Ryan Clark

How four Jimmy Garoppolo throws vs. Rams show 49ers can easily improve

How four Jimmy Garoppolo throws vs. Rams show 49ers can easily improve

The 49ers weren't expected to begin the 2019 season with five consecutive wins, so you'll have to forgive people if they're slow to adjust to the developing landscape.

Current ESPN analyst and former NFL defensive back Ryan Clark is one of those people.

After San Francisco started 2-0, he wasn't willing to buy in, calling the 49ers "pretenders."

"They are faking us out," Clark said on an episode of ESPN's "NFL Live." "They are imitators, pretenders, whatever you want to say. They are not the real deal at 2-0."

Since then, the 49ers have won their last three games, including an impressive road victory over the Rams on Sunday. That win in Los Angeles was enough to sway Clark's opinion of the 49ers. However, when he announced his change of heart to the world, it was through a backhanded compliment.

As if Aaron Donald wasn't enough, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has to take shots from former players, too.

Sheesh.

First off, let's just start by saying it's all too evident that Clark is unwilling to let go of his personal bias. He was critical of Garoppolo following Week 1, and made the "pretenders" comment after Garoppolo had thrown for 296 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-point road win at Cincinnati in Week 2. From a head-to-head comparison perspective, Garoppolo was objectively superior to Rudolph in San Francisco's win over the Steelers in Week 3.

Care to guess which franchise Clark was a member of for the majority of his playing career?

Nailed it. Clark played eight seasons in Pittsburgh.

So, yes, it appears Clark has some sour grapes when it comes to Jimmy G, as Garoppolo produced his highest completion percentage of the season while throwing for 243 yards against the Rams. However, Clark isn't without a fair point.

Garoppolo's performance wasn't deserving of a Rudolph comparison, nor was it without its thorns. The truth of the matter is, the outcome of a handful of throws determined how it was perceived.

Let's go in chronological order.

On the opening play of the second quarter, head coach Kyle Shanahan drew up a bit of trickery. The 49ers ran a flea-flicker that was perfectly executed -- up until the downfield throw.

Garoppolo severely underthrew receiver Marquise Goodwin, who would have walked in for a touchdown had Jimmy G hit him in stride. Now, it's fair to criticize Garoppolo for a poor throw in this situation, however, it's unfair to place all the blame on him. Goodwin would be the first to say that every NFL receiver must make that catch, and that's a 35-yard completion that doesn't go on Garoppolo's stat line as a result.

Garoppolo has to do better with that throw, but it wasn't a complete loss until his receiver failed to do his own job.

The next one up is all on Garoppolo, though.

Goodwin's drop didn't end up killing that drive, as Garoppolo found George Kittle for a 45-yard gain on the very next play. San Francisco eventually faced a 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line, at which point the QB totally blew it.

He had two receivers in the area, and threw the ball straight at the defender in between them. A terrible decision and throw, and one that could have been a bigger deal if not for the 49ers' standout defense. When you look at that replay, it's not hard to guess what Clark was watching when he tweeted that comment.

The next throw is similarly Garoppolo's fault, although it luckily wasn't nearly as costly.

In a two-minute drill situation at the end of the first half, Garoppolo and the 49ers were driving at midfield. On first-and-10, Garoppolo locked in on receiver Dante Pettis, who was running a short inward curl to his left. Rams linebacker Cory Littleton read Jimmy G's eyes, and should have come away with a defensive touchdown.

Much like the throw that was intercepted for a touchdown in the first half of the 49ers' win over the Buccaneers in Week 1, that's one that Garoppolo simply can't risk. It should have been six the other way, and a momentum-swaying score at that.

The fourth and final throw, however, is much like the first in the sense that, yes, Garoppolo could have done better, but the ultimate fault doesn't lie with him.

Leading 17-7 with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter, the 49ers had first-and-goal at the Rams' 2-yard-line with a great chance to put the game away. After failing to score on first and second down, Shanahan drew up the perfect play in which runnimg back Tevin Coleman ran a wide-open wheel route out of the backfield, leaving him completely uncovered with nothing but the end zone in front of him. Garoppolo recognized the opportunity and made the right read, but his execution was lacking, as his pass was a little high and glanced off Coleman's hands for an incompletion.

San Francisco had to settle for a field goal, and Los Angeles still had life as a result.

Now, again, it's entirely fair to say Garoppolo has to make a better throw in that situation. However, much like Goodwin, Coleman's drop was even more egregious than the wayward throw. If he catches that pass -- as he absolutely should have -- that's a touchdown, both on the scoreboard and on the stat sheet. With a passing touchdown, maybe Garoppolo doesn't receive as much flack.

[RELATED: Shanahan not allowing 49ers to feel like they've arrived]

The great news for the 49ers is that they're 5-0 and clearly still are capable of playing significantly better. Garoppolo can easily correct the mistakes that resulted in the end zone interception and the one that should have been a pick-six. He can also be more accurate on the throws to Goodwin and Coleman, but Garoppolo's receivers must do a better job of making him look good, even when he isn't.

Clark didn't have a ton of material from the Rams game to criticize Garoppolo with, but what limited opportunities there were sure stuck out like a sore thumb. That said, Garoppolo's day could have been far better or far worse if those four throws had worked out differently.

Ryan Clark calls 49ers a 'pretender,' but their play proves otherwise

Ryan Clark calls 49ers a 'pretender,' but their play proves otherwise

One NFL analyst says it's time to start taking the 49ers seriously. Another feels just the opposite.

"They are pretending," ESPN's Ryan Clark said of San Francisco on Wednesday's episode of NFL Live. "They are faking us out. They are imitators, pretenders, whatever you want to say. They are not the real deal at 2-0."

Clark insisted that the 49ers should be the lowest-ranked of the nine current 2-0 teams in the league, which is interesting, considering they've won their two games more decisively than all but one of the others. San Francisco leads the NFC in points scored, and outside of the Cowboys, they've scored at least 15 more points than every other team in the conference. They also have the best point differential of any team in the league not named the New England Patriots.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks have won their two games by a combined total of three points. They beat the Bengals by a single point at home. The 49ers just walloped the Bengals by 24 points in Cincinnati. Seattle's other victory came over a Pittsburgh team that lost its starting quarterback in the first half.

Dallas has beaten the lowly Giants and Redskins -- not exactly murderer's row. The Bills have beaten the Jets and Giants for their two victories, both on the road -- just like San Francisco. Both of Buffalo's games have been played in the same stadium, though. The 49ers just spent two weeks in Tampa Bay and Youngstown, Ohio.

Nonetheless, the former NFL defensive back views the 49ers' undefeated record as the least legitimate, due mainly to questions surrounding their quarterback.

"Listen, I still don't believe in Jimmy Garoppolo," Clark continued, "and I know a lot of people said he's gotten over some of the struggles of the preseason and he's fully back from the injury. Kyle Shanahan did a great job of scheming people open against the Cincinnati Bengals but [Garoppolo] was not sharp against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They won that game because Jameis Winston was just actually worse."

To say Jimmy G looked rusty in Week 1 is certainly fair. To give him no credit for San Francisco's offensive explosion in Week 2 is most certainly not.

[RELATED: Rice thinks 49ers are Super Bowl contenders after 2-0 start]

ESPN's Adam Schefter agrees with that latter sentiment.

"So what?" Schefter said in reference to Clark's comments on Thursday's "Murph & Mac Podcast" on KNBR. "Ryan Clark is thinking of the 49ers from last or the previous years. This is a different team. The defense is better. The running game is strong. Jimmy G has another year in the system.

"And yes, there are questions. Let's not anoint them as potential Super Bowl contenders yet. There are definite questions that this team has to answer, but the team is still 2-and-0 on the road."

'Super Bowl contender' might be an overreach. That said, 'pretender' might be one, too.