Barber: Can Jimmy Garoppolo take 49ers to the Super Bowl?
Before the Seahawks game, the giddy question bouncing around the halls of 49ers fandom was: Is this team good enough to go to the Super Bowl?
One night, one game, was enough to shift the focus. The question this week has been: Is Jimmy Garoppolo good enough to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl?
That’s what happens when an offense that has been humming along, exceeding expectations all season, suddenly hits a brick wall painted in wolf gray. The 49ers’ offensive performance against Seattle was so offensive that everyone seemed intent on apportioning blame afterward. As in … Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling 13%, the blocking of tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey 12%, dropped passes by the wide receivers 25%, George Kittle’s knee 5%, George Kittle’s ankle 4%, etc.
The 49ers’ 27-24 loss on Monday night made it exceptionally hard to evaluate the quarterback, because so much was going wrong around him. How can a passer excel when his No. 1 target misses the game, his No. 2 target (Emmanuel Sanders) soon leaves with a rib injury, his receivers have pumpkins for hands and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is attached to him at the hip?
Certainly, Garoppolo was dragged down by all of that. He threw some nice passes, some important passes, that guys like Kendrick Bourne turned into incompletions or interceptions. And Garoppolo frequently had to get rid of the ball before he wanted to.
But we have videotape of that game, and it implicates Garoppolo as well.
In judging Garoppolo, I can’t help but compare him to the man who plays 30 minutes from him (or three days with traffic), the Raiders’ Derek Carr. Like Garoppolo, Carr has fervent admirers and harsh critics. At this moment in time, though, Carr is clearly the superior quarterback.
The numbers all say so. That includes conventional statistics like passer rating (Carr 104.4, Garoppolo 94.8) and yards per game (Carr 244.7, Garoppolo 228.2). And it extends to a higher level of analytics.
The website Football Outsiders, for example, uses DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) to measure a quarterback’s value per play. Carr ranks third in the NFL in DVOA at 28.6%, trailing only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Dallas’ Dak Prescott. ESPN Sports & Information has its own metric, QBR, which incorporates things like dropped passes, poor pass protection and high-leverage downs. Carr ranks eighth on that one, Garoppolo 12th. And the NFL’s Next Gen Stats calculates a quarterback’s expected completion percentage and compares it to his actual percentage. Carr’s rate is 2.4 percentage points higher than it should be. Garoppolo’s is 0.1 point better; he has gotten what he deserved.
Of course, if you’ve been watching their games recently, you didn’t need statistics. Carr has been on fire in Jon Gruden’s offense. This is the best he has played since his peak in 2016. Garoppolo had been pretty good, too, before the Seahawks game. But he hasn’t been as consistent or as dynamic.
The tricky part is figuring out how much of that is on the quarterback, and how much is defined by all the things around him - his running game, his coach’s play-calling, his receiving corps, his offensive line, his health, whether he is playing with a lead or trying to erase a deficit.
It’s muddy. But a couple plays from the Seahawks game stand out. It’s true that Garoppolo threw some balls that deserved to be completions, that his numbers were hampered by drops. It’s also true that it could have been much worse.
On the 49ers’ final possession of regulation, they trailed 24-21 with 1:39 left. On the first play of the drive, Garoppolo threw a pass right to Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright. It was a bizarre throw. Wright didn’t zoom in to surprise the quarterback. He was right there all along, manning the short zone - visible to everyone in Levi’s Stadium, it seemed, except Garoppolo. Fortunately for the 49ers, Wright dropped the pass that was intended for tight end Ross Dwelley.
Three plays later, after a first down, Garoppolo felt heat from Clowney and unloaded to Bourne on a crossing route. This one wasn’t a bad decision. Just a bad pass. The ball was behind Bourne. This time, linebacker Bobby Wagner almost intercepted.
Either of those plays could have ended the game for the 49ers. As it was, they picked up enough yardage (Garoppolo made some crisp, short passes to get them there) to set up Chase McLaughlin’s game-tying 47-yard field goal.
So is Jimmy Garoppolo good enough to get the 49ers to the Super Bowl? Actually, yes. He probably is.
There are a handful of NFL quarterbacks (Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady a couple years ago) who can carry a team to a championship. Put them on any roster in the league, and that team will be a contender. At the other extreme are a bunch of QBs who will never be good enough to win big games. The 49ers have faced some of them this season.
In the middle is a fairly wide group of passers who are good enough to win a Super Bowl - provided they have a really good team around them. Garoppolo is in that category. And so is Carr, by the way.
Garoppolo has started 19 NFL games now. It’s still not a lot, but it’s enough for a proper evaluation, especially when you consider he has enjoyed (most of) four offseasons to hone his craft in the NFL. I think it’s safe to say he can be counted on for one or two or three awful, puzzling throws in every game. It’s just who he is.
But if the 49ers’ running game is clicking, and his protection is at least solid, and Kittle is warping defenses with his speed and versatility, Garoppolo is good enough. He moves well, and he is courageous in the pocket. He never looks skittish. His teammates seem to like him. And despite Monday’s flat tire, San Francisco is 8-1 heading into Sunday’s game against Arizona.
The internal debate will come in the offseason, when Shanahan and the 49ers must decide whether Garoppolo is still their quarterback of the future. They can cut him in 2020 and absorb a reasonable $4.2 million in dead money, while saving close to $22.5 million in cap space.
Garoppolo’s flaws, balanced by his won-lost record (currently at 16-3), should make for some spirited conversations. But there isn’t really any debate now. Garoppolo isn’t going to carry the 49ers to the promised land, nor will he prevent them from getting there. He’s good enough to be part of the formula, and when you’re 8-1 that’s sufficient.
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @Skinny_Post.