The 49ers and Chicago Bears both are injury-riddled teams with dubious rosters and bad records.
The difference Sunday was that one team was working with a starter-level quarterback. In his first full game in a 49ers uniform and his first in his native Chicago since he was a college sophomore, Jimmy Garoppolo looked like he belonged in the lead role.
He completed 70.3 percent of his passes, helped San Francisco convert more than half its third-down tries and engineered a late, game-winning drive that began on his team’s own 7-yard line.
The possession ended after 86 yards when Robbie Gould, who spent more than a decade with the Bears, knocked in his fifth field goal of the day to give the 49ers just their second win of the season, 15-14.
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In Chicago, the top storyline was Gould’s revenge. In Northern California, the headline clearly was Garoppolo, who was making only his third NFL start.
Leading up to the game, Kyle Shanahan wondered how much of his offense Garoppolo could grasp after arriving in Santa Clara a little more than a month ago. The 49ers coach noted there were some play-clock issues Sunday and that whatever Garoppolo didn’t understand from the playbook was dropped from the game plan.
But at times, it looked like Garoppolo, 26, has been a disciple of the West Coast offense all of his life. The overarching takeaway from Sunday was how smooth, how comfortable he looked. Garoppolo didn’t throw a single incompletion when targeting receivers Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor, and his lone statistical blemish – a first-quarter interception – came when a Bears defender wrestled the ball from receiver Louis Murphy’s hands.
“Just look at him. Look at him,” Goodwin said after the game while gesturing to Garoppolo, who was changing into a white dress shirt-dark suit combination a few feet away. “He’s got it all together. He came in a short time (ago) and is helping us flip this thing around. Some people are just winners, and he’s a winner.”
Garoppolo hit several critical throws in his 49ers starting debut.
He connected with Goodwin on a deep crossing route in the middle of the field at the end of the first half, throwing the ball just as Goodwin started to break inside. The chemistry was notable since the two only started to work together in earnest Wednesday.
His biggest pass was on a 33-yard catch and run by Taylor. The throw came on third and nine, and the play put the 49ers into field-goal range on their game-winning drive.
Early in the game, Garoppolo threw – with a Chicago defender bearing down on him – what appeared to be an ill-advised pass into triple coverage. Afterward, however, the quarterback didn’t think there was much risk; he noted exactly where each defender was on the play.
“I knew his route, I knew what his depth was and everything,” he said of his target, Murphy. “The linebacker had no vision on me, so I knew he wasn’t going to make a play on the ball, and I just had to keep it away from the safety and the other linebacker coming over.”
Though Garoppolo didn’t see it happen, Murphy came up with the catch, a 16-yard gain. Murphy said he couldn’t believe Garoppolo threw the ball.
“Even the (defensive back) who tackled me was like, ‘There’s no way you freakin’ caught that!’ ” Murphy said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I did, bro.’ ”
Asked about Garoppolo’s decision, Shanahan smiled and said, “Sometimes you have to overcome coaching and make plays.”
“I hold my breath and when I’m about to be upset, the receiver comes up with (the ball),” he said. “I say ‘good job’ and move on to the next play.”
On the other side of the field, Chicago’s top draft pick, Mitchell Trubisky, was 12-for-15 passing for 102 yards with an eight-yard touchdown. Most of the Bears’ drives ended in punts and, against what had been one of the worst statistical defenses in the league this year, Chicago gained only 147 yards.
Trubisky may blossom into an excellent starter for the Bears, and Shanahan rated him as the best quarterback in the recent draft.
But it was clear Sunday that Garoppolo, who is in his fourth season, is the better, savvier passer now, or at least was better Sunday.
In that way San Francisco’s victory seemed to vindicate the 49ers’ decision to trade for a veteran like Garoppolo instead of drafting a top quarterback in April and waiting for him to develop. It also likely assured the team’s decision makers that Garoppolo indeed is the 49ers’ quarterback of the future.
Garoppolo grew up 30 miles away from Soldier Field, wore Bears jerseys during impromptu backyard games and like every sports-crazed Chicago kid imagined himself one day playing there. Sunday, however, was the first time he’d been to the stadium.
“You always have that dream of playing in the NFL,” he said. “You don’t really know if it’s going to come true or not, but it’s crazy how things work out.”