If Jimmy Garoppolo had hit that throw, we’d all feel different about this Super Bowl. With the 49ers down four points with less than two minutes remaining, Garoppolo had receiver Emmanuel Sanders streaking downfield for what could have been a 49-yard touchdown to give the 49ers a 27-24 lead.
“Those are the moments you dream of,” Garoppolo told reporters after the game. But as soon as the ball hit the turf, his dream became a nightmare.
If Garoppolo had placed that ball slightly better, the 49ers would have taken the lead. Maybe the Chiefs would have gone down and scored anyway to win 31-27 and the result would have been the same. The only thing we know for sure is that if Garoppolo had connected with Sanders, few people would be doubting his viability as a starting quarterback. But he missed it, and now we are left to wonder whether the 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback.
The natural answer is Of course they can. They came a few yards from doing it this week! Yes, but for the 49ers to make it back to the Super Bowl, they will need Garoppolo to do more than they did this season, not less or the same amount. The question likely won’t be whether Garoppolo can make one game-changing throw, but whether he can make a few dozen.
Any team that makes it to the championship of any sport gets lucky along the way, and as The Ringer’s Robert Mays wrote, the 49ers were no different. Center Weston Richburg and a few backup defensive linemen missed the Super Bowl on injured reserve, but the team had left tackle Joe Staley, right tackle Mike McGlinchey, linebacker Kwon Alexander, and defensive end Dee Ford all in the playoffs after midseason injuries. The 49ers had 10 of their 11 preferred starters available on each side of the ball, which is rare for any football team at any level this late in the season. It’s difficult to imagine that happening two seasons in a row.
Even if the 49ers do stay healthy, their defense is unlikely to be as dominant in 2020 as it was in 2019. Offensive performance is more stable than defense on a year-to-year basis because dominant defensive play requires 11 people to be in sync for 70 plays a week for four months in a row. From the 2018 Chicago Bears to the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars, elite defenses fall back to the pack virtually every year. That is true even when personnel stays the same, and San Francisco’s may not. The team may lose defensive end Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward in free agency, plus a lot of their defensive line depth like Ronald Blair, Damontre Moore, and Sheldon Day, which was the secret engine to their early-season success.
Odds are that the 49ers defense will go from top two in efficiency by Football Outsiders this season to merely top 10 next season, and that is a big enough drop to change how the 49ers offense must produce. The 49ers had an average lead of 6.4 points this season, the fifth most in football according to Football Outsiders. Teams run the ball more when they are winning, and the 49ers were second in rushing attempts and fourth-to-last in passing attempts. If the 49ers defense slips at all next season, their offense will likely have to pass more. Garoppolo threw 29.8 passes per game, which ranked 25th among quarterbacks with at least eight appearances this season. He will probably have to throw far more than that in 2020.
Garoppolo throwing more was the entire narrative around the 49ers offense entering the Super Bowl. After throwing just eight passes in the NFC championship game, everyone wondered whether he would unleash the 49ers offense or hold them back when it mattered most. When that time came, he did not play well. On the Biggest Drive of Jimmy’s Life, the 49ers led 20-17 in the fourth quarter with a chance to ice the game. Garoppolo had a pass batted down by defensive lineman Chris Jones on second down and then didn’t target a wide-open George Kittle on third down. The 49ers punted, and when they got the ball back they were down 24-20. This was the new Biggest Drive of Jimmy’s Life, and this time they moved the ball to midfield. On first-and-10, Jones batted another Garoppolo throw down. On second-and-10, Garoppolo looked for receiver Kendrick Bourne but nearly threw an interception to Kendall Fuller. (Ironically, Jones tipped the pass at the line of scrimmage, likely preventing the interception.) On third-and-10, Garoppolo tossed the defining throw of his career thus far a few yards too far, missing Sanders deep for the long touchdown that could have put them ahead 27-24. Those late plays don’t even include his interception in the second quarter when he unwisely tossed a duck downfield to avoid a sack and it was picked off by Kansas City. Those are just a few plays in one game, but they are also issues that are familiar to 49ers fans who’ve watched Garoppolo for his 27 starts in San Francisco.
Garoppolo is just 28 years old. He’s been around for six years and has signed a five-year deal that will pay him $137.5 million if he doesn’t get cut or restructure it. That obscures the fact that he has barely played more football than a second-year quarterback. Garoppolo had just two starts with the Patriots when the 49ers sent a second-rounder for him in 2017. He started just seven games total before signing a contract that made him the highest-paid player in NFL history (on a per-year basis) at the time. He played only three games in 2018 before tearing his ACL. Garoppolo did not start his 16th career NFL game until October. Including the playoffs, Garoppolo has just 29 starts, the same as Baker Mayfield and seven fewer than Patrick Mahomes, despite Garoppolo being four years older than both. Considering 10 of Garoppolo’s 29 starts came in bursts across three different seasons, this was the most football he has played in one season since he was a senior at Eastern Illinois in 2013. While he was certainly getting mental reps behind Tom Brady in New England and studying with Mike Shanahan while he was out with a torn ACL in 2018, at some point the physical reps become necessary for improvement. As an exercise, here is Garoppolo compared to another player.
Player A: 16 starts, 69.1% completion percentage, 249 yards per games, 27 passing touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 36 sacks for a loss of 237 yards, 8.3 adjusted yards per pass attempt
Player B: 16 starts, 63.6% completion, 252 yards per game, 28 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 34 sacks for a loss of 231 yards, 7.5 adjusted yards per pass attempt
Player A is Garoppolo this season. Player B is Aaron Rodgers in 2008. Rodgers was 25 at the time and starting for the first time after sitting behind Brett Favre for three years. Garoppolo has not displayed anywhere near Rodgers’s talent, but Rodgers is the best comp for a player who rode the bench for so long before an organization invested a lot of money and built so much of its identity around them. This isn’t to say Garoppolo is the next Rodgers, but rather that there is still room to grow for a player who just finished his first full year as a starter.
The 49ers are committed to Garoppolo, but not as committed as you’d think. San Francisco is accounting between $26 million and $27 million for Garoppolo in each of the next three seasons, but the team could trade or cut him for a measly $4 million penalty this season. If the Niners want to get rid of Garoppolo, they can. The organization has not guaranteed too much money to Garoppolo, but they’ve also invested a lot of their current identity around him. It’s extremely unlikely the 49ers will move on from a quarterback who was one throw from taking the lead in the Super Bowl. On the flip side, San Francisco’s next Super Bowl run won’t come down to whether Garoppolo can make one throw better—it will come down to whether he can make dozens of different ones he didn’t need to make this year.