The 49ers’ devastatingly effective ground attack has been the team’s offensive foundation this season, a strength they’ve leaned on harder than ever during their run to Super Bowl LIV. In postseason wins over the Vikings and Packers, San Francisco has tallied an incredible 471 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, challenging the modern convention that passing is more efficient than running. The 49ers dominated both teams without having to turn to the air, leaning on head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan’s diverse and unpredictable run scheme to move the chains, create explosive plays, and punch the ball into the end zone. When asked why the team ran the ball 42 times in the team’s 37-20 victory over Green Bay, Shanahan’s laconic reply told the story of the game: “Because it was working.”
With so much success on the ground, San Francisco hasn’t asked quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to do much. Garoppolo has attempted a combined 27 passes in the team’s two postseason wins, completing 17 of them for 208 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Those meager numbers have evoked the dreaded game manager label from some in the run-up to the team’s Super Bowl matchup with the Chiefs―and Garoppolo’s unremarkable playoff performance thus far has left some questioning whether the team’s passing attack can pick up the slack if the Chiefs’ buzz saw of an offense forces San Francisco to air it out.
If everything goes right for the 49ers on Sunday, Garoppolo may not have to answer that question; there’s a real chance he’ll end up playing the role of highly paid handoff machine for the third straight game. But if San Francisco falls into a quick hole against the high-octane Chiefs or is forced to play in an all-out, back-and-forth barn burner, the veteran signal-caller has shown time and again this year that he has what it takes to carry the 49ers to victory.
The Super Bowl matchup has some similarities to the Titans-Chiefs tilt in the AFC championship game. Like Tennessee, the 49ers are a run-heavy squad that has relied upon a ball-control philosophy to help shorten the game, limit opponent possessions, and protect early leads. San Francisco would be happy to run the ball another 50 times on Sunday, I’m sure, as long as those runs are working and they’re keeping the ball out of Patrick Mahomes’s hands.
But, as Tennessee found out two weeks ago, things don’t always go according to plan: Despite jumping out to an early 10-point lead in that game, the Titans struggled to grind it out on the ground; Derrick Henry was just not as effective running on early downs as he had been the two games prior (he finished with just 69 yards on 19 rushes), and that put far more pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill to execute on a handful of crucial third-and-long plays. During a stretch from the late second quarter and into the early fourth quarter, Tannehill and the Titans failed to convert successive third-and-9, third-and-10, and third-and-7 situations, ultimately punting on all three possessions. The Chiefs took advantage of those miscues, mounting touchdown drives after each of those three punts to build an insurmountable late-game lead.
If the 49ers have any hope of going punch-for-punch against a high-octane offense like Kansas City’s, they can’t afford to waste possessions. The Niners offense is at its best when it features a balanced attack, alternating between the physical run game and the play-action passing attack, and Garoppolo is an excellent play-action passer who excels on bootlegs outside the pocket. But in close games or when playing from behind, there will be situations where San Francisco won’t be able to lean on those bread-and-butter plays. As Tannehill and the Titans illustrated two weeks ago, games can often come down to a handful of critical third-down situations where neither the run nor the play-action pass can be consistently used. On those plays, quarterbacks have little choice but to drop back, stand tall in the pocket, and throw into the teeth of a defense that knows a pass is coming. That’s where Garoppolo will need to shine on Sunday.
The “game manager” was quietly one of the best third-down passers in the league this season, particularly on plays with medium-to-long distances to gain. On third-and-5 or more this season, Garoppolo converted a league-best 47 first downs through the air, completing 69 of 98 passes while averaging 7.8 yards per attempt. And it’s not like those third-down conversions were all in garbage time, either: The 28-year-old passer has come up big for the Niners in some of the team’s most pivotal moments.
In their 48-46 Week 14 win over the Saints, Garoppolo carried the 49ers offense, completing 26 of 35 attempts for 349 yards, four touchdowns, and one pick. And his performance on a few late third and fourth downs may have been the difference in the game. With the 49ers holding a slim 35-33 lead early in the fourth quarter, Garoppolo converted two crucial third downs to keep the team’s drive alive. On a third-and-6 from the 43-yard line, Garoppolo hung tough in the face of a six-man blitz by the Saints, finding Kendrick Bourne near the sideline for a first down.
Later that drive, the team faced a third-and-5 from the New Orleans 32-yard line. The Saints blitzed again, sending five, and Garoppolo calmly found his man over the middle of the field, throwing a dart to Deebo Samuel for another 16 yards. The Niners scored five plays later.
Jimmy G wasn’t done. Trailing the Saints 46-45 with 39 seconds to go, San Francisco faced a fourth-and-2 from its own 33-yard line. Garoppolo hit George Kittle on an out route at the sticks. Kittle obviously did the heavy lifting, gaining an additional 31 yards after the catch, but that play could’ve gone differently if Garoppolo hadn’t hit his big tight end perfectly in stride, allowing Kittle to turn upfield in one smooth motion. That catch-and-run set San Francisco up to kick the game-winning field goal a few plays later.
Garoppolo’s unflappable poise on third downs showed up again in the 49ers’ Week 16 win over the Rams. With the game tied 31-31, Jimmy G converted two unbelievable third-and-16 situations―the first from the 49ers’ own 19-yard line and the second from their own 31-yard line.
Had either play failed, the Niners would’ve been forced to punt the ball back to the Rams, giving their opponent the chance to win. Instead, Garoppolo moved the team down the field and into position to kick the game-winning field goal. Again.
In the team’s winner-takes-the-division matchup with the Seahawks in Week 17, Garoppolo struck again. Protecting a slim 19-14 lead with a little under six minutes remaining, Garoppolo converted a third-and-5 from the Seattle 34-yard line. He calmly dropped back, stepped up into the pocket, and found Deebo Samuel for a 21-yard gain. That set up a 49ers touchdown on the next play, giving the team some much-needed cushion. That score would end up being the difference in the game: San Francisco stopped Seattle at the 1-yard line as time ran out, and held on to win 26-21.
Those are just a few examples of Garoppolo’s ability to play from the pocket, throw in the face of pressure, and make a play when the team needs him to. It’s something that he’s done all season, and not just on third downs: While the team’s defense and run game have gotten far more hype this season, Garoppolo made some late, clutch throws to lead the 49ers to a win over the Steelers in Week 3 and helped carry the 49ers to wins in both of the team’s games against the Cardinals. He may have had his struggles early in the season with fumbles and a few too many untimely interceptions―but the veteran passer improved as the season went on and performed well in the team’s biggest moments. He finished with 27 touchdown passes (tied for fifth most), 61 completions of 20-plus yards (fourth), and 3,978 yards (12th). Hardly your typical game-manager-type numbers.
Despite the team’s recent stretch of run-heavy scripts, Shanahan has not hesitated to turn Garoppolo loose when defensive looks or game situations call for the 49ers to air it out. San Francisco has been better than some may believe when they’re forced to open up the aerial attack, and finished 5-2 in 2019 in games in which Garoppolo threw the ball at least 30 times. In those games, Jimmy G completed 69 percent of his passes for 2,058 yards, with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions. And he was effective when called upon to bring the 49ers back from a late-game deficit: He tied for the league high with four fourth-quarter comebacks, finished tied for second with four game-winning drives, and posted strong numbers when San Francisco trailed in games this season, averaging 9.1 yards per attempt while throwing for 1,470 yards, 11 touchdowns, and three interceptions in those situations. Overall, Garoppolo notched an NFL-best QBR of 84.0 this year in the fourth quarter of games within one score.
Garoppolo hasn’t had to do a whole lot in the 49ers’ postseason march to the Super Bowl―and if San Francisco can execute its run-heavy game plan on Sunday, you may see a lot more of this:
Jimmy Garoppolo practicing how he’s gonna hand the ball off to Mostert. pic.twitter.com/Gn98VVYPJS— Simbaba (@ba_2_the_ba) January 20, 2020
But Garoppolo isn’t the type of quarterback that Shanahan needs to protect or hide. One part game manager and one part big-time passer, the veteran quarterback has proved this season that he’s capable of filling whichever role the team asks him to play.