Chatter about what the 49ers should do at quarterback began almost immediately after Super Bowl LIV. Several, including Pro Football Talk and For the Win, made cases for San Francisco to cut ties with Jimmy Garoppolo, citing the club can improve its cap situation and future chances by making a change behind center. This stems from Garoppolo not seizing the moment in the Super Bowl, namely the missed deep attempt to Emmanuel Sanders when the 49ers had a chance to answer and potentially close out Kansas City -- a throw that'll be a pockmark on his professional career. And rightly so.
Is Garoppolo perfect? Certainly not – and he is not exempt from criticism from that game or others.
He almost always throws that one errant pass into the hands of a defender; he takes sacks he doesn't have to; and he doesn’t always take the best read – all faults that did contribute to the loss in Miami. But he has redeeming qualities that helped the 49ers get to the Super Bowl in the first place; particularly the quickness and dexterity of his release under pressure, his poise on third down, his undeniable leadership, and the timing of when he does come alive in games.
It also needs to be said, while Jimmy G is in the crosshairs, that no quarterback is perfect, and he is still head and shoulders above a large majority of what's out there.
Let’s actually reflect on Garoppolo’s 49ers tenure for a moment.
He took over a 1-10 49ers team in November 2017 after being acquired at the trade deadline – and in his first appearance, he entered with 1:07 left against the Seahawks, and went 2-for-2 with a touchdown. He made a loss feel like a win – that’s what the eye test told us of those first two throws against Seattle.
Then, as the legend goes, Garoppolo went on to lead one of the worst rosters in football to a 5-0 finish, an introductory run that included wins against three playoff teams -- perhaps none more significant than dropping 44 on Jalen Ramsey’s No. 2-ranked Jaguars defense, with a fullback as his leading receiver that day.
We're three seasons into Kyle Shanahan's 49ers tenure, and the coach is 4-20 in games without Garoppolo. With Jimmy G? 21-5, with a 13-3 record and a No. 1 seed ride to the Super Bowl in the QB's first full season as a starter. If Garoppolo is going to be lit up for the losses, he deserves credit when the wins so clearly correlate to him being in the lineup.
More context in 2019.
One of the broad strokes being painted about this season is that the 49ers' defense, and even Shanahan’s scheme and run game, carried the team to Miami. While yes, all those things were very effective, he wasn’t kicking his feet up doing nothing this year. In fact, he had to be the splint through a lot of change -- as he and Laken Tomlinson were the only two offensive players to start all 16 games.
San Francisco had 16 players go on IR this season.
While the defense lost firepower, injuries held the offense back more than anything. Two of their highest-paid players Weston Richburg and Jerick McKinnon ended up on IR. They lost both tackles for significant time: Joe Staley missed nine games, while Mike McGlinchey missed four. George Kittle missed two games; and Kyle Juszczyk missed four games.
With Jalen Hurd, Marquise Goodwin, and Trent Taylor on IR and Dante Pettis not working out, and rookie Deebo Samuel among the lead league in drops, the team was hurting badly at receiver until trading for Emmanuel Sanders. The defense later lost nose tackle D.J. Jones, linebacker Kwon Alexander, and defensive lineman Ronald Blair for the season. Their prized free-agent pass rusher, Dee Ford, missed five games, while starting corner Ahkello Witherspoon missed six games. Safety Jaquiski Tartt missed three.
And high-priced kicker Robbie Gould even missed three starts and had the worst year of his esteemed career, finishing 74% from the field (8 missed FGs).
Through all of this carnage, Garoppolo carried the 49ers through the NFL’s sixth-hardest schedule, per Team Rankings, including arguably the toughest back half of the season to secure the #1 seed in the NFC:
Week 10: vs. Seahawks
Week 11: vs. Cardinals
Week 12: vs. Packers
Week 13: @ Ravens
Week 14: @ Saints
Week 15: vs. Falcons
Week 16: vs. Rams
Week 17: @ Seahawks
Under these circumstances, Garoppolo’s year-end numbers were still above average for a first-year starter, with work just needing to be done in the interception category (13, though five were off the hands of receivers). He actually endured the sixth-highest drop rate in the league, per Al Sacco of 49ers Webzone.
And still, he had 3,978 passing yards (24 yards less than Aaron Rodgers on 93 less attempts), 27 touchdowns (only four QBs had more and one was volume passer, Jameis Winston), a 69.1 completion % (4th best in the NFL, and two guys ahead of him, Drew Brees and Ryan Tannehill, didn’t play entire seasons), and he finished with a QB rating of 102.0 (8th in the NFL, three points shy of Patrick Mahomes).
He was also incredibly clutch, posting the best 4th quarter QBR in the NFL, the highest passer rating in the NFL when trailing, and the league’s highest conversion rate when passing on third down. As the QB – in which the team saw every kind of game – he commanded a unit that finished No. 4 in total offense and No. 2 in total points.
And, Garoppolo threw an array of dimes in competitive moments that helped win games:
His numbers, performances, as well as the NFL landscape, all tell us he’s easily an above average QB right now. So, Garoppolo did his fair share of the lifting in 2019.
Okay, you’re replacing him…but with what?
Are elite quarterbacks falling out of the sky all of a sudden and I missed the memo? If they’re moving on from someone that’s turned in results as quickly as Garoppolo has, surely it’s because they know for a fact they can acquire a QB that can deliver the moon, right?
But the reality is they won't be in arm's reach of any of the top passers in this year’s or next year’s drafts – scratch Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence or any transformative passers like that. Then what? They're guessing on Day 2 and 3 prospects again? They went this route before and drew C.J. Beathard. That could happen again. They might as well start Nick Mullens.
Free agency is dangling past-their-prime gunslingers Tom Brady and Philip Rivers, and tier-2/3 guys who still haven't quite made it, like Case Keenum, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater and Winston. It's also possible Kirk Cousins and Cam Newton could be attainable, but at a cost. And yet not one of these names is a clear upgrade. All recognizable names, sure, but not the future of the 49ers.
And, if Garoppolo is so bad, why would 20+ teams be lining up to get him if he were the one made available, because they would be. Other than Seattle and teams with young studs like Kansas City, Baltimore and Houston, every team could be in the mix for an under-30 QB with his record, numbers, traits, and trajectory. So, anyone floating Garoppolo “should be traded because he’s holding the team back” might also ask themselves why there’d be such a long list of suitors.
Why should the Niners be desperate to cut loose a quality QB in this market? Especially when they themselves are equipped with no money, picks or draft position to replenish the position. It would be the height of stupidity.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
This franchise was six minutes away from its sixth Super Bowl title, and didn’t get it for a multitude of reasons. I get the idea of swinging for the fences – going for the upgrade – but the margin for improvement is much smaller because of where Garoppolo is at vs. the field of available quarterbacks (even more so when you include what the 49ers have for assets). That said, there should be fear of getting caught in “the cycle” or QB purgatory again. You know what I'm talking about, the J.T. O’Sullivan, Tim Rattay, Shaun Hill, Trent Dilfer, Ken Dorsey, Cody Pickett, Troy Smith cycle or the Blaine Gabbert, Brian Hoyer, C.J. Beathard cycle for the 2000s babies.
Those are the Sundays when you hoped the 49ers were just competitive and lost by less than 10. You can have those days back, if you want.
The other thing is, Garoppolo’s immeasurables – you either believe or you don’t. His presence, to me, is a thing (especially after watching years of "the cycle"). When he is with the team, versus the year he was injured and home healing, it was not the same. The aura or swagger they had in the 5-0 stretch and again during this 13-3 run was not there. So say what you will, but him being in the lineup has the rest of the team believing they can win. And they do. Whatever that is, though, is too difficult to quantify when presenting a case for his value and it often gets left out – which is unfortunate as it’s a big part of Garoppolo’s worth in particular.
Garoppolo finished 2019 top 10 – top five even – in most passing categories; he has the buy-in from the entire organization; with his humility he’s a great representative to have for the franchise; and most importantly, since he’s arrived, he’s made it work on the field with whatever cast Shanahan surrounds him with, and he’s delivering wins. Despite his apparent glitches and areas for improvement, it’s still shown that more often than not Garoppolo gives a team a chance to be competitive or better each week.
And, I can't believe I have to write this: But what were the 49ers before Garoppolo? They certainly weren't relevant, at least not in a good way. They have been relevant -- to the game -- with him.
Why tinker with that?
Media courtesy Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images, Michael Zagaris/Getty Images, Jose Carlos Fajardo/Getty Images
Statistics courtesy Pro Football Reference and NFL.com
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