MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – It was a scenario that every 12-year-old playing football in his backyard dreams about. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo got to realize that dream Sunday night in Super Bowl LIV.
Up by three points. Six minutes left in the game. Time to make a few clutch throws, pick up a few key first downs, and go home with a Lombardi Trophy.
“Those are the moments you dream of and everything,” Garoppolo said. “Just couldn’t finish it off.”
Garoppolo’s idol, Joe Montana, has finished off a Super Bowl with clutch throws in the fourth quarter. So has his mentor, Tom Brady.
But Garoppolo and the 49ers fell flat in Sunday night’s 31-20 loss to the Chiefs.They let a 20-10 lead entering the fourth quarter dissipate into an 11-point loss. That key series with six minutes left in the fourth fizzled quickly into a three-and-out after Garoppolo couldn’t connect on two straight throws. And once the Chiefs took the lead, Garoppolo and the Niners were unable to author a comeback.
Garoppolo isn’t used to losing. He is 23-5 in his NFL career as a starter, including 15-3 this season. He also won two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots in his 3½ years as Brady’s backup.
But Sunday’s loss left him numb and speechless. He wore a black suit and black shirt to his press conference, appropriately dressed for a funeral.
“Never had this kind of feeling before. Kind of an unreal feeling,” Garoppolo said. “The one positive you can take is guys care about it. But it’s hard to look at it right now to see that good.”
The loss was a major dud for a team that prided itself on fourth-quarter execution all season. Garoppolo was tied with Josh Allen and Russell Wilson with four fourth-quarter comebacks in the regular season, the most in the NFL.
Whether they were leading by 10 early in the fourth quarter, or needed to milk the clock with six minutes left, or needed to come back from a four-point deficit late in the game, the Niners believed Garoppolo would lead them to victory.
“We were very confident in that position,” said fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Garoppolo that tied it, 10-10, with 5:05 left in the second quarter. “It’s a position we have been in all season. We were ready to run the ball and finish that game. That’s exactly the position we wanted to be in. I think that makes it hurt a little bit more. You couldn’t be in a better situation.”
During the regular season Garoppolo was fifth in the NFL in fourth-quarter passer rating (106.7) He completed 70.3 percent of his passes, and threw just one interception all season in the fourth quarter.
And there was no reason to believe that the Chiefs would be able to slow down Garoppolo and the Niners in the fourth quarter. Garoppolo was nearly flawless over the first three quarters, completing 17-of-20 passes for 183 yards, a touchdowns and an interception. The pick wasn’t even really his fault, coming after he got drilled in the midsection by defensive tackle Mike Pennel.
But the Chiefs turned Garoppolo into a puddle over the final 15 minutes. He completed just 3-of-11 passes for 36 yards and an interception in the final frame, as the game slipped away.
While the Chiefs scored three straight touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Garoppolo and the Niners punted twice, had a turnover on downs and ended the season with an interception.
“You don’t convert those third downs, you don’t get an explosive run, you don’t get too many chances,” Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said.
And Garoppolo wasn’t able to take advantage of the chances he did get. The Niners could have put the game away early in the fourth quarter, after Mahomes threw an interception with the Niners leading 20-10. But they weren’t able to capitalize, and a holding penalty on third down led to a punt.
Garoppolo also had a chance to throw a dramatic, game-winning, 51-yard touchdown pass with 1:40 left. Emmanuel Sanders split the defense on a deep post, but Garoppolo’s pass on third-and-10 fell two steps out of Sanders’ reach. Garoppolo got sacked on fourth down, and that was that.
“We missed some shots tonight, just some plays that we usually make,” Garoppolo said. “That [overthrow to Sanders] was a tough one.”
The loss will subject Garoppolo to some criticism. All season long he fought the perception that he was just a caretaker of the 49ers’ offense, and that the team mostly succeeded because of its defense and run game.
And with the Super Bowl on the line, Garoppolo couldn’t preserve the lead or lead his team from behind.
Garoppolo’s teammates rushed to his defense after Sunday’s game.
“Jimmy’s a baller, unbelievable,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “He’s our leader, our quarterback, and I’ll roll with that guy any day of the week.”
“We have all the confidence in the world in Jimmy,” Juszczyk added. “We know that he’s our guy no matter the situation.”
Except not this situation. Fourth quarter, tight game in the Super Bowl, and Garoppolo couldn’t get it done.
Garoppolo had a memorable season — coming back from a torn ACL suffered last year, starting all 16 games, and leading his team to the Super Bowl.
But he still has much to learn from Brady and Montana about closing out a championship.
“It’s been wild — first full season as a starter, coming back from the ACL. It’s a lot of things wrapped into one,” Garoppolo said. “We’re a young team. We’ve got a very bright future. Got to take this in stride, remember this feeling.”