You never forget the one that got away. Maybe, you periodically check up on that person on Instagram or Facebook or the NFC Championship game. You wistfully wonder what would have been if they had stayed in your life. For a certain segment of Patriots fans — and a certain genius coach — former Tom Brady understudy and current San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is the one that got away.
It’s natural to fixate and focus on the what-ifs with the dashing Jimmy G, Brady’s erstwhile heir/air apparent, preparing to play in the Super Bowl next Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, especially with Brady’s future in Foxborough less clear than a fog-filled morning in Sausalito, Calif. It’s a juicy story line. Brady’s would-be replacement “leading” his childhood team to the Super Bowl in his first postseason as a starter while the iconic QB twists in the wind after a frustrating and disappointing season.
But Garoppolo really hasn’t led the 49ers anywhere this postseason. He has been a quarterback carriage, pulled around by the twin horses of San Francisco’s defense and running game. Jimmy G has been Jimmy H, as in Jimmy Handoff. Garoppolo has been required to do shockingly little to guide his team to Miami and the Roman Numeral Rumble, throwing just 27 passes and completing 17 of them for 208 yards in two postseason wins. His lack of statistical contribution at QB is almost unprecedented. No player in this year’s Super Bowl has more to prove.
Garoppolo is basically a QB cake topper. He adds to the presentation, but he’s not one of the main ingredients. The 49ers’ defense has allowed the fewest points (15) and yards per game (252.5) in the postseason. San Fran has run the ball 89 times, averaging a league-best 235.5 yards on the ground. The 49ers have dropped back to pass just 30 times, including sacks.
In the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, the Niners became the fifth team in the last 40 years to win a playoff game while completing six or fewer passes as Garoppolo finished 6 of 8 for 77 yards. He went 24 minutes of game time without attempting a pass. The last time a team won with so little output from its passing attack is familiar to Fort Foxborough. It was Joe Flacco (4 of 10 for 34 yards and an INT) and the Baltimore Ravens against the Patriots in the 2009 wild-card round. Before that, the 2000 Ravens were victorious against Tennessee with Trent Dilfer going 5 of 16 for 117 yards.
It appears the lack of reliance on Garoppolo is by design. Precocious 49ers coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan is taking the burden and the pressure off his QB, who enjoyed an outstanding regular season, joining Joe Montana and Steve Young as the only 49ers to record a passer rating above 100 in a full season.
Garoppolo isn’t just playing the role of game manager. He’s being managed. Since Garoppolo’s interception late in the first half of the divisional-round game against the Minnesota Vikings, Shanahan has called 15 pass plays and 72 runs in six quarters. Stage Dad Shanahan is playing keepaway from Jimmy G.
However, that’s not going to cut it against the explosive Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, who are averaging, gulp, 43 points per game in the playoffs. Jimmy has to come to throw.
Make no mistake, Jimmy G can play. He would have been an ideal successor to Brady. He’s a winner. His 23-5 record as a starter, including postseason, is the best of any QB (minimum of 25 starts) in the Super Bowl era. This season, he posted a top-five passer rating in the fourth quarter, 107.1, completing 70.1 percent of his passes and tossing six touchdowns and one pick. He looks like Aaron Rodgers-Lite at times.
We can debate the decision to send him away and keep Brady. We can bemoan the meager return Bill Belichick got for him, a second-round pick when he dealt him in-season in 2017. Belichick seemed more preoccupied with finding Jimmy G a good home than getting the Patriots a proper return. Belichick succeeded, placing his prized pupil with an astute coach who runs a very quarterback-friendly system, one that earned Matt Schaub a Pro Bowl berth in Houston and Matt Ryan an MVP award and nearly a Super Bowl win in Atlanta, two of Shanahan’s prior stops as an offensive coordinator.
If Garoppolo wins it all in the same manner he has been prevailing this postseason — as a sidecar under center — the narrative will require some nuance and context. It will be a lot closer to Dilfer and Brad Johnson (2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers) tagging along on Super Bowl winners than the franchise QB acts of Brady, Rodgers, or Drew Brees.
Dilfer is widely maligned as the poster child for tag-along Super Bowl-winning QBs. In the 2000 postseason, Dilfer was 35 of 73 (47.9 percent) for 590 yards with three TDs, one interception, and an 83.7 rating. Garoppolo’s rating this postseason is 83.6.
Some have pointed out that Brady was a complementary QB too in his first postseason when he won his first of six Super Bowls. Brady certainly wasn’t the fully formed franchise QB he is now in 2001. He was a bright-eyed game manager who like Garoppolo benefited from brilliant coaching and a stingy defense.
Those drawing parallels exhibit short memories. Brady was relied upon much more than Garoppolo.
In the Snow Bowl against the Oakland Raiders, Brady was 32 of 52 for 312 yards with an interception and a rushing score, as he shepherded the Patriots to a 16-13 comeback win. On the game-winning overtime drive, Brady was 8 for 8 for 45 yards. The next week in Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game, Brady was 12 for 18 for 115 yards before he got knocked out and was relieved by deposed starter Drew Bledsoe.
In that season’s Super Bowl against the Rams, Brady didn’t post eye-popping numbers (16 of 27 for 145 yards and a TD), but he led a pair of clutch scoring drives at the end of each half to propel the Patriots to a stunning upset. Brady hit David Patten for an 8-yard touchdown with 36 seconds left in the first half. Then on the game’s final drive with legendary announcer John Madden professing that the Patriots should just take a knee and play for overtime with the ball at their 17 with 1:30 left and zero timeouts, Brady marched the Patriots to the Rams’ 30, setting up Adam Vinatieri’s winning field goal.
In a classic case of numbers needing context, on that winning drive Brady twice spiked the ball to kill the clock and also intentionally chucked a pass out of bounds when the Patriots couldn’t pick up a blitz. Those go down as incompletions, skewing Brady’s postseason stats — 60 of 97 (61.9 percent) for 572 yards with a TD and an INT for a 77.3 rating — but they were winning plays.
They were the type of plays under pressure that Garoppolo hasn’t been required to make yet. He showed he can make them in the regular season.
But the bottom line is that Garoppolo has been required to do shockingly little to take his team to the Super Bowl.
He may be the one that got away for the Patriots. But he has gotten away with not having to do much to go to the Super Bowl.