Batten down the hatches. We’re going to talk about Jimmy Garoppolo.
Every year, we talk about Jimmy Garoppolo. Some years, he’s injured, and the quarterback who replaces him puts up similar stats. Such was the case after the 2018 season, when Garoppolo looked statistically indistinguishable from undrafted free-agent backup Nick Mullens.
Nick Mullens vs. Jimmy Garoppolo since joining the 49ers: pic.twitter.com/6jgRN1lhjI— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) April 3, 2019
Some years, he makes a deep playoff run. Such was the case in 2019 and again in 2021, as Garoppolo and the 49ers fell to the Rams this past Sunday, 20-17. This year, the Garoppolo conversation reached a head when ex-49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia criticized ESPN’s Mina Kimes for her comments on Garoppolo’s poor play during the playoffs.
Garoppolo has become a flashpoint. Pull up some advanced data, and Garoppolo looks like one of the best passers in the league. PFF’s Kevin Cole pointed out that, since joining the 49ers in 2017, Garoppolo is behind only Patrick Mahomes in expected points added per dropback. Pull up some film, and Garoppolo certainly doesn’t look like the closest thing to Mahomes. Garoppolo’s film is riddled with point-and-shoot passing attempts in which he’s given wide-open windows into the middle of the defense. Next Gen Stats charted Garoppolo’s passing attempts and graded his expected completion percentage as 67.0 percent—fifth highest in the league. Throw in two superlative yards-after-catch threats in George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, and you’ve got an offense that can cook without asking for too much from its quarterback.
So Garoppolo isn’t the second-best quarterback in the NFL. Nobody thinks he is. He also isn’t one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL. He runs the 49ers offense well and even has the traits—confident throws, quick release, pinpoint accuracy—to maximize it. That puts Garoppolo somewhere in the middle. And for quarterbacks, somewhere in the middle is the worst place to be.
For some reason, mediocrity is hard to talk about as it relates to quarterbacks. Maybe it’s the sheer superiority of the truly elite—not just that Tom Brady and Mahomes are good, but how much better they are than their contemporaries—that throws our scale out of whack. Maybe the increased media coverage of cap space, cap management, and quarterback contracts has polarized our perspectives on the position. Either a quarterback is a Good Quarterback, for whom any size contract is tenable, or he is a Bad Quarterback, and paying him anything would be a misuse of resources. I know I’ve used that exact construct as a way to talk about mediocre quarterbacks. It’s neat, it fits most pieces of the puzzle, and I don’t have to spend too much time thinking about it.
But Garoppolo doesn’t fit into the puzzle so easily. When Garoppolo is good, he is good—he can drop a perfect throw in between two zone defenders to set up a gorgeous catch-and-run touchdown.
I can't remember the last time I've seen Jimmy Garoppolo throw with anticipation like this.— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) November 17, 2021
4th-and-6 and he lets it rip to Deebo Samuel on target before he's even fully open. Really, really high level stuff from Jimmy G. pic.twitter.com/3DDsGLnl5c
And when Garoppolo is bad, he is bad. He’ll make a dumbfounding off-script passing attempt when all he needs to do is protect the football.
Garoppolo isn’t just a mediocre quarterback—he’s a mediocre quarterback because his towering peaks are matched with plunging valleys, and the aggregate of those highs and lows settles somewhere into an unsatisfying middle. There isn’t an argument left that hasn’t been made for or against Garoppolo, because anyone with a Game Pass subscription or a few stats sites bookmarked can draw enough examples to make those arguments.
We all would like for the good quarterbacks to always play well, and the bad quarterbacks to always play poorly, and for the team with the good quarterback to beat the team with the bad quarterback. But we know that isn’t the case. We know football, from the stupid oblong shape of the ball itself to the referees running around the field trying to spot it, serves chaos and chaos alone. We know that good teams lose to bad teams sometimes—even often. Football isn’t tidy or simple, and Garoppolo isn’t either.
Here’s another example of the league’s inescapable chaos: Garoppolo will play for another team in 2022. Garoppolo has a $27 million cap hit in 2022, the 11th largest for all quarterbacks. (Is Jimmy the 11th-best quarterback in the league? Probably not, but someone out there can make that argument!) The decision-makers in San Francisco certainly don’t believe Garoppolo is the 11th-best quarterback in the league, otherwise they would not have traded multiple first-round picks to acquire Garoppolo’s future replacement, Trey Lance, in the 2021 draft. Even if Garoppolo’s performance this season changed their opinion of his value to the team, the difference cannot be that significant. This was Garoppolo’s second season of (relatively) full health in San Francisco, and statistically, it looks quite like his first.
Jimmy Garoppolo Statistics
That Garoppolo is out in San Francisco is pretty evident, but everything else is total chaos. Garoppolo is a product of his offensive designer, Kyle Shanahan—but the team that trades for him will get only Garoppolo. A blueprint for success with Garoppolo is extremely clear. There is one style of offense that works for him and is now woven into his very DNA as a quarterback: the Shanahan system.
There are a lot of Shanahan-inspired systems right now, and some are in places that need a quarterback. The Broncos’ new head coach, Nathaniel Hackett, spent the past three seasons helping build Matt LaFleur’s offense in Green Bay; Klint Kubiak, son of Gary Kubiak, who helped build the original Mike Shanahan offense with the Broncos two decades ago, is set to have an interview to join the staff in Denver. The Steelers’ Matt Canada is not directly from the Shanahan tree, but runs an offense clearly inspired by Shanahan pillars: under center, play-action dropbacks, with a willingness to attack the middle of the field when the quarterback is capable of it. If Seattle moves on from Russell Wilson or Green Bay moves on from Aaron Rodgers, then both open quarterback jobs will be overseen by coaches from the Sean McVay tree. Will the Browns open the Baker Mayfield can of worms in Cleveland?
But if Shanahan himself didn’t value Garoppolo enough to retain him, how will any of these teams know how to value Garoppolo? Shanahan runs this system better than any of its offshoots or copycats—yes, even better than McVay—so how can any of these teams talk themselves into unlocking a new level of Garoppolo’s game? Every transaction in the NFL has a dark, unpierceable cloud of uncertainty looming over it. With Garoppolo, it’s so clear what you’re getting that it’s almost off-putting. There are no rose-colored glasses. He has to run this offense, and he is exactly what he is—high peaks and low valleys leveling out to some dissatisfying median—in that offense. Fin.
Who would buy that? But who wouldn’t buy that? Garoppolo is a certainty in an uncertain league, the rarest commodity in the chaos sport. Even if that certainty is the certainty of mediocrity, and the certainty of the wild debates that spring from that mediocrity, at least you can set your watch to it. Shanahan is the greatest of all the Shanahan-system coaches, and Garoppolo is the greatest of all the Shanahan-system quarterbacks, the wide zone automatons powered by their scheming coaches. He’s better than Kirk Cousins, better than Jared Goff, better than Baker Mayfield. If you wrench open the middle of the field for him, he will throw it with the confidence of prime Tom Brady. If you do not, he will bastardize the sport of football before your very eyes.
There is value in that. Maybe the value is equal to the Saints’ Jameis Winston contract—a one-year deal worth up to $12 million in incentives. Maybe the value is equal to the Teddy Bridgewater trade: The Panthers swallowed $7 million of the $10 million due to Bridgewater for 2021 to send him to the Broncos, and the Broncos sent only a sixth-round pick in return. For an accurate if unspectacular pocket passer who can be just good enough to let the offense work for him, it seems like a fair price.
These prices seem cheap for the quarterback who just played in the league’s penultimate weekend. But that only serves as a reminder to our overarching point: spurn simplicity. We want Garoppolo’s playoff run to be a sufficient signal of his quality of play, but it isn’t. We want Garoppolo’s quality of play to be a sufficient signal of his worth to other teams, but it isn’t. Garoppolo might be a certainty as a player, because we know exactly his strengths and weaknesses and how those map onto the current quarterback landscape and offensive meta. Everything afterward is a mess.
Everything beforehand is a mess, too. Determining Garoppolo’s legacy in San Francisco, now that his final 49ers snap has almost certainly been played, is tough. It’d be nice to say that he took them to a Super Bowl and almost to another. But while he was a necessary cog, he wasn’t the driving force of that offense. The 49ers needed him to get there and now need someone better than him to get over the hump.
Garoppolo executed the role he was asked to play and was a stalwart through all the injuries, trade rumors, and frustrations. He’s been supportive of Lance and graceful in defeat. Garoppolo might not be a good quarterback, but he’s a good guy to have in the locker room, which matters. But the former far outweighs the latter. Garoppolo wasn’t enough for San Francisco to win it all, and the next team he plays will be taking on what remains one of the league’s toughest nuts to crack: the value of the mediocre quarterback.