MIAMI — Jimmy Garoppolo is one of the most polarizing players of Super Bowl LIV.
The 49ers went 13-3 this year, claimed the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and are in the Super Bowl just two years after Garoppolo took over a 1-10 team in 2017. Bill Belichick loved Garoppolo during the quarterback’s time with the Patriots, and the 49ers’ instant success with Garoppolo (he’s 21-5 as a starter) seems to validate Belichick’s evaluation.
But Garoppolo has plenty of critics who say he’s nothing more than a passenger on this team, coasting on the back of an elite defense and a strong running game the way Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson did earlier this century. The Niners called the fourth-fewest passes in the NFL and the sixth-most runs this season, and Garoppolo threw just eight passes in the NFC Championship game win over the Packers, which his detractors argue is a sign that the team is trying to minimize his impact.
Garoppolo’s teammates, of course, disagree.
“Four or five different times this year, he has come through in the clutchest of ways, and I don’t know what games people have been watching,” said right tackle Mike McGlinchey. “I don’t know why everybody keeps passing him or not believing in him because he has done it time and time again.”
So which is it? I combed deeper into Garoppolo’s stats, and watched seven of his most recent games on the All-22 tape, to analyze his game myself.
There is no question that Garoppolo benefits from having a great supporting cast and a tremendous scheme from head coach Kyle Shanahan. The 49ers ran the ball on 49 percent of their plays, the second-highest rate in the NFL, and averaged a healthy 4.6 yards per carry, ninth-best. The defense allowed the second-fewest yards and eighth-fewest points.
And Shanahan is one of the best play-callers in the NFL. His scheme relies heavily on play-action, and his ability to toy with a defense is impressive. The sheer number of plays the 49ers produced with receivers streaking wide open is remarkable in today’s NFL.
Garoppolo also doesn’t throw downfield much. He ranked 30th among quarterbacks in passes that traveled at least 21 yards in the air, completing 15 of 26 for six touchdowns, three interceptions, and a 102.2 passer rating. Garoppolo was second in the NFL in completions of at least 25 yards (38), though most were the catch-and-run variety.
But it’s hard not to be impressed with Garoppolo’s game. His season stats: 248.6 passing yards per game, 69.1 completion percentage, 27 touchdown passes, 13 interceptions, 8.4 yards per attempt, and a 102.0 rating.
He was the only quarterback to finish in the top five in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown passes. When called upon, Garoppolo carried his team; the Niners were 5-2 when he threw at least 30 passes. The Titans, by comparison, were 1-3 when Ryan Tannehill threw 30 passes.
And the Niners finished No. 2 in the NFL in scoring (29.9 points per game). The 2000 Ravens under Dilfer finished 14th in points, and the ’02 Bucs under Johnson were 18th.
Garoppolo has a nice, tight delivery and gets rid of the ball quickly. His accuracy is impressive; some of the 49ers’ big catch-and-run plays were the result not only of scheme, but of Garoppolo putting the ball in a perfect location, as he did on a 42-yarder to Deebo Samuel in a Week 12 win over the Packers. Garoppolo threaded a pass between a group of defenders and put the ball right in stride to Samuel.
Garoppolo’s receivers averaged 6.6 yards after the reception, the most in the NFL. And when a throw calls for Garoppolo to put it on a receiver’s outside shoulder, or low and away from a defender, he usually puts the ball exactly where it needs to be.
Garoppolo also has good mobility. He doesn’t take off much past the line of scrimmage, but he does a great job of buying time and waiting for his receivers to uncover, as on Kendrick Bourne’s 6-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 48-46 win over the Saints in Week 14. Garoppolo doesn’t seem to get flustered much when the initial play breaks down, and has good improvisational skills.
And it’s the “situational football” where Garoppolo really shines, as we might expect from a Belichick protégé. The 49ers finished fifth in the NFL in third-down conversions (45 percent), and Garoppolo was No. 1 in the league in third-down completion percentage (69.2) and percentage of third-down pass attempts that resulted in first downs (50 percent).
Garoppolo really shined in the fourth quarter, finishing top-five in passer rating (107.1) and completion percentage (70.1). He led four game-winning drives, tied for second-most in the NFL, including wins over the Saints and Rams at the buzzer.
Of course, Garoppolo has his flaws. His arm strength is adequate but certainly not elite. He threw a few interceptions this year where he didn’t read the coverage correctly. In the divisional round against the Vikings, Garoppolo tried to throw a slant pass over the middle, and threw it right into the belly of linebacker Eric Kendricks, whom Garoppolo presumably didn’t see.
Garoppolo also tries to be the hero too much, and it can get him in trouble. Though he has good mobility, he rarely scrambles (46 rushes for 62 yards this year), perhaps a result of the torn ACL he suffered while scrambling in 2018.
And Garoppolo almost never throws the ball away; he did so just 11 times this year, tied for 30th (Tom Brady led the NFL with 42). Garoppolo will try to squeeze some throws into tight windows, and it can lead to deflected passes and interceptions, like his pick against the Rams late in the third quarter in Week 16.
And situationally, the 49ers had a little trouble pounding the ball into the end zone, even though they finished No. 2 in points. They were 21st in red zone touchdown percentage (53 percent) and 17th in red zone score percentage (87 percent).
Garoppolo is never going to wow his critics with a big arm. And the 49ers are such a well-rounded team that they could dominate the Packers in the NFC Championship game with their quarterback throwing only eight passes.
But he runs the 49ers’ scheme well, shows great poise and accuracy, and has lifted his team when called upon. Underestimate him at your own peril.