There’s a former Patriots quarterback who is playing like one of the best in the league right now. And it’s not just Tom Brady.
Good ol’ Jimmy Garoppolo is thriving in San Francisco once again. In his last five games (Weeks 7-11), since Garoppolo returned from a one-game injury absence, he ranks fourth in the NFL in passer rating (102.8) and first in yards per attempt (8.73). Pro Football Focus rates him as the NFL’s top quarterback since Week 8.
And the 49ers are winning again — three of their last four to get to 5-5 entering Sunday’s showdown with the 5-5 Vikings. The Saints’ loss on Thursday night pushed the 49ers up to the NFC’s No. 7 and final playoff spot, and the Vikings to No. 6.
Garoppolo has been mostly durable this year, starting nine games. For the season, he ranks 10th in passer rating (100.0), with 12 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He is 5-4 as a starter, 27-12 in his four-plus years with the 49ers, and led his team to a huge win over the Rams two weeks ago. He’s also only 30 years old, and might be just entering his prime.
It all begs the question: Why, again, did the 49ers spend so much to find his replacement?
General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan decided last spring that Garoppolo, who guided the team to a Super Bowl appearance less than two years ago, was too brittle and not quite good enough to be the team’s franchise quarterback. So they traded the farm, and then some, to find their next guy.
They gave up the 12th pick in 2021, their first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, and a third-round pick in 2022 to the Dolphins for the No. 3 pick and the right to select the third quarterback in the draft, after Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson. The 49ers made this trade not knowing which quarterback they wanted. They started with a belief in Mac Jones, but their scouting process led them to Trey Lance, a talented dual-threat QB from North Dakota State.
The 49ers made the bold decision to keep Garoppolo for 2021, to give Lance time to grow. But the trade made it clear that Garoppolo was on borrowed time and would likely be traded or released for 2022.
Except 10 games into the 2021 season, the trade is looking like a classic panic move — a case of the 49ers getting restless and not appreciating what they already had.
Garoppolo is playing like a top quarterback, while Lance can barely get on the field. He was awful in his one start, throwing for 192 yards and an interception in a Week 5 loss to Arizona. Lance is completing 53 percent of his passes for the season, and has played five snaps over the last five games, all coming in last week’s blowout win over the Jaguars.
Lance may still end up being a terrific quarterback. It’s a big jump from North Dakota State to the NFL, especially since Lance only played one game in 2020. Shanahan said this past week that Lance is still the centerpiece of the team’s plans.
“I think there’s a chance for anything, but I think we made it pretty clear that Trey is our guy of the future, whenever that’ll happen,” Shanahan said.
It’s just hard not to wonder how much better off the 49ers would be if they had just sat at No. 12 and continued to build around Garoppolo.
“You can win with Jimmy, if you put weapons around him,” former 49ers, Seahawks, and Washington GM Scot McCloughan told me last offseason. “He’s a mid-tier type of guy, which 70 percent of the league would love to have.”
Yes, injuries are still a factor for Garoppolo, who missed 1½ games this year because of a calf injury. The 49ers would have had to draft a quarterback at some point this year to protect against Garoppolo’s injury history. But they easily could have snagged a guy in the third round. There was no need for the 49ers to mortgage the future for a quarterback when they had a pretty good one.
The trade also hamstrings Lance and his development, since the 49ers won’t be adding any first-round picks around him in 2022 or 2023.
Shanahan said this past week that he thinks it will be “really hard” for Lance to take over as the 49ers’ quarterback in 2022 if Garoppolo continues to play well. But short of Garoppolo leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory, the far likelier scenario is the Niners trading or releasing Garoppolo this offseason and handing the team to Lance in 2022. After watching the Saints on Thursday night, it’s hard not thinking how good of a fit Garoppolo would be with coach Sean Payton.
Sitting Lance for a second season seems unlikely after trading so much to get him. It would be a tacit admission from the 49ers’ brass that they overpaid for Lance, or at least got the trade wrong.
And Garoppolo’s contract likely factors into the equation. He is owed $25.6 million in cash next year, the final year of his contract, with a salary-cap number of $27 million. But none of it is guaranteed, and the 49ers would be left with a meager $1.4 million in dead money with a trade or release.
Lance, meanwhile, has three years left on his rookie deal, plus a fifth-year option if the 49ers want it. He is set to make just $2.2 million next year, with a cap number of $7.75 million. The 49ers can probably use those cash and cap savings on receiver Deebo Samuel and pass rusher Nick Bosa, both entering the final year of their contracts in 2022.
But the salary cap is just an excuse. If the 49ers want to keep Garoppolo, they can easily restructure his deal to create the cap savings to sign Samuel and Bosa.
More likely, Garoppolo is probably playing his final stretch games in San Francisco. Which seems foolish, since he has proven time and again that the 49ers can win with him.
The Patriots’ defense created two interceptions and a sack with their blitz against the Falcons Nov. 18. But the Patriots also blitzed the Falcons on just four of Matt Ryan’s 32 attempts. They still held him to 153 passing yards and pitched a 25-0 shutout.
It got me curious about how the Patriots’ defense compares with the rest of the league when not blitzing — i.e. when playing a base defense of four or fewer pass rushers, and seven or more players in coverage. The answer: very well.
▪ The Patriots are one of the safest defenses, dropping seven or more into coverage on 79.2 percent of snaps, which ranks seventh highest in the NFL. League average is about 74.6 percent.
▪ In non-blitzing situations, they have allowed 10 touchdowns and made 12 interceptions for a 75.3 passer rating that ranks second in the NFL, behind only Buffalo (59.8, with four TDs and 12 interceptions). The Bills and Patriots are the only teams with more interceptions than touchdowns allowed.
▪ The Patriots have intercepted 4.0 percent of pass attempts in non-blitz situations, which ranks second behind Buffalo (4.5). The Patriots have sacked the quarterback on 7.3 percent of plays, which ranks eighth. And the Patriots have allowed 6.9 yards per attempt, which ranks 11th.
Now a few league-wide stats:
▪ The best non-blitzing teams in terms of passer rating: Bills 59.8, Patriots 75.3, Packers 81.3, Rams 83.5, Buccaneers 84.5.
▪ The worst non-blitzing teams: Washington 110.5, Jets 108.3, Lions 106.6, Falcons 103.0, Bears 101.9. These teams have allowed 70 touchdowns against 17 interceptions.
▪ The 49ers lead the NFL with a sack on 8.4 percent of non-blitzes. The Dolphins and Jaguars are lowest in the NFL with sacks on 3.5 percent of non-blitzes.
▪ The Dolphins are the blitz-happiest team in the NFL at a whopping 41.3 percent of passing attempts, followed by Tampa Bay (38.7 percent) and Kansas City (32.5 percent). The Raiders are by far the safest team, blitzing on just 11.3 percent of pass plays, followed by the Eagles (17.5 percent) and Texans (17.7 percent).
St. Louis lawsuit
A big headache for the NFL was resolved this past week when the league settled with the city and county of St. Louis for $790 million over the NFL violating its relocation policies when the Rams moved to Los Angeles in 2016.
It’s a sizable sum, but the NFL will happily cut that check to make its problems go away in one fell swoop. The league was losing repeatedly in court and was facing damages of potentially more than $1 billion. Several NFL owners, including Robert Kraft, were also facing a court order to divulge personal financial information. And the lawsuit turned the owners against each other, with Rams owner Stan Kroenke threatening legal action against his 31 partners over who is responsible for paying the costs and damages.
That last part hasn’t been resolved, per reports, and it is unclear if Kroenke is going to be responsible for the entire $790 million.
Despite the nice payout, St. Louis comes out the big loser. The settlement reportedly did not include an agreement to grant St. Louis an expansion team in the future, and the NFL surely won’t be looking to do any favors for St. Louis after this lawsuit. A market that has twice lost a team probably won’t get a third chance.
This is a big win for fans, too. The NFL as constructed has perfect symmetry — eight divisions of four teams, and a balanced schedule rotation. Adding expansion teams messes everything up.
Cousins being too cautious?
His team is only 5-5, but Kirk Cousins is quietly having a terrific season for the Vikings, ranking third in the NFL with a 106.3 passer rating, thanks largely to a league-low two interceptions (against 21 touchdowns).
But coach Mike Zimmer seems a little frustrated that Cousins doesn’t take more chances. Cousins is 14th in yards per attempt (7.4), and only 33.7 percent of his passes result in a first down, which ranks 23rd.
The Vikings have won two straight, with impressive wins over the Chargers and Packers, but Zimmer wants Cousins to let it rip more.
“If he throws an interception, that’s life,” Zimmer said this past week. “But you keep going for the jugular.”
Tackling the job
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels praised Mac Jones this past week for his “awareness” and “competitiveness” in going for tackles on interceptions. Turns out, Jones has two tackles this year, tied with Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, and Ryan Tannehill for most among QBs.
Dating to 1994, the career leader in quarterback tackles (including playoffs) is Jake Plummer (23), followed by Jon Kitna (20), Carson Palmer (20), Drew Brees (19) and Andrew Luck (19), who impressively compiled his in just six seasons.
Tom Brady has 13 career tackles, Peyton Manning had 12, and Eli Manning had six.
Staying close to home
A couple of Patriots stats that stand out:
▪ Not sure if this is skill or luck, but the Patriots have the No. 1 field goal defense in the NFL. Opposing kickers have made just 14 of 22 field goals (63.6 percent) this season, including 0 for 5 from 50-plus yards.
▪ The Patriots jumped to No. 1 in points allowed after last week’s shutout (16.1 per game). Three weeks ago, they were No. 8 in the league (20.5).
But the Patriots’ stats are even more dominant when you take out the two pick-6s from Jones and focus just on the points allowed by the defense. Entering Week 12, the Patriots’ defense had allowed 14.9 points per game, 2 points better than the next-best team (the Bills at 16.9). The Broncos and Cardinals have allowed 17.0 points per game from opposing offenses, and no other team is less than 20.
Neat achievement by seventh-year down judge Sarah Thomas in working two games last week. She was a late addition to the officiating crew for Patriots-Falcons on Thursday night, which a league spokesman said was needed because the original down judge could not get cleared from injury in time to participate. Then Thomas worked her regular role in the Cowboys-Chiefs game on Sunday. The spokesman said officials have worked two games in a week in the past but “not often.” Thomas, who became the NFL’s first permanent female official in 2015, clearly has the respect of her peers . . . Unvaccinated players continue to hurt their teams by not being available. The minimum 10-day absence for unvaccinated players who test positive cost Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper a chance to play in Thursday’s loss to the Raiders. And Joe Flacco is missing the Jets’ game against the Texans on Sunday because he was deemed a close contact and has to sit out for five days. “This is a classic case of how it can impact a team,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a radio interview, calling out Cooper . . . The Saints are 0 for 5 on 2-points attempts this season, and have missed their last 10 dating to 2018. Teams this year were converting 54 percent of attempts entering Thursday’s games . . . Road teams are 8-0 on Thanksgiving over the past three seasons, and overall are 87-80-1 this year for a .521 win percentage that is the highest of all time. The 2020 season marked the first time that road teams had a winning record, but this year it’s proving it’s not just about a lack of fans and crowd noise . . . Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase has been slowed recently after a blazing start to his rookie season. He was a big-play machine in his first seven games, with touchdown catches of 50, 70, and 82 yards and a 201-yard receiving game in late October. But in his last three games, Chase has just 113 receiving yards, with a 9.4-yard average and a long of 21. “You get plays on tape, people recognize your talents,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this past week . . . Other alums of The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla. besides Jones: Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst (Class of 2012), Baseball Hall of Famer Chipper Jones (1990), and former Celtics dunk champion Dee Brown (1986) . . . The Falcons enter Sunday’s game against the Jaguars without having scored a touchdown on their last 26 offensive possessions . . . Road teams are 8-1 in games refereed by Alex Kemp, who is working Sunday’s Titans-Patriots game in Foxborough . . . Panthers coach Matt Rhule said, “We didn’t bring Cam Newton here to sell tickets,” but the buzz is noticeable. Per Axios Charlotte, the average resale price of last weekend’s Washington-Panthers home game surged 68 percent following the news that Newton re-signed with the team.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.