Nevius: 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo shows grit in taking the big hits

SANTA CLARA - Sports philosopher Mike Tyson put it best.

“Everybody has a plan,” Tyson said. “Until they get hit in the mouth.”

Tyson was speaking of his sport, boxing, but it seems equally applicable to football, particularly quarterbacking. QBs have to read defenses, call plays, remember routes and throw an oblong spheroid 30 yards on a line to hit a two-foot target.

Still, you'd be surprised how many people can do that. Watching a professional quarterback, even a third-stringer, throw in practice, you can't help but be impressed with the way they can spin it.

But can they do it in a game while getting blasted by angry, full-tilt pass rushers? There's not another sport that demands such a combination of elite skill and headbanging violence. It is the kind of thing that takes a toll.

“As you get hit a certain number of times, it doesn't feel good,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said last week. “It really hurts for everyone.”

Which is why it is worth pointing out that, although he still falls prey to the mind-blowing interception, Jimmy Garoppolo is also demonstrably hanging in there, taking the shots and making the throws.

Garoppolo said he didn't see the pass to Jeff Wilson Jr. that won last week's thriller with the Cardinals. He was busy ducking away from blitzing safety Budda Baker, who was right in Jimmy G's grill when he released the ball.

It was a moment when you looked at Garoppolo, jersey smeared with mud after two sacks and several hits, and realize he is not just a pretty person. He can take it.

“As a quarterback, your toughness isn't really exemplified by hitting people,” he said last week. “But can you hang in the pocket, give the guy an extra second on his route. I think you've got to be willing to do that.”

Shanahan says that kind of toughness comes from DNA, like great hair. Which Jimmy G also has.

“I think you either have that or you don't have that,” Shanahan said.

And then he added something interesting. Because everyone who wants to be an NFL QB knows the deal. They just have to convince themselves to stand tall and take it. Easier said than done, Shanahan says.

“I think anyone can talk themselves into being tough for a play or two, or a game or two,” he said. “Just watch quarterbacks over time.”

Until now we've said that the Garoppolo era is too small a sample to make judgments. But in the last couple of games, including getting sacked five times in the overtime loss to Seattle, he's shown unmistakable grit.

That's handy because, as Shanahan says, opposing teams have made a decision to gang up on the line of scrimmage to counteract the 49ers' run game. Which means more Garoppolo.

“The last few weeks we've had to throw it,” said Shanahan, adding that it was “neat” that the team “was able to get a win by throwing the ball.”

The game-winner to Wilson was not a perfect pass, but a lot of guys don't get the ball off against that all-out blitz. Or if they do, they fling up a wild, uncatchable flare. Garoppolo got the ball there. Granted, Wilson had to make a tough catch, but plays like that are how you go 9-1.

Now, there are some Jimmy quibbles. In the Seattle game, when Jadeveon Clowney seemed to spend more time in the 49ers' backfield than the running backs, Garoppolo fumbled twice. That's always a risk when you are holding the ball one-handed, but that's also part of the job description - ball security.

He's also willing to admit that he could work on what players call “off-schedule” plays. That's when the protective pocket springs leaks and Garoppolo has to run around and hope for inspiration. Like the rest of us, quarterbacks are fans of the game, and Garoppolo has a thing for this week's opposing QB, Aaron Rodgers.

“His off-schedule plays are incredible,” Garoppolo said. “I try to watch him any opportunity I get. It's impressive.”

That may be the next step for him. He's steady in the drop-back pocket, striking that balanced pose, but once he's scrambling - when it isn't a planned bootleg - production seems to suffer.

“It's something we can improve on,” he said. “Definitely.”

And finally, as impressive as it is to absorb the punishment, you've also got to produce. Backup C. J. Beathard was widely praised for absorbing some thunderous shots. But the offense didn't seem to move much.

You've got to be able to do both - get hit and make the throws. No wonder the 32 NFL teams value quarterbacks above all else.

“I think it takes very special guys to hang in there with the toughness that you've got to have,” Shanahan said. “And still be able to make decisions, have an elite arm, be able to read everything and process that.”

How rare is a guy like that?

“I don't think there are 32 on the planet,” Shanahan said.

The 49ers will settle for one.

Contact C.W. Nevius at Twitter: @cwnevius

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