The 49ers have done something incredible this season. They’ve roared out to an undefeated record, yes, but the truly incredible accomplishment is that they’ve done that while keeping their quarterback as under-the-radar and anonymous as any signal-caller in the league.
When discussing the 49ers—one of the very best teams in football this season—you wouldn’t begin by talking about the guy throwing the footballs. No, you’d start by talking about their ferocious defense, which has been energized by their Defensive Rookie of the Year lock Nick Bosa, whom you’d also talk about. You’d talk about how Richard Sherman, Arik Armstead, Jimmie Ward, Dee Ford, and a host of others have swallowed opposing offenses whole. You’d talk about the 49ers’ quadruple-headed hydra rushing attack, and how any combination of Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Jeff Wilson could be a fantasy star in any given week. You’d talk about guru head coach Kyle Shanahan and how he’s finally put things together in his third year. And you’d talk about their wrecking ball tight end in George Kittle, who is just plain awesome. Then, after all that, you’d mention Jimmy Garoppolo.
Garoppolo’s season has been pretty ho-hum. Before Thursday he had yet to hit 300 passing yards in a game and had thrown more than two touchdowns in a game just once. Garoppolo’s season-long performance has been so unremarkable that when put in the context of the Niners’ hot start, the cable-television take faucets began to spout that Garoppolo was the “weakest link” on the 49ers and that he’d become a liability in the team’s Super Bowl push. The Niners bet $137.5 million on Garoppolo, but even with an undefeated record, his play was in question.
Well, Garoppolo put those questions to bed—at least for this week—in his team’s 28-25 win over the Cardinals on Thursday that moved the Niners to 8-0. For a team that has so often won with an old-school defense-and-running-game approach this season, the Niners allowed a season-high 25 points and 357 yards to go with a season-low 101 rushing yards. They needed the passing attack to bail them out, and Garoppolo delivered with the best line of his career: 28-of-37 for 317 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions. He averaged 8.6 yards per attempt and was sacked just once.
More impressive than any of the four touchdowns, though, were two third-down conversions Garoppolo made on the final drive of the game. On the first, pressure forced Garoppolo to make a completely flat-footed toss to Emmanuel Sanders to convert a third-and-11. Even after watching the clip, it’s hard to figure out how Garoppolo had the arm strength to get this one to his target:
Sanders, who was acquired on October 22 in a trade with the Broncos, was indispensable in this game. Garoppolo targeted him nine times, and Sanders caught seven of those passes for 112 yards and a touchdown (all of those numbers were game-highs for Niner wideouts). San Francisco smartly addressed its biggest area of concern at the trade deadline, and it may not have been able to win this game without the outside threat Sanders brings to the team.
Late on the final drive, the Niners found themselves in a third-and-9. With 2:00 on the clock and Arizona out of timeouts, this down had the game on the line. Again, pressure found Garoppolo, but he was able to smoothly step up and think about running before dumping the ball to Ross Dwelley, who was able to rumble ahead and pick up the game-winning conversion:
Of course, there are caveats to Garoppolo’s performance. The biggest one is that his big game came against a soft Cardinals defense that entered Week 9 with the 27th-ranked pass defense by DVOA. The second is that despite the awesome stat line, most of Garoppolo’s throws didn’t exactly jump off the film. Garoppolo isn’t inserting himself into the MVP conversation any time soon.
But unlike the division rival Seahawks, whom the Niners play next week, San Francisco doesn’t need its quarterback to play at an MVP level to be a Super Bowl contender. They will, however, need him to rise to the occasion when games get tough, and Thursday showed that he’s capable of doing that. Garoppolo won’t be the under-the-radar piece of this 49ers team any longer.