What must quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo do to take next step with 49ers?

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A year ago, the 49ers reported to training camp feeling absolutely sure they had stolen Jimmy Garoppolo from the New England Patriots.

Garoppolo shouldn’t have been available. The Patriots drafted him in 2014 and spent four seasons grooming him to replace Tom Brady. But Brady doesn’t need replacing yet, even though he’s 41.

So, rather than let Garoppolo leave in free agency when his contract expired at the end of 2017, the Patriots traded him to the 49ers for a mere second-round draft pick, because Bill Belichick respects Kyle Shanahan and wanted the 49ers to succeed. That’s what the 49ers thought at the time. They believed the Patriots had given them Garoppolo out of the kindness of their hearts.

Since that trade, Brady has won his sixth Super Bowl, and Garoppolo has played just eight games and torn his ACL. Last season in particular, Garoppolo played like a mistake-prone rookie, even though he’s 27, while his backup, Nick Mullens, a former undrafted free agent who’s only 24, played like a veteran.

Now, the 49ers have to wonder if the Patriots duped them, put one over on them. Have to wonder if Garoppolo is yet another former Brady backup — like Matt Cassel, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett — who failed after leaving New England.

This season is critical for Garoppolo. If he plays well coming off a torn ACL and leads the 49ers to the playoffs, he could remain the 49ers’ starting quarterback for years and years and ascend to the level of Joe Montana and Steve Young. But if he struggles coming off a torn ACL, the 49ers could bench him or cut him. His contract is easy to terminate after this season.

Here’s what Garoppolo must prove to stay employed in Santa Clara:

1. Durability

When the 49ers traded for Garoppolo, he had started only two games. And in the second game, he separated his throwing shoulder trying to run away from a defender rather than throwing the ball out of bounds.

The 49ers believed this injury was an isolated incident, not the beginning of a pattern of poor decision-making. Their belief grew stronger when Garoppolo started five games for the 49ers in 2017 behind a makeshift offensive line and didn’t get hurt.

But in 2018, Garoppolo reverted to the reckless playing style he showed when he separated his shoulder while playing for the Patriots. Week 2, Garoppolo tried to scramble away from Detroit Lions middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, and Davis slammed Garoppolo to the turf on his head. The next week, Garoppolo scrambled and decided to cut back into the field and hit a defender rather than protect himself and run out of bounds. As Garoppolo cut back, his ACL snapped.

Through 10 career NFL starts, Garoppolo has suffered two serious injuries and shown he doesn’t protect himself the way a franchise quarterback should. That’s one reason he never has started more than five games in a row. Compare him to Russell Wilson, who scrambles much more often than Garoppolo. In seven seasons, Wilson has never missed a game, because he protects himself when he runs. Knows when to slide or run out of bounds. Doesn’t take unnecessary hits because he understands the Seahawks need him.

Garoppolo’s throwing talent won’t matter if he can’t stay on the field.

2. Decision-making

The 49ers love Garoppolo’s throwing mechanics. He’s even more graceful than the 49ers expected when they traded for him.

But the 49ers don’t love Garoppolo’s decision-making. They thought he would make smarter choices on the field, considering he came from New England and studied under Belichick and Brady, two of the smartest people in NFL history.

Brady demonstrates his intelligence by protecting the football. His career interception rate is a miniscule 1.8, meaning he throws an interception just 1.8% of the time he attempts a pass. He owns the second-lowest interception rate of all time behind Aaron Rodgers.

On the 49ers, Garoppolo’s interception rate is 3.0. He has thrown eight picks in eight starts. He also has thrown five additional possible interceptions which defenders dropped, plus one interception that didn’t count because a penalty away from the play negated it.

Garoppolo has thrown 14 interceptions or possible interceptions in just eight starts with the 49ers. Since the trade, his rate of interceptions combined with possible interceptions is 5.0, one of the worst in the NFL. For a comparison, Mullens’ rate in 2018 was 2.9, sixth-best in the NFL.

Garoppolo needs to stop throwing the ball to the other team.

3. Football intelligence

Garoppolo is smart enough to play in most offensive systems, but he doesn’t play in most systems. He plays in Shanahan’s system, the most dense and complex offensive system in the NFL. A system even the smartest quarterbacks, such as Matt Ryan, take at least 12 months to master.

Garoppolo became the 49ers’ starting quarterback just a month after they traded for him, and he flourished immediately because he didn’t have to learn the full playbook. Shanahan gave Garoppolo an abbreviated version just to get him on the field as soon as possible. Call it Shanahan’s CliffsNotes. And for the final five games of 2017, he played with the poise and confidence of a Pro Bowler.

Most analysts expected Garoppolo would play even better in 2018 with more exposure to the system.

He didn’t.

Before the 2018 season, Shanahan dumped his entire playbook on Garoppolo and expected him to learn it.

When the season started, Garoppolo lost all the poise and confidence he had in 2017. Now, he would drop back in the pocket and freeze as if he had to reread the playbook before attempting a pass.

In three games, Garoppolo got sacked 13 times, and at least three of those sacks were his fault because he held the ball too long.

Last season, Garoppolo’s sack percentage was 12.7, meaning he got sacked 12.7% of the time he dropped back to throw. His sack percentage ranked third-highest in the NFL among quarterbacks who attempted at least 80 passes.

Mullens’ sack percentage of 5.8 ranked lower than Philip Rivers, Kirk Cousins and Matt Ryan. Mullens mastered Shanahan’s playbook.

To help Garoppolo master it, the 49ers sent him to watch film with Shanahan’s father, Mike Shanahan. “(Mike is) so advanced in how he sees defenses and how he predicts,” Garoppolo told Bleacher Report. “I’m trying to get on the same level.”

Garoppolo has been on the 49ers for 21 months. He should know the full playbook by heart. If he doesn’t, time for the 49ers to worry.

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