The 49ers needed a sterling performance from their franchise quarterback.
San Francisco was on the road in front of a raucous crowd, facing the league’s top defense that carried the Minnesota Vikings to a 13-3 record and a berth in the NFC title game in 2017.
For the first time, Jimmy Garoppolo fell flat. No longer is he undefeated as an NFL quarterback, nor is his résumé perfect. He threw three interceptions while the offense converted just one of four trips into the red zone. He sailed passes that had to be on target for the 49ers to pull off an upset to open the new season.
“With all the things that went bad, we still had a shot in the end there,” Garoppolo said.
After falling behind 24-6, the 49ers fought back to make it 24-16 midway through the fourth quarter. They tried for a game-tying drive in the late moments, but Garoppolo threw his third interception to wrap up the loss.
“At the end, I know we were playing a real good team, but I also think we’re a good team also,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “When you’re 1 of 4 in the red zone, when you lose the turnover battle (4-1), when you have some of those drops, those missed plays down there, it’s very hard to beat a good team. I thought we were definitely capable of doing it today.”
Garoppolo could have saved the 49ers from their mistake-riddled performance, much like he did with a previously 0-9 supporting cast to end last season on a five-game winning streak. But he completed just 45 percent of his throws Sunday after never finishing below 60 percent in his previous seven starts. His three picks were also a career high.
His final line: 15 of 33 for 261 yards and a 45.1 passer rating. Kirk Cousins, meanwhile, impressed during his first Vikings start, throwing for 244 yards and two pinpoint touchdown passes to wideout Stefon Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Cousins’ rating: 95.1.
Garoppolo’s best moment of the day came when he chucked a well-placed pass to rookie receiver Dante Pettis for a 22-yard score in the third quarter. The Vikings pass rush forced Garoppolo to spin and roll to his left, where he found open space in the end zone and made a tip-toeing catch along the end line.
“Dante found the open area and he’s a smart athlete,” Garoppolo said. “He goes to where the ball takes him and he made a tremendous catch on it.”
Otherwise, Week 1 was plagued by mistakes from San Francisco’s offense. Tight end George Kittle had a crucial drop on a long throw that could have gone for an 80-yard touchdown.
The next snap, Garoppolo threw a pick-six to rookie corner Mike Hughes after receiver Kendrick Bourne ran the wrong route, Bourne said. Bourne cut outside, fell down and the ball went inside to Hughes, who trotted to an easy 28-yard score.
Kittle led San Francisco with 90 receiving yards on five catches. But the drop and a missed connection in the back of the end zone in the fourth quarter will be more memorable for the second-year tight end the 49ers are relying on as a crucial cog.
“Just a bad play,” Kittle said of the drop after streaking behind the defense. “That leads to a pick six. That’s on my shoulders, it’s a play we hit all the time, so I’m pretty disappointed in myself for that.”
Later, it appeared Kittle found an opening behind the secondary during the final red-zone trip when the 49ers were at the 4-yard line and down 11 points. He ran a short post route, but Garoppolo’s throw was high and wide, much like his second interception to Xavier Rhodes, when Garoppolo overshot Pettis on a slant.
“I can’t jump 40 inches at 250 (pounds),” Kittle quipped. “If I was 10 pounds lighter, maybe.”
San Francisco could have changed the tenor of the game early in the second quarter at the end of a long, 14-play drive following a Vikings fumble. It appeared the offense found a rhythm. Shanahan was dialing up his signature misdirection plays, yielding positive results.
San Francisco got all the way to the 4-yard line with a chance to tie it at 10. But they ran three consecutive running plays that Minnesota stifled. On the third, running back Alfred Morris had the ball pried loose by safety Andrew Sendejo and Harrison Smith nabbed the fumble recovery. The 49ers came away with no points and before losing the game by a single score.
The 49ers defense limited Minnesota to just 17 points. San Francisco was more efficient overall, averaging 5.4 yards per play to the Vikings’ 4.8. But the home team made far fewer mistakes and enough plays to win.
For the first time in his career, Garoppolo will have to bounce back from defeat, starting with next week in the home opener against the Detroit Lions.
“I think we have a good locker room in there,” Garoppolo said. “Every person in there has the right mindset of what we have to do. It’s a long season. You can’t let one week bounce into the next week. After we watch the film and everything, we got to move on.”