Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Garoppolo is the Key to 49ers Victory

Jan 21, 2022 at 5:47 PM--

On Saturday, the San Francisco 49ers will attempt to steamroll through the Divisional Round with a powerful rushing attack headlined by wide receiver Deebo Samuel and running back Elijah Mitchell. On the other side of the ball, the Green Bay Packers will continue to ride the stunning All-Pro campaigns of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and wide receiver Davante Adams to try to reach their third straight NFC Championship game. As constructed, each team has one primary path towards victory, and there's little chance they move off of it. So why, as always, is quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo the pivot point upon which this game balances?

This question goes back to 2017, when the 49ers acquired Garoppolo from the New England Patriots for a second-round draft pick. He immediately led the 1-10 Niners to five straight victories, including a 44-point beatdown against a Jacksonville Jaguars team that took their top-ranked defense all the way to the AFC Championship game. The question leans heavily on the 2019 season, in which a Garoppolo-led team went 13-3 and made it to the Super Bowl. But it also snags on the overthrow to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, so close to securing a touchdown that would've gone down in 49ers lore. It trips up on Garoppolo's washed-out 2018 season and asks why the 49ers openly invested their future in quarterback Trey Lance after a turbulent 2020 season. It stares hard at a mirror, trembling as it takes in the unfinished 2021 season, warts and all, and asks, "Is this enough?"

Is it?

@NFLonCBS provides the following statistic on top-flight quarterbacks:

There he is. Good ol' Jimmy, sandwiched between five first-team All-Pro selections, and just trailing two players who may well battle for the title of the greatest to ever play the game. Ah, but there's a caveat. In that time, Garoppolo's appeared in just over 2/3 (64.3%) of his regular season starts. Brady hasn't missed a game since Garoppolo came to the Bay Area. Mahomes has missed 3. Jackson missed 7 games in the past 3 seasons (and perhaps more in 2018, although I'm unfamiliar with the specifics of his rookie season), but the difference is that he has an MVP title to bolster his case. Garoppolo does not. He's ranked 6th in EPA per play, a metric that evaluates how much value a quarterback provides on a down-to-down basis, but he's also near the bottom of the league in turnover-worthy throws, a stat that's plagued him throughout his 49ers tenure. He does just enough to win, but rarely more.

That's the beauty and madness of the Garoppolo experience. Everything you can say about a quarterback, you can find in Jimmy. He's good—no, not just good, he's great—until he's bad. And he's not just bad, he'll make you tear your hair out and ask how he can find the worst possible spot on the field to throw a football. He's one of the toughest players on the field, capable of fighting through injury after injury, except that he'll still lose seasons to ACL tears and high-ankle sprains.

Which brings us back to the original point. If the game plan is for the 49ers' rushing attack to dominate the time of possession, and prevent Rodgers from sitting back in the pocket and launching rockets against a solid-but-strained secondary, then why is Garoppolo the key to it all? In short, because we don't know quite what we'll get. The breadth of his play is clear; he can outduel Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the Superdome, and he can get benched for backup quarterback Nick Mullens. You just don't know exactly which version of Garoppolo will arise, or when.

In a sense, it's a blessing that Garoppolo's story has yet to be written. Rodgers has the edge over the 49ers' defense, as tough and as scrappy as they've played to get to where they are now. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan can design a rushing scheme second to none, which can push any defense to its limit. But Garoppolo can't be scrutinized that easily. He writes his story game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter. In his very first start for that 1-10 49ers team, Garoppolo orchestrated a 92-yard scoring drive that set up Robbie Gould for a game-winning field goal as time expired. In (potentially) his last regular season start for the red and gold, he did it again, leading San Francisco down the field towards the field goal that would send them to the playoffs. In between, he's singlehandedly won, lost, and resuscitated too many games to count. The only constant is that Jimmy Garoppolo always seems to have a chance.

But Garoppolo's legacy isn't finished yet. We know what he can do, whether it's converting back-to-back 3rd-and-16s to save a game, coming from a 14-point deficit against a coach that's never lost with a halftime lead, or sinking the season with one ill-timed throw. This is the line he's always walked. But still to be determined is how he'll perform given one last chance. His fate, more than that of any other player on the field, will shape the history and direction of both franchises in the game's aftermath. For the 49ers to overcome everything in their path as underdogs that scrapped and fought just for the right to be here, they'll need the legend of Jimmy G to grow a bit more. If not, then the wild and storied book on Garoppolo will close, and San Francisco will turn to another quarterback that might be able to take them a little farther next time. But regardless of what happens, Garoppolo ensures the 49ers will have a chance. For an underdog playing the No. 1 seed in 0-degree weather, that's really all you can ask.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

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