San Francisco 49ers

49ers analysis: What are Jimmy Garoppolo’s strengths and weaknesses so far?

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) passes as Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (98) applies pressure during the second half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) passes as Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (98) applies pressure during the second half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar) AP

A funny think happened to Jimmy Garoppolo.

He’s quietly taken a back seat to the 49ers’ league-leading rushing attack and defense that’s been one of the best in the NFL during the first four games. Those developments were unexpected, given it was widely believed coming into the season San Francisco would go as far as Garoppolo would take them.

Resting the season on Garoppolo’s shoulders was a dubious proposition. Garoppolo, after all, was coming off a career-altering knee injury that cost him the final 13 games of last season. He entered the year as a largely unknown commodity, with just 10 career starts under his belt and the weight of a $137.5 million contract to live up to. His receiving corps is mostly young and inexperienced. Star tight end George Kittle had a breakout campaign in 2018 while working predominately with C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens, not Garoppolo.

But the team’s success is all that matters to the franchise signal-caller, even if the team isn’t winning games in dramatic fashion on the strength of his right arm like it did when he first came to the 49ers from the Patriots in 2017.

“I want to win,” Garoppolo said this week while preparing for a pivotal game against the Los Angeles Rams. “At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to. Just whatever it takes. There are different ways to win in this league. Every game’s going to be different depending on what the defense does, what their offense does even and how it affects us. At the end of the day, it’s did you win or did you lose? That’s all I care about.”

The 49ers are winning so far with their defense and running game. But what about Garoppolo? Let’s dive into how he’s been playing through the first quarter of 2019 before Sunday’s key showdown in L.A.

What Garoppolo’s good at

Getting the ball out of his hands. Garoppolo is one of the quickest quarterbacks in the league in getting the ball thrown from the time the ball is snapped. That’s a credit to his ability to process things quickly in conjunction with the design of Kyle Shanahan’s offense. For the most part, Garoppolo knows where to go and hasn’t been holding on to the ball for too long like he did early in 2018 before sustaining his knee injury. He took 13 sacks through three games last season. This year, he’s taken four sacks through four games. Garoppolo has gotten sacked on just 3.39 percent of his drop backs, which is second-best in the NFL. The Steelers game is the best example, where he made a handful of on-target throws in the face of pressure, which was as good a sign as any that he was no longer thinking about his knee injury.

Accuracy. Garoppolo’s 69-percent completion rate ranks seventh in the NFL among qualified passers. Take away the eight dropped passes from his targets and that number jumps to 76 percent (Derek Carr and Russell Wilson currently lead the NFL with 73 percent completion rates). This indicates there hasn’t been much rust for Garoppolo coming off his long absence. He’s been on target as much as any quarterback in the NFL.

Efficiency. Garoppolo is just 20th in the league, averaging 230 yards per game. That’s hardly an impressive number, but that’s not an indication of how well or poorly he’s played. San Francisco is running the ball on 56 percent of its snaps, easily the most in the NFL, while Garoppolo’s 28.5 passing attempts per game rank 30th. The more important number is yards per attempt, where Garoppolo’s logging an 8.1-yard average, which ranks seventh among qualified passers. His 11.8 yards per completion ranks 11th. In essence, Garoppolo is doing what he’s been asked to do while the running game has been the backbone of Shanahan’s scheme. Those yardage numbers should rise if (when?) the young receiving corps featuring back-to-back second round picks, Dante Pettis and Deebo Samuel, starts playing with more consistency.

Where Garoppolo can improve

Ball security. Garoppolo’s four interceptions through four games are tied for the fifth-most among quarterbacks. His 3.5 percent interception rate is seventh worst. And 16.3 percent of San Francisco’s possessions in turnovers, which is eighth worst. Not all those giveaways are Garoppolo’s fault. He’s thrown two egregious interceptions, against Tampa Week 1 and Week 2 in Cincinnati, but the other two coming in the Steelers game weren’t as bad. He threw off target to Matt Breida on a screen that should have been caught. Instead, it was batted into the air and intercepted by T.J. Watt. The other interception he threw toward Dante Pettis was a result of Pettis not lining up correctly before the snap, Shanahan said afterwards. It was a bang-bang play in which Garoppolo got the ball out while pressured and cornerback Joe Haden appeared to deflect it allowing Minkah Fitzpatrick to make the pick. There were two other turnovers resulting in poor center exchanges, which are correctable mistakes for Garoppolo and center Weston Richburg. The 49ers on Monday against the Browns had a turnover-free game for the first time all year.

Intermediate passing. Garoppolo has completed 14 of 29 passes between 10 and 20 yards downfield, which is a completion percentage of just 48 percent. That’s a far cry from 2017, when he connected on 36 of 57 (63 percent) of his passes during his undefeated five-game run as the starter following the trade. What’s to blame for the regression here is tough to pinpoint. It could have to do with the team’s inexperienced group of receivers, or perhaps defenses were focused on short passes underneath to Trent Taylor, who was outstanding when Garoppolo first arrived, allowing the outside receivers to sneak behind. Garoppolo hasn’t had a healthy version of Taylor since. Perhaps defenses have made adjustments to take away Garoppolo’s intermediate throws. Regardless, that appears to be an area where there’s room to grow as the season progresses, though it could be tough with starting tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey out with leg injuries.

What’s the conclusion?

Garoppolo has played mostly well. He’s operated the offense smoothly and gotten the ball out of his hands quickly and efficiently. What we haven’t seen through the first four games is Garoppolo get tested against a quality opponent. Yes, Tampa Bay looks better now than it did coming into Week 1. But San Francisco has gone against the 15th, 25th, 29th and 22nd-ranked offenses in its first four games.

Simply put, the 49ers haven’t needed Garoppolo to wear a superhero cape because the running game has been so effective. Yes, he threw a game-winning touchdown pass against the Steelers, but that game should have been a blowout if not for the five turnovers on offense.

His 99.4 passer rating ranks 12th in the league, which seems fitting as to where he fits with the rest of the quarterbacks so far given what he’s been asked to do, though passer rating is an admittedly flawed statistic.

Regardless, maybe Sunday’s contest against the defending NFC champions will provide Garoppolo the test against a strong opponent we’ve been waiting for him to take.

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