Jimmy Garoppolo has started 36 games since coming to the 49ers during the 2017 season.
Why, after all this time, is he still so tough to figure out?
Garoppolo’s performance Sunday night in the 49ers’ 30-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers incapsulated the elements that make it so difficult to properly classify him.
Garoppolo is not one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the NFL. We know that.
He is also not one of the 10 worst starters — despite which way the wind is blowing among the 49ers’ fan base.
Even the 49ers’ decision-makers appear confused.
The 49ers signed Garoppolo to a big-money contract after seeing him for five starts at the end of his first season in San Francisco. In his only full season, the 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers are a dramatically better team when he plays than when he does not. That is indisputable, though it also has a lot to do with the level of 49ers backups in recent seasons.
Clearly, it was a priority for the 49ers during the offseason to have another long-term plan. Despite what they might say, the issues the 49ers have with Garoppolo are not solely injury-related.
Coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch investigated the possibility of bringing in several other veteran quarterbacks, including the brief phone call that took place between Shanahan and Packers coach Matt LaFleur about Aaron Rodgers.
The 49ers were so determined to acquire their quarterback of the future, they traded two future first-round picks, and a third-rounder, to move up nine spots to select Trey Lance.
Yet, Garoppolo remains the current unquestioned starter. The belief is that he gives the 49ers the best chance to win now — but not in the future.
Through most of Sunday night’s game, Garoppolo was part of the problem, it seemed.
In the closing minute, he was the solution.
Ultimately, one of the best quarterbacks in league history had enough time to connect on two passes down the field and set up Mason Crosby for the game-winning kick as time expired.
If Crosby misses that 51-yard kick, we are hailing Garoppolo for his clutch play in a rousing come-from-behind victory.
If Crosby misses that kick, we remember — but do not fixate on — Garoppolo’s ugly fourth-quarter fumble when he was trying to get rid of the ball to avoid a sack. We would also brush aside his first-half interception on a deep throw for George Kittle.
Despite the many imperfections of a decidedly imperfect 49ers performance Sunday night, they were in a position to win the game. And this was on a night the 49ers presented no threat with their running game and had to compensate for in-game injuries to cornerbacks Josh Norman and K'Waun Williams.
The 49ers took over with 2:39 remaining in the fourth quarter, down by six points. The first and only goal for Garoppolo was to get the team into the end zone. If that came on the first play on the drive, the 49ers would have accomplished their objective.
As it turned out, it took Garoppolo eight plays to travel 75 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Along the way, Garoppolo converted two third-and-10 passes.
When the 49ers took their final snap with 43 seconds remaining, there were 12 seconds on the play clock.
They could have easily let several more seconds tick off the clock. But there probably was not a lot of belief when Shanahan called the play that fullback Kyle Juszczyk would turn the 5-yard pass into a 12-yard touchdown.
Also, Garoppolo pointed out the 49ers had momentum. The Packers’ defense was on its heels. If the 49ers took a lot of time, that could have allowed the Packers’ defense a chance to regroup.
“We were kind of in a good rhythm,” Garoppolo said. “That's where you toe the line of, you’ve got the defense on their heels. I mean, it's really hard to score down there in the red zone as it is. Do you want to let them catch their breath and type of that type of thing?”
Of course, they left time — too much time — for Rodgers.
The 49ers’ clock management left plenty of room for second-guessing. But if the 49ers had a do-over after knowing they scored a touchdown, there is no way they would have turned down the go-ahead score to run more time off the clock with no guarantee of a touchdown.
Ultimately, most of the blame for this loss has to be directed at the 49ers’ defense.
Rodgers is great, so it was not an easy assignment for DeMeco Ryans’ defense. With Rodgers’ success throwing Hail Mary passes, it figured there would be some uneasy moments in the final seconds.
Instead, Rodgers connected on pass plays of 25 yards and 17 yards to set up the winning field goal. No miracle was required.
The 49ers’ defense is supposed to be the strength of the team. The defense should have been counted on to slam the door shut.
The 49ers have their issues at cornerback, so the pass rush has to be a dominant part of this team. The Packers did all they could to negate Nick Bosa and Co. on Sunday night.
Rodgers was under pressure on just five of his 34 drop-backs, according to Pro Football Focus. He generally got rid of the ball quickly to make it difficult on the 49ers’ pass rush. The average time from snap to release for Rodgers was just 2.15 seconds.
Still, Rodgers made plenty of big plays down the field, including three pass interference penalties that accounted for a total of 81 yards.
The 49ers turned it over to their four best pass-rushers at the end of the game: Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead and Samson Ebukam. Those four did not get enough pressure on Rodgers when it counted the most.
Linebacker Fred Warner did not drop deep enough to break up Rodgers’ first-down pass to Davante Adams, which went for 25 yards.
“That one stings probably the most, knowing that I was that close and could have sealed the game on that one play,” Warner said. “I look at myself and see how I could have played that one better.
“I have to look at myself hard. I have to take it on the chin every time. If you want to point fingers at anyone, point them at me. I don’t have any problems with it. I know that I am built for it and I know that I am going to be better.”
Two plays later, Rodgers again had time to throw and found Adams for 17 yards. Adams got behind Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson and in front of Deommodore Lenoir and Talanoa Hufanga to make the catch.
Rodgers pumped his fist in an early celebration after spiking the ball with three seconds remaining to set up the winning kick.
Three seconds the 49ers could have easily let run off the clock before their final offensive play.
Three seconds that would have been irrelevant if the defense had done its job.
Three seconds that completely changed the perception of Garoppolo’s night of work.