I knew Jimmy Garoppolo was playing exceptional football, paying particular attention to his first three starts for the 49ers, expecting to see stellar play and getting just that. My expectations were admittedly high, having heard so many people who know him well rave about him for years, and he’s exceeded them.
Everything about him passed the eye test. Jimmy G. has been nothing less than transformational, taking a dormant offense with Brian Hoyer and CJ Beathard under center to one that now marches up and down the field with apparent ease. He took over an attack devoid of any particular talent at the skill position. An offense that is struggling to average even three yards per rush since the inevitable quarterback change was made, and he has literally lifted everything about this team on the fly, late in what had become another lost season for San Francisco.
Somehow, without a skill position guy who would start on most teams, the 49ers have morphed into a ball-control monster, producing scoring drive after scoring drive with the same cast of characters so adrift before he took over. Garoppolo, now 5-0 in his career as a starter which includes his time with the Pats filling in for a suspended Tom Brady a year ago, consistently finds his second and third options, reads the entire field and operates with a coolness that defies his status as a first-time starter. He passes the eye test in every way imaginable. The way he steps up into the rush, eludes ends with a sidestep, throws darts on the run, leads receivers into vacant spots with his throws and exhibits touch and accuracy.
The more I reflected in these three starts, the more it dawned on me just how often the 49ers were scoring points. And just how much of the ball they were seeing.
I decided to comb back through the game books for the play-by-play of his three performances and crunch some numbers. And I am glad I did. The numbers are as impressive as the game film is. This kid is getting it done on every level, and with Kyle Shanahan as his play caller and schemer, and with more talent coming to this offense in the 2018 draft, Garoppolo is about to become a very big deal in the Bay Area. He’s going to attract attention back to this dormant franchise, and he’s going be getting paid – either on the franchise tag or to the tune of $25M-ish per year on a long-term deal.
Scouts I’ve talked to who have watched him closely are fairly blown away: “He’s already one of the better quarterbacks in the league, trust me,” said one evaluator who has studied his film. “He’s got it all.” Another said: “He’s going to be really special. You can see it.”
So let me preface the following by getting a few things out of the way. On the season, the 49ers rank 23rd in offensive points scored, 30th in overall passer rating, 28th in completion percentage and 21st in yards-per-attempt. Their leading receiver remains Pierre Garcon, who was lost for the season due to injury over a month ago and had 500 yards in eight games. This offense was downright unwatchable all season, Beathard was getting crushed and pounded each week behind this same offensive line. Literally, nothing else about this unsightly bunch changed besides the quarterback, yet everything has changed since then.
The 49ers have led 28 full drives since Garoppolo took over (excluding kneel-downs or running out the clock at the end of a half), and they have scored on 18 of them. Let that sink in again. They have scored on back-to-back drives in all three games (no small accomplishment for them) and they have scored on four straight drives in two of three games. They have failed to get a first down on just four of those 28 drives and failed to reach their own 35 on just three of those 28 possessions.
In their three games – again rushing 87 times for 263 yards total (3.02 per carry) – the 49ers have held the ball for 38:47, 34:49, and 32:35, thanks to superior quarterback play spreading the ball around and leading long dives. This past week against the Titans, who were fighting for their playoff lives, Garoppolo tore through them repeatedly, leading scoring drives on seven of their eight possessions. He’s turned speedster Marquise Goodwin into a force, with 24 catches for 319 yards in three games; he had 27 receptions for 573 yards total in the previous 11 contests.
Garoppolo has thrown two picks, but one of them was a completed pass for a first down to Louis Murphy that was stripped out of his hands after picking up what would have been a first down. He had a slow start against a tough Houston defense – punt, interception, punt, punt to start that game – but then followed that with this: field goal, touchdown, field goal, field goal, touchdown to put the game away. He is making big boy throws all over the place, and, again, doing it with precious little around him.
Yes, it’s only three games, and yes, you can complain about who he has faced, I suppose (though the Bears have a top-8 defense and the Texans are still tough and the Titans were playing what amounted to a playoff game). And, if there is one area where this team must improve its in the red zone, where too many drives have gone to die, and kicker Robbie Gould has been vital. Penalties near the goal line reared their head last week and the 49ers have just three touchdowns the last three games, but, again, they aren’t working with much here.
I guarantee you, once he has someone, anyone, who is a match-up problem for opposing defenses – any semblance of a physical or athletic tight end, another outside option – they will start clicking in the red zone, too. Regardless, in the past three weeks, Garoppolo ranks third in completions (77), fourth in attempts (113) and second in yards (1,008). He’s also second in yards per attempt (8.92), seventh in completion percentage (68.1) and fourth in completions of 25 yards or more (7), while posting a rating of 98 this season.
“He can do everything,” said an evaluator who is very familiar with Garoppolo from his college and pro stints. “He’s got nobody around him, and he’s making other people better, already. People want to talk about Kizer and Trubisky and these young quarterbacks, and how much they don’t have enough skill guys and how you need to have a team to put around a quarterback. That’s (BS). Not when you have a truly good quarterback. He makes the team.”
Garoppolo has been everything the 49ers could have hoped for, and more. He could end up being one of the biggest steals in recent history (just a second-round pick for him?) and he’s a reason to actually start watching the 49errs again. With the Rams and Jaguars closing out the season for San Francisco, the tests are going to get tougher and the lack of talent around him, perhaps, will become more pronounced. But I suspect Garoppolo meets the challenge, still looks very much the part, and is playing the game at a super high level time after time after time.