One area the 49ers have improved as an offense is their red-zone efficiency. In 2019, as dominant as they were, San Francisco finished 20th in red zone touchdown percentage. In 2020, that number jumped from 55% to 67%, where the Niners ended the season seventh in the NFL.
Last year, with more opportunities and the stakes higher, the offense saw that number dip slightly to 64%, ranking fourth in the league. The closer the 49ers got to the goal-line, the more the passing game struggled.
In 2021, no quarterback who threw more than 15 passes inside of the 10-yard line had a lower completion percentage than Jimmy Garoppolo at 40%. Yes, the 8/1 touchdown/interception ratio impresses on the surface, but Jimmy going 12-for-30 paints a masterpiece for how many golden opportunities the team missed through the air when it came time to score.
The field shrinks, the middle of the field gets more condensed than usual, and the throwing windows are the size of a laptop screen. That partially explains Garoppolo’s struggles. USA TODAY’s Doug Farrar highlighted a specific example that happened all too often during Garoppolo’s tenure:
Like a lot of purgatory quarterbacks, Garoppolo can alternate between being too aggressive, and too late to the draw. This red zone incompletion to Deebo Samuel against the Bears in Week 8 was an example of the latter. Garoppolo had a wide-open shot to Samuel earlier in the play, missed the opportunity, and went wide with the throw later in the crossing route.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, misses to open receivers in the end zone — the same miss happened to Jeff Wilson a few weeks prior against the Jaguars — became routine, whereas the deep bomb to Deebo the play before was met with bewilderment.
Farrar went through the worst quarterback against each coverage in the NFL, and he named Garoppolo for the most critical part of the field:
One of those limitations in 2021 was Garoppolo’s performance in the red zone — specifically against red zone coverage. There, he completed two of 10 passes for three yards, three air yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, an ANY/A of 4.3, and a passer rating of 79.2. Those touchdown/interception numbers seem pretty good, but when you look at all the incompletions close to the goal line, a clearer picture emerges.
Over 36% of the 49ers' red zone plays came with more than seven yards to gain for the first down. Considering they still scored a touchdown at an astonishing rate, it’s a valuable reminder of just how impressive Deebo Samuel was in 2021:
Trey Lance will face questions about his inexperience and how he handles adversity all season. Lance faces pressure to keep the offense humming in the red zone while making them more efficient through the air.
Garoppolo’s numbers inside of the 10-yard line are a prime example of how a quick release is negated by inaccuracy or not playing in rhythm. Let’s take it back to the NFC Divisional round.
It’s 1st & 19, and the Niners are going into score with one minute remaining in the half. Garoppolo evades a sack in the backfield. After pump-faking and a couple of seconds of scrambling, Jimmy spots George Kittle 30 yards away. The safety creeps, unbeknownst to Jimmy, awaiting a wobbly throw that was underthrown and lacked zip to find its target.
The Niners escaped Green Bay with a victory, but those back-breaking plays are too difficult for any team to overcome. In one play, you could see how Lance’s mobility and arm strength would be a net positive for the offense.
And for as much as some worry about a 22-year-old under center, the 30-year-old he’s replacing wasn’t known as the league’s most prudent decision-maker. Look for Lance to be worlds more decisive than he showed in two starts where the offense stalled on four of its six red zone drives.
There will be trade-offs with Lance running the show for the Niners instead of Garoppolo. One area the youngster must improve is the offense’s inconsistency through the air inside the 10-yard-line.