Not so long ago, Jimmy Garoppolo was the crown prince of Santa Clara and poised to reign over the entire Bay.
Remember those crazy days way back in 2017, when the 49ers stunk and the kid from New England made a late relief appearance in an inevitable loss to Seattle and dropped a dime on Louis Murphy in the end zone and then energized the fan base with five straight wins to close out a terrible season?
Ah, simpler times.
Optimism was sky high over a young quarterback who made girls swoon and guys drop big bucks expensive No. 10 jerseys, believing in their heart of hearts that Garoppolo was the man to lead this storied franchise out of the dumps and back to the Super Bowl.
Well, he did it.
Garoppolo lead an excellent team to Super Bowl LIV and came up short. That’s all fans seem to recall, now openly questioning the quarterback they once adored.
The memory of Emmanuel Sanders coming deep over the middle of the field late in Super Bowl LIV and Garoppolo overshooting the moon especially has staying power as fans mourn a golden opportunity missed.
News flash: The 49ers didn’t lose the Super Bowl on that one play. That game tape’s littered with missteps leading to a blown 10-point, fourth-quarter lead and a failed comeback attempt on that fateful night. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and Garoppolo should shoulder some of it for the Sanders miss and other errors less clear to the untrained eye.
Sure feels like he’s taking the brunt. Offseason criticism has morphed from turnover concerns and misreads – Kyle Shanahan can coach those out of him -- to a general debate over whether he’s the right man for the job.
Notice that you haven’t seen reporting of doubts emanating from the inside 49ers complex, where the opinions really matter. Teammates have come to Garoppolo’s defense time and again, with fullback Kyle Juszczyk as his quarterback’s self-appointed bodyguard in the press, and others lining up to support their guy. There are no off-the-record hits ripping Garoppolo or his recent performance to shreds. That in itself is telling. So is the fact they pondered Tom Brady and passed.
This is an outside job. Garoppolo has become a pinata for sports-radio segments and debate shows, for fans looking to compare and contrast him with other quarterbacks in his tax bracket. That was happening some before the season ended but peaked after the playoff run fell just short, with aftershocks intermittently when news would re-open the quarterback discussion.
I sat down Tuesday planning to write a statistical defense of Garoppolo’s 2019 season and his 49ers tenure in general, proving he’s far better than some people think, but it morphed into an exploration of why someone so likeable is disliked by a very vocal sect.
The numbers are still relevant here, so let’s start with the basics. He was top five in touchdowns (27), completion percentage (69.1) and yards per attempt (8.4) during the regular season.
Several Pro Football Focus metrics, from adjusted completion percentage (78.8) to deep passing percentage (105.2) to passer rating in a clean pocket (110.8) rank in the top 10. His passer rating under pressure (74.2) is a tick above Aaron Rodgers and his rating off play action (109.3) is upper tier.
He ranks 11th in DYAR and DVOA, metrics used by Football Outsiders to quantify a quarterback’s total value and value per play. That, too, is pretty darn good.
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After a while, all that info becomes jumbled numbers and alphabet soup, stealing focus from the one stat that truly matters.
That’s Garoppolo’s record as 49ers starting quarterback in the regular season and playoffs. And, yeah, wins are a team stat and the 49ers are a damn good team, maybe a great one all around. The unit is not, in any shape or form, covering for poor quarterback play.
Lackluster quarterbacks can drag a good team down, tear a bubble team asunder and keep an awful one really bad.
Garoppolo has elevated his team several times, with proof in another number that matters.
Garoppolo has orchestrated that many fourth-quarter comebacks as a 49er. That’s 28 percent of his total victories and 22 percent of his games. He had four last season alone, which, if we’re into ranking quarterbacks, was tied for first with Russell Wilson and Josh Allen in 2019.
Garoppolo could’ve done more to help the 49ers win the Super Bowl. That’s a given. Let’s imagine for a second that Garoppolo fails to rally the 49ers against the Steelers or Cardinals or Saints or Rams. Even one misstep costs the 49ers a division title and maybe they never get to Miami.
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Plain and simple: Garoppolo helps his team win far more often than not.
With that in mind, why is Garoppolo taking so much heat after his first full season running Shanahan’s system?
The first of three reasons: He played a part in the 49ers losing a Super Bowl. That’s a first for this organization and its fans, spoiled by a previously perfect 5-0 record with a Lombardi Trophy on the line. This new and unpleasant experience has been prolonged by an ongoing public health crisis preventing games in other sports and NFL offseason programs to proceed as usual. Turning the page helps the grieving process and that hasn’t fully happened yet, even with free agency and the NFL draft come and gone.
The second: While Joe Montana and Steve Young are now viewed reverentially and borderline infallible, but don’t forget they were criticized in the moment. There’s a great YouTube clip of Young after essentially securing a Super Bowl victory over the Chargers, asking teammates to finally take the monkey off his back. That’s how much pressure there is to deliver in a 49ers uniform.
Meet an incredibly high standard or take some flak for failures. That’s part of the deal.
The third: Garoppolo’s contract structure allows eyes to wander. The 49ers can cut Garoppolo after the 2020 season or the next with little dead money attached, daring fans to dream of Aaron Rodgers in red and gold starting in 2021, or another option who could theoretically take the 49ers to the top after Garoppolo came up short.
So we all compare and contrast and dissect every subtle nuance of a quarterback who was given fair market value while playing a position paid based upon when your contract’s up often over merit. While he spent some time atop the quarterback pay scale – that in itself increases expectations -- Garoppolo’s average annual salary now ranks 11th in the league, with a lower percentage of guaranteed money than any passer above him.
His teammates say he’s well equipped for life under a microscope, a positive for the 49ers considering he’ll be there most of the 2020 season as his easy contract out gets closer. There’s no doubting he’ll be the starting quarterback next year and could hold the title well beyond that.
Those who long for another option should ponder whether he’s the right fit for the team and the right fit for the scheme. The answer to both heading into the 2020 season is an unqualified yes.