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Jimmy Garoppolo’s Sad Super Bowl Blues

The 49ers quarterback had history at his fingertips … and he overthrew the pass

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Jimmy Garoppolo’s postgame press conference was held in a white tent at Hard Rock Stadium. Nothing of substance was said, but it could be studied by a showrunner who wants to make a white-collar police procedural for Netflix. Garoppolo, dressed in a suit, was asked about his struggles in the fourth quarter. He stroked his chin. Asked about the state of the 49ers locker room, Garoppolo adjusted an expensive-looking watch. He shot his shirt collar. “It is what it is,” he said.

We’ve seen this fidgety character before. Blows the Super Bowl, gets stuck in a half state between actual greatness and the idea of it. The thing is, Jimmy G already seemed like that kind of player. There is a vast gulf between Garoppolo’s trappings—strong chin, Patriots pedigree, girlfriend—and his actual accomplishments, between the swaggering nickname and the hardware. A Super Bowl loss just made the idea more pronounced.

Sunday’s 31-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs was the end of a strange, three-week arc for Garoppolo. In playoff wins against the Vikings and Packers, he threw for only 208 yards. There was a sense that letting him throw passes would only have screwed up a dominant 49ers running game. “When you’re running the ball for 8 yards a carry, moving the sticks play after play, it’s like, ‘Do you really want to pass it?’” Garoppolo said this week.

That makes a certain amount of sense. But there was enough of a media blob in Miami that people were bound to get counterintuitive ideas. Maybe Jimmy G and his offensive handlers were setting everyone up. Maybe Jimmy G was reading negative articles and getting pissed off. Maybe he was a classic Nobody Believes in Me guy.

During the second and third quarters, Garoppolo really seemed like that guy. Or just enough of that guy, thanks to assists from teammates Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, and—on the other sideline—Patrick Mahomes, who threw two picks. Garoppolo had a lot of efficient play-action passes. An emphatic first-down finger point in the second quarter. He was finally living up to his chin. Jimmy G could be Super Bowl MVP!

In the fourth quarter, Garoppolo’s chin seemed merely symbolic. He was handed the ball by his defense with a 10-point lead and just under 12 minutes left. Garoppolo went 3-for-9 for 36 yards passing over the next three drives. There was an in-the-grasp sack in there, and a potential game-winning deep ball that Garoppolo threw over Emmanuel Sanders’s head. He looked like the guy the 49ers were determined to keep under a tarp.

Sitting in the interview tent adjusting his watch, Garoppolo was an unusual kind of Super Bowl loser. Not awful, but not entirely plausible, either. Garoppolo was a People Believed in Him Briefly guy.

As the players and coaches trickled in, everyone kind of talked around Garoppolo. Asked how he fared, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said, “I think he did some real good things.” He added: “I thought Jimmy played all right.” Shanahan said he wanted to study the tape, after which time he might be willing to offer some more lukewarm praise.

Tight end George Kittle was asked about the 49ers’ last, meaningful drive when they were down four points with 2:44 left in the game. In other words, the one that could have cemented Garoppolo’s legend. What happened on that throw to Sanders?

“We just didn’t get it done,” said Kittle, benevolently switching to the second person. “That’s all it is.”

Of the 49ers players I heard talk, only tackle Joe Staley—gutting through an emotional interview that stopped just short of tears—was effusive. “Jimmy’s a baller,” he said. “He’s unbelievable. He’s our leader, our quarterback, and I’ll go with that guy any day of the week.” It was the normal kind of stuff you hear about a losing Super Bowl quarterback, but Staley said it with genuine conviction.

There was nothing much for Garoppolo to say in such circumstances. But even so, he tried very hard not to address any part of the game or his performance.

On what happened when the 49ers got up 10: “That was an opportunity for us. We just didn’t take advantage of it. Especially right after the turnover. … I give the Chiefs some credit.”

On what happened after the two-minute warning: “Good team. Good defense. You got to give them some credit, you know. We didn’t make some of the plays that we normally make.”

On the Sanders throw: “We missed some shots tonight, you know. Some plays we usually make. It was a tough one out there.” (“Looks like he just missed him,” said Shanahan.)

I asked Garoppolo how he judged his own performance. “There was some plays we could have made. We usually do and we didn’t. Gotta give the Chiefs some credit, though …” And so forth.

The strange thing is, whatever dissonance exists within Garoppolo also exists in the 49ers’ use of him. Shanahan seemed both determined to feature Garoppolo and scared as hell of the possible results. Up three points on a drive in the fourth quarter, Shanahan called one run for Raheem Mostert and two passes for Garoppolo, when the wise thing to do seemed to be running the ball. When you’re running the ball for more than 6 yards a carry, do you really want to pass it?

Yet right before the end of the first half, Shanahan refused to use a timeout that would have given Garoppolo more time to go down the field and score. A great throw to Kittle was wiped out by a dubious offensive pass interference penalty.

Garoppolo isn’t the first quarterback in human history to fall short of our collective hype. But after the game, as he fidgeted in front of the press, it was hard to think about anything else. “It’s a tough way to go down,” Garoppolo said near the end of his interview. He repeated his mantra: “It is what it is.” In that moment, Jimmy G looked like he wore his nickname like a lead weight.