SANTA CLARA — To understand Jimmy Garoppolo, compare him to former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, his complete opposite.
Smith is a safety-first quarterback. He plays quarterback like an experienced gambler plays poker. He always calculates the odds of success before making a move. He folds most of his hands. He takes no risks.
That’s why Smith has thrown no more than eight interceptions in a season since 2010, back when he played for the 49ers. Smith is a game manager. He doesn’t beat himself. But he rarely wins big, either.
Garoppolo is quarterback as gunslinger who takes big chances — think Brett Favre. Sometimes risk-taking backfires. Garoppolo took risks Sunday during the 49ers’ 24-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings and beat himself. It was his first loss in the NFL. He threw three interceptions, including one on the final drive with the game on the line.
Garoppolo shoots from the hip, wants the action. He hates to throw the ball away. That’s why through just six starts with the 49ers — less than half a season — he already has thrown eight picks.
“I have mixed emotions about it,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday about Garoppolo’s audacity. “When you get happy with guys making plays, you can’t sit there and get mad at them every time they don’t. That will handcuff them.
“Jimmy has made a lot of plays when nothing has been there. My whole thing with that stuff is just about not guessing. I always want a guy to see something, react, let it rip and not hesitate. I don’t want guys just saying, ‘I need to make a play,’ and then throw the ball up and hope someone comes down with it.”
Shanahan was saying there’s a fine line between making plays and being reckless. Garoppolo was reckless against the Vikings.
With 1:45 remaining in the fourth quarter, Garoppolo and the 49ers had the ball at their 11-yard line, trailing Minnesota by eight points. It was second-and-10. They had one timeout. Garoppolo could have led a game-tying touchdown drive. It would have been difficult, but not impossible.
Instead, here’s what happened: As Garoppolo dropped back to throw, he saw Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in his face. Richardson had just beaten 49ers right guard Mike McGlinchey with a swim move to the inside.
Garoppolo had nowhere to go. He could have thrown the ball away. Instead, he performed the chuck-and-duck: Threw blindly over the middle to Trent Taylor, who was triple-covered. Then, Garoppolo immediately braced for the hit. Vikings strong safety Harrison Smith intercepted Garoppolo’s pass, and the Vikings won.
“As the game goes on, you have got to bring the pressure on him,” Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter said of Garoppolo afterward. “You see that he’s starting to get scared.”
On Wednesday, a reporter told Garoppolo what Hunter said about him being scared of pressure. “I’d never heard that before,” Garoppolo said. “But it’s the way he thinks, I guess. Pressure is always a good thing in a quarterback’s eyes. It opens up windows. They have less guys in coverage.”
Hunter had a point, but Shanahan absolved Garoppolo from one interception, his first. He took a big hit from Eric Kendricks, threw blindly and quickly protected himself.
But Shanahan didn’t blame Garoppolo for that throw. “It’s what you have to do,” Shanahan said. “When there’s an unblocked guy in your face, you’ve got to get it out of your hands right away. That’s our hot route. You don’t have time to sit and look to see if the guy is running the right route. You have to let it rip and trust the guy is going to do it.”