Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Opinion: 49ers need to free Jimmy Gunslinger

Sep 26, 2022 at 2:01 PM--

The 49ers have a fatal flaw.

It lurked underneath a well-oiled running game until a dynamic Chiefs team found it in 2019.

It toyed with the Niners as they struggled to stay afloat in a doomed 2020 season.

And last year, a 49ers team shooting for the moon nearly failed to launch because of it.

They came close to overcoming it, but like the inexorable pull of gravity, one simple truth brought them crashing back to earth:

Shanahan is holding back his quarterbacks.

It's the sixth year under head coach Kyle Shanahan, the architect of an offense that is currently ranked 22nd in the league in Offensive DVOA. He can direct a running game like nobody's business, but when that doesn't work, he hasn't orchestrated a dominant passing scheme since New Orleans in 2019.

To his credit, after frustrating playoff exits in 2019 and 2021, he tried to do the structural thing. Garoppolo is good, not great, so let's try to bring in a young, talented quarterback to replace him and hope we can get a Patrick Mahomes or a Lamar Jackson out of it, he reasoned.

But something in that logic doesn't sit quite right with me. While Jackson's legs stretch defenses horizontally to let him attack through the air, and while Patrick Mahomes pump-fakes before a 10-yard slide that induces an extra 15 yards for illegal Considered-Entering-the-Quarterback's-Personal-Space, Shanahan decided to give Lance four passes a quarter while sending him on bruising runs up the middle until his ankle broke.

Honestly, is this so different from how Shanahan uses Jimmy G?

Sunday night, Trent Williams going down to injury was huge. He's one of the league's best players and his absence was a major factor in Sunday's loss. But the offense didn't lose Kittle or Deebo or Aiyuk or Garoppolo, and the defense only gave up 9 points all game. Yet as soon as the running game dried up, the offense once again looked lifeless, helpless, and shot. It felt as though they'd have been better off taking a knee every possession, hoping to buy the defense ten minutes a half as they waited around to lose.

For every third-and-long that Garoppolo drops back and gets crushed like a soda can in the Marianas Trench, I wonder more and more why Shanahan continues to insist on stuffing his quarterbacks into a box. I wonder why "rhythm and timing" are the only gears through which his offense can operate while Wilson did the same things he's been doing for a decade and the Niners still couldn't stop him.

The best head coaches and coordinators put their quarterbacks in positions to succeed. They get the ball into the hands of their playmakers, yet Kittle had 5 targets and 28 yards in his return. They attack defensive weaknesses, but it was the players the 49ers had moved on from in CB K'Waun Williams and LB Jonas Griffith that tormented the Niners all night. They don't call play-action bootlegs on the 1-yard line that make pulling an Orlovsky somehow the preferable outcome on the play. Considering everything this team has done to set themselves up for offensive success, their struggles right now are maddening.

And most frustrating, it's not unthinkable to imagine a situation where Jimmy G rises to the occasion. We saw it in the last five games of 2017, when Jimmy came in playing fast and loose and carved up that year's distinguished Jacksonville defense for 44 points. And you'd be forgiven by thinking that was a mirage, but he did the same damn thing leading the Niners to a 27-7 Week 2 win against the Seahawks in a similar environment last week. The tone at that time was so much different: the offense was faster, the execution smoother, and Jimmy G wasn't playing as much with scheme knowledge as he was with his feel for the game.

But as soon as Garoppolo steps back into the Shanahan system, the results speak for themselves. 10 points against a solid Denver defense. A 60% completion rate and a 4.5% interception rate in the postseason. When good teams find ways to stuff the run, the Niners clearly don't have an answer. So why not turn the ball over to Jimmy Gunslinger, who can come off an offseason of solo side sessions and start slicing up a defense? Is Garoppolo really such a bad quarterback that giving him autonomy at the line of scrimmage is doomed to fail?

The bar set by this team, for better or worse, is no less than a Super Bowl victory. Anything else will be a disappointment. They've already squandered two games from an absolutely splendid defense, and with Lance's year done, there's no silver lining to be found if they fail. It's Garoppolo's time, now. But we've seen what happens when you try to scheme around his limitations. We've seen the limits of what you can do trying to keep him from losing games, and it doesn't win Super Bowls. So why not just let him rip? He has the talent in him, and if Shanahan can harness it, he won't need a scheme that falls apart if everything doesn't go perfectly.

So I'm here to say #FreeJimmyGunslinger. Let him make plays—and mistakes—because the 49ers know where they're going with the other version. Become the team that scares the opponent on third-and-long, not a team scared of it. Ask not what your quarterback can do for you, but what you can do for your quarterback. Use the talent on the outside to open holes for the running game, and let Garoppolo take responsibility for it all.

Maybe it all flames out, and a fully realized Jimmy Gunslinger is more 2020 Jameis Winston than 2021 Matt Stafford. But I'd rather watch a season of that than any more of this.
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.


  • BigAl
    Wow. Im not surprised by the comments though, in fact not at all. That JAX game, we attacked their LBs..Ruthlessly. Stretched them horizontally with the run, got the matchups in the passing game, JG and his release- Huge windows to throw into. It didnt take long for the league to study tape, chart his pass attempts, what area of the field is he targeting? They realized this isnt Matt Ryan to Julio Jones Guess who came out of the backfield matched up with a LB vs Denver? Do I even need to say? Ive said this about JG for a long time but fans are happy, you know, 20 yard gain, stuff like that. But Deebo vs a LB should be a TD. These are throws, some still completed, but off enough that points are being left off the board. Yes there are times when the QB is throwing where the defender isnt and TV can make it look like a bad throw. But thats not what happened when JG missed Deebo...In fact had Trey Lance been this inaccurate, this unaware of where he is on the field, made this many wrong reads into triple coverege....All you same ppl would be saying they need to put JG in.
    Sep 27, 2022 at 1:44 PM
  • Truthertz
    I'm from Boston. I've watched, played and coached since 1958. When Jimmy G filled in for Brady, he was spectacular before he got hurt. If you added up the total QBR rating for the games he played in Boston and the 5 games he played before he was burdened with Shanahan's "system", it was by far higher than any other QB in the league. The idiots bad mouthing Jimmy seem to have no clue that SHANAHAN IS THE PROBLEM, NOT JIMMY! IF HE WAS ALLOWED TO BE THE QB HE WAS BEFORE SHANAHAN FORCE FED HIS SYSTEM DOWN HIS THROAT, HE'D BE THE BEST IN THE LEAGUE. F*CK SHANAHAN!
    Sep 27, 2022 at 9:35 AM
  • K dog
    I agree with your assessment 100%. Shanahan is absolutely limiting jimmy G and the offense. Early on they looked sharp and jimmy was throwing darts. Then the defense adjusted and Shanahan couldn’t stay one step ahead. The defense is blowing through the offensive line, jimmy had no time and his receivers are running the same easily identifiable routes and are not open. There are multiple issues here but I believe Shanahan is not a genius, not even a good coach because he doesn’t know how to adjust in real time and plays not to lose instead of playing to win. It is depressing.
    Sep 26, 2022 at 9:10 PM
  • Weege
    The gunslinger haha this gunslinger took 10 paces and backed off a cliff. This dude is no gunslinger. This is the worst article I've ever read.
    Sep 26, 2022 at 5:19 PM
  • Zeek
    The gunslinger shot himself between the eyes last night!
    Sep 26, 2022 at 4:32 PM
  • Eddie
    I completely agree with your assessment above. Trying to win in the NFL with one hand tied behind your back is an exercise in futility. Take the handcuffs off and let Jimmy rip it. Getting by each week only hoping that the defense gets a last minute stop or that one of our playmakers makes a miraculous YAC play is no way to win games. That might work in the regular season but everything tightens up in the playoffs. And as we saw in 2019 and 2021 the team will exit before it should have.
    Sep 26, 2022 at 4:29 PM
  • Steve
    Shanahan's play calling sucks. It's totally predictable, no imagination. "complicated" is NOT the same as "clever." If Jimmy is not up to long throws, or can't get time for them, Niners should go back to Walsh's "West Coast Offense." I've had it with Shanahan!
    Sep 26, 2022 at 4:12 PM


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