Kyler Murray

Examining 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo's case as NFC West's most clutch

Examining 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo's case as NFC West's most clutch

Jimmy Garoppolo’s play as the 49ers quarterback has been hyper-analyzed over the past two seasons, as fans try to decide whether the organization indeed has found its franchise quarterback.

Winning certainly hasn’t been an issue for Garoppolo in the Bay Area, as he’s been the victor in 21 of his 26 regular-season starts.

His play in the fourth quarter was particularly impressive during his first full season as a starting quarterback, as evidenced by the numbers.

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Solely based off those stats, the argument could be made as to Jimmy G being considered a clutch quarterback.

But how does his fourth-quarter play stack up with his three opposing starters in the NFC West?

Garoppolo’s fourth-quarter passer rating (107.1) far surpasses that of Jared Goff with the Los Angeles Rams (79.7), Kyler Murray with the Arizona Cardinals (82.2) and Seattle Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson (99.4). The 49ers’ propensity for being ahead late in games last season allowed Garoppolo to hand the ball plenty in the final quarter, but close games in New Orleans in Week 14 and against the Rams in Week 16 showed that Jimmy G can make plays when it counts.

Garoppolo’s touchdown-to-interception ratio (6-1) only is bested by Wilson (7-1), who is one of the league’s best when it comes to limiting turnovers. Garoppolo also paces the division’s QBs in fourth-quarter completion percentage (70.09).

[RELATED: Jimmy Garoppolo absorbs Joe Montana's wisdom about winning]

Having one of the league’s best defenses on his side makes Garoppolo’s job immensely easier, as coach Kyle Shanahan rarely had to rely on passing the ball to win games. Goff and Murray played quite a bit from behind in 2019, which was a detriment to their efficiency. 

Wilson’s late-game heroics are a focal point of his reputation around the NFL, as 49ers fans saw first-hand during last year’s Week 10 loss to the Seahawks at Levi’s Stadium. But Wilson had a completion percentage below 50 in the red zone last season, where efficiency becomes even more imperative for a QB. Jimmy G was at just over 63 percent in the same zone, throwing 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

While Wilson clearly stands alone as the NFC West’s best quarterback entering 2020, Jimmy G and his clutch play in the final minutes aren’t far behind.

Why 49ers' toughest NFC West foe might be Cardinals in 2020 NFL season

Why 49ers' toughest NFC West foe might be Cardinals in 2020 NFL season

The Seattle Seahawks far and away have been the 49ers’ toughest divisional rival over the past decade. Over the past decade, the Seahawks or 49ers won seven of the 10 NFC West titles.

But after a surprising 2019 season and some eye-popping offseason moves, the Arizona Cardinals could be prepared to push for the divisional crown.

"This is probably the best football team I've been a part of on paper," Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson told the Hyperice Lab Podcast last week (h/t azcardinals.com).

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Peterson even has visions of reaching the same heights San Francisco climbed to in 2020.

"It's going to come down to us to manage the locker room, manage the egos and make sure everybody is on the same page and understand that we have to commit to one another, believe in one another and trust one another," Peterson said. "If we do those three things, we can be in Tampa (for the Super Bowl) ready to face whoever, and ready to hopefully bring that Lombardi trophy, the first Lombardi trophy, home to Arizona."

The Niners came up short of the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy in February at the hands of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Could Arizona catch up to the 49ers this season?

The Cardinals completed the NFL’s most notorious offseason trade in March, sending former All-Pro running back David Johnson for elite wideout DeAndre Hopkins from the Houston Texans. Hopkins is universally regarded as one of the league’s best wide receivers, if not the best.

Johnson has labored through injuries in recent seasons and lost his starting spot to Chase Edmonds in the back half of 2019.

Rookie quarterback Kyler Murray showed flashes of the talent that made him a Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick in Arizona last season and now has had a full year to digest and understand coach Kliff Kingsbury’s playbook. Murray brought home the Offensive Rookie of the Year award after throwing for over 3,700 yards and 22 touchdowns while also rushing for 544 yards.

To top it off, general manager Steve Keim got high marks from across the league for the Cardinals’ 2020 draft, bringing in a six-player haul including Clemson’s versatile defender Isaiah Simmons in the first round.

Arizona had the worst pass defense in the NFL last season, but Peterson was suspended for the first six games and rookie second-round pick Byron Murphy started all 16 games at cornerback. There was an abundance of youth at the position last year, and there's only room to improve for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. Simmons likely will be a key part of improving that group.

Coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers had some problems with Arizona in the duo’s first matchup a season ago, sneaking out of Glendale with a 28-25 win in a sloppy Thursday night game. Playing on a short week tends to lessen the margin between the two Thursday Night Football combatants on a regular basis, but the Cardinals made an impression nevertheless. 

San Francisco won both matchups with Arizona in 2019, but they were far from a cakewalk.

[RELATED: 49ers' NFC Championship Game dominance still fresh on Packers' minds]

Now that Murray’s arsenal of weapons has expanded and the defense has improved significantly, those two dates could be a concern for the 49ers in 2020. In fact, the Niners will open the regular season by hosting the Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium in Week 1. San Francisco also is scheduled to play at Arizona in Week 16.

To be fair, the Niners also loaded up this offseason, adding multi-time Pro Bowl selection Trent Williams in a trade with Washington and drafting two promising prospects in defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw and Arizona State speedster Brandon Aiyuk.

Another note in the 49ers' favor: quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has owned Arizona in three career starts against the Cardinals.

The Seahawks still have Russell Wilson and a strong defense, so they shouldn’t be counted out by any stretch of the imagination.

But if Murray and Hopkins develop a quick rapport and the young signal-caller continues his rapid development, Arizona could be the team at the heels of the 49ers in the NFC West race.

Predicting 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo, NFC West rival QB's stats in 2020

Predicting 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo, NFC West rival QB's stats in 2020

Jimmy Garoppolo was solid last season. But the pressure is on for him to take a leap in 2020.

After shaking off the rust in the early part of the season, Garoppolo found his groove in the second half of the season, helping the 49ers to a 13-3 record and the No.1  seed in the NFC. Garoppolo was average in the playoffs. The 49ers ran the ball down the throats of both the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers en route to the Super Bowl. In Miami, Garoppolo threw an atrocious first-quarter pick before rebounding nicely in the middle part of the game to help the 49ers take the lead. But the lasting memory of Garoppolo to this point, is him overthrowing a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders on the could-be game-winning touchdown with under two minutes to play.

The 49ers discussed pursuing Tom Brady this offseason, but chose to stick with Garoppolo, believing he's the long-term answer at quarterback. So, what does the leap look like and can Garoppolo make the jump in the tough NFC West?

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Let's predict Garoppolo and his division counterpart's stats for the 2020 season.

Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers

Sanders is gone, but Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Kendrick Bourne and rookie Brandon Aiyuk should give Garoppolo plenty of weapons to spread the ball around to. The 49ers ranked second in the NFL in rushing attempts last season, so while Shanahan wants to see growth from Garoppolo, expect the ground attack to still take center stage.

Samuel flashed potential in his rookie season, but now he must fill the role as the No. 1 wide receiver and second option in the passing game behind Kittle. Aiyuk has great YAC ability, but rookie receivers often struggle to make a quick transition to the NFL. With no OTAs due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it could take Aiyuk some time to get up to speed.

The biggest issue facing Garoppolo is his decision-making ability. He threw too many head-scratching picks and defenses dropped eight potential interceptions, the sixth-most in the NFL.

While I expect Garoppolo to make a slight tick up in 2020, I wouldn't expect his numbers to look all that different from what they were in 2020. Expect around 4,000 yards and double-digit interceptions.

Projected 2020 stats: 71.4 percent completion rate, 4,129 yards, 25 touchdowns, 14 interceptions

Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

49ers fans love to hate Wilson and for good reason. He's been a thorn in their side ever since he entered the league. He never gets hurt and has the ability to take what is, in general, an average roster and elevate them to greatness.

The Seahawks didn't do much in the offseason to improve the cast around Wilson, but he'll still have Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf and Phillip Dorsett to throw the ball too.

Seattle might want to open up the playbook a bit and let Wilson spin it more than they have in previous seasons. He is, after all, a top-five quarterback.

Projected 2020 stats: 67.8 percent completion rate, 4,356 yards, 36 touchdowns, seven interceptions

Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals

After drawing some criticism for dumping 2018 first-round pick Josh Rosen after one season, the Cardinals quickly were justified in their decision to build their franchise around Kyler Murray.

The 2018 Heisman Trophy winner was electric during his rookie season, coming on late to surpass Raiders running back Josh Jacobs for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Another year in Kliff Kingsbury's offense coupled with the addition of DeAndre Hopkins and the bolstering of a shaky offensive line should make Murray all the more dangerous in Year 2.

He's an MVP dark horse and I wouldn't be shocked to see him take home the award in his second season, following in the footsteps of Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes.

Projected 2020 stats: 65.1 percent completion, 4,612 yards, 32 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 615 rushing yards, seven touchdowns

[RELATED: Seahawks' easy late schedule could hurt 49ers in NFC West race]

Jared Goff, LA Rams

The Rams cut bait with the hobbled Todd Gurley and jettisoned the expensive Brandin Cooks to Houston. Goff still has Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, rookie Van Jefferson and tight end Tyler Higbee.

But LA had the 31st ranked offensive line in the NFL last season and didn't do a thing to fix it. Couple that with the fact that Goff threw the most play-action passes in 2019 while having the NFL's lowest passer rating on play-action passes.

That might not all be Goff's fault, but it's certainly not a good sign. Goff was the best quarterback on play-action in 2018, so he needs to find that form if the Rams are to contend in 2020.

Projected 2020 stats: 61.3 percent completion rate, 4, 478 yards, 23 touchdowns, 16 interceptions.