Jimmy Garoppolo is not as good of a quarterback as Patrick Mahomes.
That’s close to the only thing everyone can agree on when it comes to the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback ahead of Super Bowl LIV (aside from his rugged handsomeness).
To say that because the initial sentence is true that Garoppolo is a bad quarterback is irresponsible. The dilemma from there, though, remains finding out how good he actually is. How much of his success is tied completely to the system he’s in? Does he elevate coach Kyle Shanahan’s system to a new level? Is it just luck, or is he severely underrated?
These are all questions that have been and will continue to be debated as Sunday’s matchup draws near. While the public spars, the Kansas City Chiefs are studying and game planning and becoming more informed than anyone of Garoppolo’s biggest strengths and weaknesses.
The Chiefs will face one of the most enigmatic quarterbacks in the league in the Super Bowl. There are moments when he looks like a superstar, followed in some cases by moments that make him look like nothing more than a necessary stand-in and handoff machine for an old-school rushing attack. The true answer, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.
The numbers indicate that Garoppolo is clearly on the “good” side of a simple binary, good or bad. As illustrated by David Lombardi in The Athletic last week, he has a fair share of numbers that are comparable to Mahomes this year. You can go far beyond that for more data that paints a pleasant picture of the Eastern Illinois graduate.
Notably, that includes his four fourth-quarter comebacks, which tied Seattle’s Russell Wilson for the most in the NFL, and his league-best passer rating while his team is trailing.
We’ll analyze situations involving these two stats specifically, going back through film from the 49ers’ wins in Weeks 11 and 16 over the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams, respectively. This video will show you what makes him such a dangerous threat when he drops back, but will also demonstrate what the Chiefs can do to make his life miserable on Sunday.
San Francisco’s Week 11 win over Arizona was notable for a disastrous (for some) ending, but regardless of that it featured Garoppolo leading the 49ers down the field for a game-winning drive. Our focus, however, is on their drive prior to decisive one.
The 49ers’ offense took over with 6:25 to play in the game following a Kyler Murray touchdown for the Cardinals. On the first play of the drive, Garoppolo showed off his big arm with a deep ball to rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
San Francisco is using the switch concept with its right-side receivers, with Samuel running a deep in from the outside and Kendric Bourne going out and up from the slot. Garoppolo has plenty of time to throw (keep this in mind for later) and takes a shot, hitting Samuel right on the money for a 23-yard gain. It’s a tight spiral on a line from a slightly lowered arm angle, a pretty throw to jump start the drive.
However, the 49ers were kept out of the end zone when he made a bad, rushed decision and missed tight end Ross Dwelley on a play near the red zone.
The Cardinals show blitz pressure, bringing six, although one of the initial rushers that was shown is a bluff, with slot corner pressure coming instead. Obviously, Garoppolo is rushed. Even so, this throw is far behind Dwelley when he still had a lane to complete it over the middle. Linebacker Jordan Hicks, who dropped out of the pass rush, is far enough to Garoppolo’s right that he can throw straight ahead and likely complete the pass. Instead, he mistimes Dwelley’s break and gets picked off on a tipped ball.
When the 49ers scored to decide the game later in the fourth quarter, it was on a drive that didn’t feature any splash plays, positive or negative, from the quarterback. He showed on this possession that he has the arm to pick up chunks of yardage, but also that he can be bothered by the blitz to the point where his accuracy falls off drastically.
Where the Chiefs can take advantage: Garoppolo is prone to turning the ball over. He had the eighth-worst interception rate in the league during the regular season. Forcing him into bad decisions, like the one in the second clip, could make the 49ers one dimensional. That worked against defenses like those of the Vikings and Packers, but will probably be less effective against the Chiefs.
On the go-ahead drive against the Rams in Week 16, Garoppolo once again showed why his talent was so highly coveted when he was still a prospect, but also displayed a lack of awareness that the Chiefs should be able to exploit.
The first mistake for San Francisco came on the first play of the drive.
Watch the Rams adjust their front when there’s motion into the backfield, bringing Aaron Donald, who’s lined up in the Wide 9 technique, back to the interior while Dante Fowler slides up to the edge. Now, Los Angeles has five men on the line, including a pure pass rusher in Clay Matthews to the quarterback’s right, although he’s not in a rushing position while lined up over the tight end. On the snap, though, Matthews drops into the flat to take away the hot route to the running back. Pressure comes from the middle and left, with Fowler running a stunt to the inside of Donald. With his hot read covered, Garoppolo doesn’t have time to react. He freezes in the pocket, doesn’t evade or throw elsewhere and gets walloped by the interior pressure.
An interior pass rush is deadly for most offenses, so that’s a particularly unique flaw for Garoppolo. However, this is a good example of how using games up front and eliminating short passing lanes can put Jimmy G in a bind.
Two plays later, however, Garoppolo bounced back with a big-time throw from an unorthodox base while under pressure.
Believe it or not, no quarterback in the NFL was as successful at converting third downs when passing this season as Garoppolo. Kansas City needs to be able to get off the field on third down in the Super Bowl, which is one of the toughest things to do against San Francisco. On this play Los Angeles is just bringing four, but tried to disguise what exactly they were doing with the unbalanced front. The Rams are able to collapse the pocket around Garoppolo, but without much time to set up and throw he still passes for a long completion. He doesn’t step into the throw, instead side stepping to open his shoulders to his receiver, torquing his upper body and threading the ball to Bourne for a first down.
What may be the most impressive part of this play is the fact that tight end George Kittle, the Niners’ best weapon, isn’t even in the pass pattern, instead staying in the backfield to block.
This pass came on a third down with 16 yards to go. The Chiefs can’t allow this to happen on Sunday.
Let’s jump ahead two more plays now, when Garoppolo makes a bad mistake.
If you want to be generous, you can come up for excuses for the first sack in this video series. This time it’s 100% on Garoppolo, who waits far too long in the pocket and eats a sack. In this situation, late in the game (1:04 to go in the fourth quarter). He needs to either run or throw it somewhere instead of wasting yardage and time. He doesn’t even look at Bourne, who has a chance to make a play in space to the right. If he’s going to give away plays like this, the Chiefs will feast.
If you haven’t felt like this series has bounced between high highs and low lows yet, one play later Garoppolo stepped up and made a big throw again.
Once again, it’s third and 16 for the 49ers. Once again, Kittle stays in to block instead of running a route. Even so, he throws a deep bomb down the field to Emmanuel Sanders for a huge game to set up the game-winning field goal. There aren’t any defensive backs to contend with deep because of a busted coverage (Wade Phillips’ cover-5 technique with a miscommunication between the corner and safety), but it’s still a beautiful ball. It’s another throw without Garoppolo stepping into it, too, releasing it almost from a sidearm position and still getting a high arc on the throw.
Where the Chiefs can take advantage: Garoppolo is clearly capable of throwing deep and making splash plays, plus he showed on this drive that he can remain poised in adverse down-and-distance situations. However, the first play is probably the most telling in regard to what the Chiefs can do to rattle him. Disguised blitzes and interior pressure can throw him off his game, which is why having a guy like Chris Jones in the middle who can disrupt and protection scheme and throwing rhythm is huge.
He’s not a bad quarterback. In fact, he’s a good one. However, he’s closer to Kirk Cousins than to Patrick Mahomes in that when the situation is favorable he can make big plays, but he may not be as capable when he’s harassed and things break down. That puts a lot of pressure on defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to dial up the right pressures in the right moments, but he and his unit have shown a propensity for that this year. If San Francisco has to rely completely on the running game because Garoppolo is forced into making mistakes, Kansas City will be in tremendous position to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.