49ers

Schrock's observations: Jimmy G's backward pass opens door for Lance

49ers
Jimmy Garoppolo

Week 3 in the NFL saw a 66-yard game-winning field goal, a 109-yard return for a touchdown off a missed 68-yard attempt, a funeral for Ben Roethlisberger's NFL career, a statement from the Los Angeles Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs leaving the week in the cellar of the AFC West.

We have five undefeated teams left. One of them -- the Rams -- is for real. The other four (Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers and Las Vegas Raiders) still have to prove their fast start is more than just a product of a favorable schedule.

On the other side of the coin, the Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers are exit the week at 1-2 and in need of answers. The Seahawks, Patriots and Steelers all are staring 1-3 in the face with tough Week 4 games ahead.

But we start the observations in Santa Clara, where a late Jimmy Garoppolo mistake helped lead to the 49ers' first loss of the season and might just provide the opening for the beginning of the Trey Lance era.

RELATED: Where 49ers sit in NFL power rankings after Week 3

 

Door is opening

Everyone knew Jimmy Garoppolo would be under an insane amount of pressure entering the season, needing to elevate his game, perform at a consistently high level, not make mistakes and lead the 49ers to wins in order to hang on to his job. If all of those boxes weren't checked -- hell, even if they were -- the calls for Trey Lance to start would begin and only grow louder and louder.

 

Well, we've already reached that point through three weeks and after the 49ers' last-second 30-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night at Levi's Stadium, it's fair to say the door has started to crack open for Lance.

And one mistake late in the fourth quarter might be the moment we look back on as the beginning of the end for Garoppolo's tenure as a 49er.

With 5:08 left in the game and the 49ers trailing 24-21 with the ball at the Packers' 44 yard-line, Garoppolo faked a hand-off as the 49ers set up for a screen. The running back got hung up in the line and Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark was let through too early, pressuring Garoppolo as soon as the play-fake was carried out. With Clark in his face, Garoppolo tried to throw the ball away, but Clark hit his arm, and Garoppolo threw the ball backward, resulting in a fumble that the Packers recovered. Green Bay would go on to tack on three more points to take a 27-21 lead.

In a game the Packers won by two, those three points made all the difference.

It was a microcosm of the Garoppolo experience. The 29-year-old put together long stretches of solid play only to follow it up with a mind-boggling mistake.

Garoppolo was OK through the first two weeks, and while the 49ers' offense lacked a general explosiveness, San Francisco took care of business and returned home at 2-0.

But with the running game in disarray to injuries to Raheem Mostert, JaMychal Hasty and Elijah Mitchell, the 49ers had to rely on Garoppolo more Sunday night against the Packers. With the threat of the rushing attack diminished, the Packers were able to sit on the short and intermediate throws to the middle of the field, not believing Garoppolo could beat them deep or to the boundary.

They weren't incorrect.

On the night, Garoppolo went 25-for-40 for 257 yards, two touchdown passes and one interception. But the offense sputtered out of the gate and too many of Garoppolo's throws are high and over the middle, begging to be picked off.

Garoppolo entered the season as the unquestioned starter. Lance was the signal-caller of the future, and coach Kyle Shanahan would decide when the future became the present.

Garoppolo encased himself in armor and has deflected the arrows of criticism slung at him from all corners. But the truth of the matter is that Lance's ability to stretch the field vertically and provide a genuine run threat gives the 49ers a dimension they need.

There's a reason Shanahan has inserted Lance during the most crucial situations -- third down and in the red zone -- and that's because the rookie's talent gives the 49ers more room for error.

After Justin Herbert's incredible success last season, it's fair to say you no longer have to sit a rookie just to sit him. If he has the tools and the team is equipped to support him, there is no need to have him on the sideline.

 

After three weeks, Garoppolo's hold might be starting to slip and we might look back and view that backward pass as the first real crack in the veteran's armor.

The Next Great QB Rivalry?

Early in his spectacular NFL career, Patrick Mahomes has owned those who are supposed to be his contemporaries.

He's 2-0 against Josh Allen, 3-0 against Baker Mayfield and 3-1 against Lamar Jackson. Mahomes has thoroughly dominated the quarterbacks thought to be the other top signal-callers in his era.

But as good as Allen, Mayfield and Jackson are, they are all admittedly a step below Mahomes, the unquestioned best quarterback in the NFL. Mahomes, equipped with an arsenal that would make Sheev Palpatine blush, should have the upper hand on those three. There is no rivalry when one side rolls over the other constantly, just like a hawk has no rivalry with the unsuspecting mouse that it plucks from a field and devours.

But Mahomes might finally have his rival in Justin Herbert.

During the American Century Championship this summer, a fan told Mahomes to watch out for Herbert this season. The Chiefs star quickly dismissed the idea like he was discarding another challenge from Allen, Mayfield, or Jackson.

But Herbert got the better of Mahomes on Sunday, throwing for 281 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Chargers to a 30-24 win and sending Mahomes and the Chiefs to a 1-2 start.

Herbert is now 1-1 against Mahomes and the two will be seeing each other twice a year for the foreseeable future as the headliners of the AFC West.

Herbert went toe-to-toe with Mahomes in his first NFL start in Week 2 last season and outplayed him Sunday in their second-career duel. He also is one of the only quarterbacks in the NFL with the arm talent and playmaking ability to match Mahomes on a down-to-down basis.

Both have Howitzers strapped to their right side that sends Twitter into a weekly tizzy, the fearlessness to take and complete throws 95 percent of the league wouldn't dream of and an aura of inevitability that they'll rip your heart out when they get the chance.

Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning spoiled NFL fans for two decades. That rivalry took time, playoff battles and championships to cement.

Mahomes and Herbert have the talent and star power to build their rivalry to that level. Mahomes has already vanquished all other would-be rivals. But Herbert won't be easily dismissed.

Are the Chiefs in trouble?

The Chiefs will go to bed Sunday at 1-2 and in last place in the AFC West. For the first time midway through the 2015 season, the Chiefs have a losing record.

So, what's wrong with the team that was expected to run roughshod over the NFL for the next decade? What always happens. Opponents catch up.

For three seasons, Mahomes and Andy Reid have been peacocking around the NFL, shredding opponents in any way they choose.

 

But to stay on top in the NFL, you have to keep evolving.

While the Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV over the 49ers, it was clear the blueprint had been laid out and the Chiefs needed to stay ahead of the pack. Injuries and COVID opt-outs kept the Chiefs from doing that last season, and it largely worked until the Bucs exposed their patchwork offensive line in the Super Bowl.

But with Sunday's loss to the Chargers, it's clear that teams are catching up to how to stop Reid and Mahomes' attack. Teams have spent three years studying the Chiefs and how to stop them, knowing they are the standard. The Chargers imported a new-age defensive mind in Brandon Staley, who relishes the challenge of making life hard on Mahomes instead of cowering in fear of what the Chiefs star is about to do to his defense.

Things just aren't as easy for the Chiefs as they used to be. That's life in the NFL. You have to evolve to stay ahead and stay on top. The Chiefs are a botched punt from potentially being 0-3, and at the moment are getting by mainly on the pure talent of Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. The Hill-Kelce crossers will always be a weapon, but the Chiefs have to find a way to get back ahead of the competition.

They have been the hunted for three seasons, and the pack is now clear to see in the rearview mirror.

Seahawks already on the ropes

A Week 1 air show against the Indianapolis Colts had many people thinking it was a new day in the Pacific Northwest and that the Russell Wilson-Shane Waldron partnership would have the Seahawks battling for another NFC West crown.

Well, it's two weeks later, the Colts are 0-3 and the Seahawks' defense is rendering the offense insignificant. After a 30-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, the Seahawks are now 1-2 and their season can spiral out of control quickly.

The Seahawks' defense has given up 985 yards and 63 points in the last two weeks. They are currently in last place in the brutally tough NFC West and have the 49ers and Los Angeles Rams on deck. If the defense doesn't get fixed soon, Seattle will be staring at a 1-4 start and a lost season with a quarterback who made it clear this past offseason that he wouldn't mind changing zip codes.

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