Film Room: Jimmy Garoppolo's missed Super Bowl throw stings five months later
As someone who watches, analyzes, tweets and writes about the San Francisco 49ers on a day-to-day basis, there's certain plays that I can't forget — even if it's been five months. The dog days of the NFL offseason are in full effect, which means that it is the ideal time to re-evaluate these key moments from 2019 while preparing for the upcoming year.
There was 1:50 on the clock, as the 49ers were lined up at their own 49-yard line, facing a 3rd-and-10 with the Lombardi Trophy there for the taking. San Francisco needed a first down to keep their Super Bowl hopes alive and offensive guru Kyle Shanahan went into a familiar formation, putting tight end George Kittle in the backfield for extra protection.
Before we dissect the play in the Super Bowl, let's back up 43 days to the Week 16 matchup between the Rams and 49ers at Levi's Stadium — a game that had far less stakes. On San Francisco's game-winning drive, Shanahan and the offense faced a similar predicament on two separate occasions.
They needed to convert two 3rd-and-16's in order to win and somehow, someway, the offense managed to move the chains and keep that drive alive both times. In order to do so, Shanahan and passing-game coordinator Mike LaFleur relied on a Palm-Swirl concept in order to advance in these unimaginable situations.
Thanks to Fourth and Nine's Alex Byrne, here are the four plays out of the 49ers' playbook that are based on the Wide Post-Palm-Swirl passing concept.
This passing concept involves a Wide Post and Palm (Miami) routes working one half of the field, while a Swirl route works on the opposite side. There will be a running back and tight end in the backfield in order to provide extra pass protection for these deep-developing routes.
For this concept, the Palm route is the primary read, the Swirl route is the secondary read and the flat routes are the final reads. The Wide Post route is an "alert," which means that if the pre-snap defensive look bodes well for this route, then it becomes the primary look and everything falls in sequence.
Back to the first 3rd-and-16 vs. Rams, when Shanahan calls this passing concept from their own 18-yard line. Deebo Samuel is running the Wide Post route, Kendrick Bourne is running the Palm route and Emmanuel Sanders will run the Swirl route. George Kittle and Raheem Mostert are in the backfield. Their primary objective is to provide pass protection, if not they will leak into the flat to provide an outlet for Garoppolo.
Given the single-high safety, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo should settle in on the Palm route as his primary read and work through his progressions from there.
Just as expected, Garoppolo's first read in this concept opens up and he delivers a strike as Bourne falls backward towards the line to gain.
A few plays later, the 49ers find themselves in the same predicament. Kyle Shanahan probably thought if it worked once, shouldn't the same concept work again? He slightly tweaks the formation, flipping Samuel and Sanders, as well as Mostert and Kittle.
This time around, Sanders is running the Wide Post route and Samuel's running the Swirl route, with Bourne still running the Palm route in the middle of the field.
However, unlike the last 3rd-and-16, the Rams look to be in a Cover-2 look, putting both of their safeties deep. This Cover-2 look sets off the "Alert," likely meaning that Sanders is the first read in this progression, not Bourne.
As Garoppolo explained after the game, Rams' safety Taylor Rapp got too wide and deep, which meant that Sanders would be running free down the middle of the field. Despite having his arm hit, the former Patriot was able to hit his wide receiver for a huge first down.
Kyle Shanahan decided to use the same Palm-Swirl concept for a third time, but unlike the first two times, the results were not as forgiving in the Super Bowl. The formation that Shanahan ran in the Super Bowl was a third variation of the same passing concept.
While Sanders and Bourne are lined up on the same side of the field like the previous 3rd-and-16 play, Shanahan puts Kittle on the opposite side, next to Samuel. All three receivers will be running the exact same route as the previous play.
The pre-snap defensive alignment does not look as obvious as the last two plays, which likely plays into Jimmy Garoppolo's decision making on the throw.
Given the magnitude of the moment, the pressure on his shoulders, the rapidly declining clock, Garoppolo must have felt that Sanders' Wide Post should be the primary read on the play.
After the ball is snapped, Garoppolo does not take his eyes off of Sanders and delivers a good ball with time in the pocket, but happened to overthrow the receiver by about five yards.
The other frustrating part of this throw was if Garoppolo read the pre-snap defensive alignment correctly, he would have stuck to the Palm route as his primary target, who happened to be open right at the first-down marker. Instead, Garoppolo chose to pass to the double-covered Sanders and the rest was history.
Was this the reason that the 49ers lost the Super Bowl? Nope.
Robert Saleh's defense wilted in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, while Shanahan's offense could not properly execute after moving the ball well for 50 minutes. There isn't one single player or play that directly correlates to this heartbreaking Super Bowl loss.
But with any loss, there's one moment that is unforgettable — even five months later — and this overthrow from Garoppolo is what everyone will remember.
Akash Anavarathan covers the 49ers for Fourth and Nine. Follow him at Twitter @akashanav.