Should Jimmy Garoppolo be viewed as the one who got away in New England?
Has he been good enough to be considered a true face-of-the-franchise talent since being traded by the Patriots? Or is he closer to ... average?
Garoppolo, it turns out, has been the beneficiary of a quarterback-friendly system -- a throw-it-short-and-watch-his-playmakers-go guy -- for the last couple seasons.
This year, Garoppolo is 32nd in the NFL in completed air yards per attempt, meaning the passes his receivers catch are, on average, shorter than anyone else's.
Last year, he was 23rd in that category. When you consider all attempts, incompletions included, the only quarterback who has thrown shorter than Garoppolo (6.1 air yards per attempt) this season is 41-year-old Drew Brees (6.0). Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr were the only quarterbacks who threw shorter than Garoppolo in 2019.
Being in the same company as Brees isn't a bad place to be, typically. But Brees excels in the game-manager role these days. He completes a high percentage of his passes. He avoids turnovers.
Garoppolo? His completion percentage was excellent last year, coming in at a hair over 70 percent. But this season he's one of just four quarterbacks in the bottom 10 in both air yards per attempt and completion percentage. The others are Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold and Dwayne Haskins.
And in terms of taking care of the football, Garoppolo could be better. According to ESPN's Mina Kimes, prior to last week's win over the Rams, Garoppolo was the owner of the third-shortest average pass in the NFL since the start of 2019 as well as the fifth-highest interception rate.
Even though Garoppolo is throwing short, he's still found a way to throw incomplete more often than the majority of his peers this season. Even though he's throwing short, he's still found a way to throw interceptions more often than the majority of his peers over the last two.
Of the 38 quarterbacks with 60 dropbacks this year, Garoppolo is the only one who has yet to complete a pass that's traveled 20 yards down the field. Brian Hoyer had one in just three quarters of play in Kansas City. Andy Dalton has had two. Jeff Driskell has had three.
That's not to say Garoppolo is on the same level as those quarterbacks. He's better. But part of the reason his short-game approach is so glaring is because he's playing for a head coach who is widely regarded as one of the best offensive minds in football.
Kyle Shanahan, since he was an offensive coordinator for the first time in Houston in 2008, has plopped all kinds of quarterbacks into his system and turned them into efficient passers. Helped by a heaping dose of play-action, he's had every one of his quarterbacks in the top 15 in yards per attempt over the last dozen years.
Matt Schaub in Houston (second in YPA in 2008, fourth in 2009). Donovan McNabb (15th in 2010) and Rex Grossman in Washington (14th in 2011). Brian Hoyer in Cleveland (eighth in 2014). All of 'em. This season, Garoppolo is on pace to break that streak, checking in at 19th despite his pass-catchers giving him more yards after the catch per completion than any other quarterback in football.
Garoppolo's receivers gave him more yards after the catch than any other receiver group gave its quarterback last season, too, as a matter of fact. It's a quality offensive system that gets the ball into the hands of its best players and lets them run wild. It's a system that has propped up average quarterbacks and worse for years now. It's made temporary stars out of Matt Ryan and Robert Griffin III. It's made Ryan Tannehill very rich in Tennessee, where he runs a Shanahan-influenced scheme.
That system, initially developed by Kyle's father Mike, has spread like wildfire across the league as teams have found out just how much easier it can make a quarterback's job. Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who worked with Mike Shanahan in Denver, runs it. Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith runs a variation. Rams head coach Sean McVay, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur and Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski are all in on the Shanahan offense these days.
The scheme has certainly boosted Garoppolo's numbers -- last year he had the sixth-best quarterback rating in the league -- but has he taken to it as well as his head coach would like?
NBC Bay Area Insider Matt Maiocco pointed out on Quick Slants this week that there may be some frustration on Shanahan's end with Garoppolo because Garoppolo hasn't demonstrably improved since he took the starting job in 2017. That year Garoppolo didn't know the offense or the language of Shanahan's system after being traded by the Patriots, and yet he still went 5-0 as a starter and led the league in yards per attempt by a half-yard. Those five games earned Garoppolo a massive contract he's still trying to live up to.
Back in March, after Garoppolo's tough end to Super Bowl LIV, there were multiple reports that San Francisco might actually be looking to move on from him. According to our Tom E. Curran, the Niners were considering acquiring Tom Brady as a free agent (which the Niners later acknowledged). According to The MMQB's Albert Breer, league circles perceived Garoppolo to be "on the clock" with the Niners because Kirk Cousins, who worked under Shanahan in Washington, was scheduled to hit free agency in 2021.
Garoppolo's underwhelming performance, despite the system he's in and the talent around him (which includes the best tight end in football), begs the question: Should he really be considered the one who got away in New England? If not, should the Patriots spend resources to bring him back if he shakes free from the Niners this offseason?
Maybe reuniting Garoppolo with the coaching staff that developed him in Foxboro would yield positive results. Maybe they'd get more out of him than San Francisco has. But at what cost? Garoppolo is currently working on the fifth-largest quarterback contract ever handed out, which pays him an average of $27.5 million per season.
Regardless of his history in New England, his recent track record would indicate the Patriots should be wary of rekindling their relationship with Garoppolo and paying him close to what he's making now if he becomes available. He'll be 29 next month. He's missed nearly 40 percent of his team's games over the last three seasons because of injury.
If he were to return, he'd likely provide the Patriots more of a long-term plan at the position than what they have at the moment. But that doesn't necessarily mean it'd be a good one. Probably closer to average.