by Evan Bruner
Jimmy Garoppolo was in one of the biggest games of his career last Sunday night. Not just was a Super Bowl trip on the line, but so was his future with the San Francisco 49ers. With a win, Garoppolo would’ve led the 49ers to their second Super Bowl in three years and pushed his playoff record to an impressive 6-1. An impressive performance against a divisional foe in a win-or-go-home scenario may have been enough to secure Garoppolo the starting job with the 49ers for at least one more year.
Garoppolo did make a statement in his team’s collapse and 20-17 loss to the Rams, but it wasn’t the one he was trying to make. When it mattered most, he and the 49ers offense couldn’t get it done, which has become a persistent theme in recent years. As Garoppolo walked off the field after throwing a game-sealing interception to Travis Howard, fans can’t help but wonder if that will be his final play as a 49er. A quarterback who was once thought to be the franchise savior has now become their scapegoat, and with a top-three pick in Trey Lance sitting behind him, the 49ers have reached their breaking point with Garoppolo.
When evaluating Garoppolo’s play, it’s important to understand the existence of a middle ground. It’s easy to get caught up in the extremes with sports media. A player is either the best or the worst, deserves praise or deserves criticism. Garoppolo, however, is far too complicated to be labeled as one or the other. He’s not a bad quarterback, but he’s also not a great one. He doesn’t lose his team many games, but he doesn’t win them many, either.
The problem San Francisco has run into is regular season good and postseason good are two very different things, and Garoppolo doesn’t quite check the second box. Everything is relative to the competition, and the deeper you make it into the playoffs, the better the competition gets.
Garoppolo may not be considered a major weakness in most games, but in a year where the other three quarterbacks to make the conference championship games were Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, and Mathew Stafford, it seems clear who the odd man out is. In today’s NFL, high-level quarterback play is as crucial as ever, and it’s nearly impossible to sustain a deep postseason run without it. The common misconception is only high level quarterbacks are capable of high level play, but that simply isn’t true. You don’t have to be an elite quarterback to play like one for a month, week, or even a single possession.
It’s not about the sheer volume of these plays; it’s the timeliness of them. The 49ers didn’t need Garoppolo to throw for 400 yards or five touchdowns to win. They simply needed him to make enough throws down the stretch to preserve the lead and he couldn’t. With the rise of analytics and advanced stats in recent years, it’s easy to over-complicate things, but you don’t always need to. The question is simple: can you rely on your quarterback in critical situations? The answer with Garoppolo seems to be a definitive no.
Garoppolo’s game is far more game manager than game changer. When everything goes according to plan, he’s effective. But NFL defenses do a good job of disrupting and altering plans. It’s easy to be a good quarterback when everything is perfect; it’s the ability to make plays when things breakdown that separates the good and the great ones from the average.
Garoppolo has been one of the most sheltered quarterbacks in the league these last few seasons and the favorable situation has bought him countless opportunities to prove himself. The problem is he can only do these easy parts of quarterbacking. He struggles under pressure, throwing the ball downfield, and looking past his first read, all things that are expected from franchise quarterbacks. San Francisco’s talent at the other positions has been enough to overcome many of Garoppolo’s shortcomings, but it eventually catches up them just like it did on Sunday.
This isn’t 2017 anymore. Fans are no longer enamored by the possibilities of a young, unproven quarterback, who has shown promise in his limited playing time. At 30 years old, Garoppolo is who he is. The sooner the 49ers realize this the better, otherwise they risk wasting their Super Bowl on a quarterback who has been given far too many chances.