for a gain of 18 yards and a first down.
49ers offense dials up “Skinner” on 3rd & 8— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) October 13, 2022
Carolina is playing Cover 1-Cross which has the safety opposite the trips side rob the MOF
Kittle is the primary read in the progression running “Thru” which is taken away by the robber
Aiyuk is the secondary running “Widen Skinner” pic.twitter.com/vC0WQUrsdo
These are the kind of throws that Garoppolo’s harshest critics might not be impressed with, but the yardage gained, and the ensuing result is all that matters. These kinds of throws are going to be there regularly in Shanahan’s offense, and as long as Garoppolo is reading and reacting efficiently, this offense is going to find a way to keep drives alive and put points on the board.
Another good illustration of this came on 1st & 10 from the Panthers' 35-yard line. The 49ers run “Aggie Now,” and Garoppolo hits Jauan Jennings within two yards of the line of scrimmage while the latter is running a “Now” route. Jennings then picks up 30-plus yards after the catch to put the 49ers' offense inside the Carolina five-yard line.
Jimmy Garoppolo connects with Jauan Jennings for a 32 yard gain on “Aggie Now” pic.twitter.com/T85fd2d5LT— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) October 12, 2022
We all know how this goes at this point. A play like this happens, and the loudest detractors of Garoppolo immediately dismiss a throw like this because Jennings was wide open and so close to the line of scrimmage.
Then it becomes Jennings did all of the work and that Garoppolo is being carried or whatever other argument we have seen for the thousandth time over the last few years.
The problem with this is that line of thinking makes you lose sight of the forest for the trees. Regardless of where you stand on Garoppolo, the overall outcome of the play was a success for the 49ers’ offense.
No matter who is under center for the 49ers, these throws will be there as long as Shanahan is the one holding the play sheet on the sideline. So the critical thing for Garoppolo is not to miss these opportunities when they arise and capitalize on them as much as possible.
This offense is littered with elite playmakers and skill sets that are tailor-made to maximize yardage after the catch. The 49ers don’t need a quarterback who is going to be threading the needle into tight windows down after down. They just need someone who can efficiently distribute the ball to that cache of weapons and effectively be the point guard of this offense, racking up assists.