‘We’ve had some battles.’ 49ers’ Garoppolo on personal and team improvement
Finding a flaw in Jimmy Garoppolo is a little like the Rebels’ search for a weakness in the Death Star: You have to scrutinize the subject very carefully, but if you look hard enough and study enough you may come across a possible, kinda, maybe, sorta blemish.
In the 49ers quarterback’s case: the long ball.
Yes, yes, yes, Garoppolo is undefeated as an NFL starter. He has an incredibly quick release; his accuracy — even without having full command of the playbook last season — was among the sharpest in the league; and his improvisational skills suggest he has a feel for the game that separates elite quarterbacks from merely good ones. And let’s not get started on his dreamy greenish-brownish eyes.
But when he throws deep? Well, it's not always pretty.
According to Pro Football Focus, Garoppolo was 4 for 16 on passes of 20 yards or more last year, including one drop by receiver Marquise Goodwin. If he had had the numbers to qualify, his adjusted 31.3 percent completion percentage would have been tied for 31st out of 35 quarterbacks in that category.
That meshes with his pre-draft analysis when he was coming out of Eastern Illinois in 2014. Garoppolo "undershoots and often hangs the deep ball," Nolan Nawrocki wrote for NFL.com four years ago. “Makes receivers work for the ball downfield, and deep accuracy could stand to improve."
It also has been borne out this spring. Garoppolo has been accurate overall, especially in tight quarters and on short and intermediate throws. He hit tight end George Kittle over the middle for two straight 15-plus-yard gains during a hurry-up drill Tuesday, for example.
But when he's tried for the home run, the ball has tended to flutter a bit and ended up short of his receiver. He's thrown just two interceptions in the practices that have been open to reporters. One came on a deep pass in the end zone to Pierre Garcon in which cornerback Greg Mabin leaped and grabbed the ball above his head. It was a fantastic play by Mabin, but if the ball had been hoisted 2 feet farther or had cut through the air more quickly Garcon would have had a touchdown.
Of course, that's no reason to evacuate the ship. It's only June of Garoppolo's first offseason in Kyle Shanahan's system.
Quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello said long throws typically are the last piece to fall into place for an incoming quarterback because it’s so contingent on timing and repetition and getting to know your targets. Garoppolo simply never had an opportunity for that after arriving in Santa Clara on Oct. 31.
"He came here so late," Scangarello said. "And it's later in the year and you're working with starters (who) can't physically run those 50- and 40-yard routes down the field in practice and execute the timing that will be in a game. … That's the hardest part of the game in our system with the way we use play action to push the ball downfield and know where a guy's going to be 55 yards down the field and to do it in the timing we're asking."
The quarterback has been working hard on those calibrations. Before OTA sessions began in the spring, he organized player-only practices on Saturdays at San Jose State. The main objective: to learn as much as possible about his teammates, especially the skill position players he first met midseason last year.
"That's some of my favorite time," Garoppolo said of the Saturday sessions. "Because when coaches are out here guys may act a little differently or whatever it may be. When you get them (among) just the players, you really see a different side of guys. It allows you to connect with them in a different way."
Kittle called the session "incredibly" valuable. "It's really another point where Jimmy can be like, 'I want you to (run) it just like this. This is how I'm going to throw it on this step and this time,' " he said. "You can break it down a lot more. You have way more free time than in (practice) when you have to go to the next drill or something. You can break down a route for 10, 15 minutes if need be."
Scangarello said Garoppolo also has been working on that chemistry during and after official practices. He noted that with someone like Goodwin, who has uncommon speed and who is still honing his own route running, it simply takes time and toil to connect 50 yards downfield.
"A guy moving that fast, the variables of coverages and how long the ball can be in the air and all that without question that takes work," he said. "And now we have the time to master it and I think they've done a great job."