Can Jimmy Garoppolo really save the Niners? Here's what we know

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Jimmy Garoppolo is ready for his close-up. Over the past two years, the 2014 second-round pick has gone 7-0 as a starter for the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers. His teams have scored more than 28 points per game in those contests, roughly in line what New England did with Tom Brady winning league MVP last season. Garoppolo has generated a passer rating of 100.7 and a Total QBR of 82.5 over that time frame, the latter of which is first among quarterbacks with 200 attempts or more. He's pocketing more than $42 million this year and remains remarkably handsome. It's good to be Jimmy Garoppolo.

Expectations for Garoppolo's 2018 are understandably high. It's his first full season as a starter after an offseason learning from offensive wizard Kyle Shanahan. The 49ers have invested this spring to surround Garoppolo with talent, including adding running back Jerick McKinnon, center Weston Richburgand right tackle Mike McGlinchey. He didn't even get to throw to nominal No. 1 receiver Pierre Garcon last season. Garoppolo probably wishes he could have broughtRob Gronkowski west for the ride, but the Niners even have a promising tight end in George Kittle.

At the same time, though, we're talking about a quarterback who has thrown all of 272 passes over the past four seasons. Garoppolo has started and finished all of one meaningful game as a starter, which came against the Cardinals in Week 1 of the 2016 campaign. That game required Chandler Catanzaro to miss a 47-yard field goal for Garoppolo's Patriots to pull out a victory, which should be no surprise: manipulating late-game field goal tries seems to be one of Garoppolo's superpowers.

The reality is that there's still a lot we don't know about Garoppolo. There's even more we can't be sure about, simply because Garoppolo hasn't spent much time under center. Let's drill down to try to figure out what we can and cannot feel confident about in projecting Garoppolo's future, both good and bad. And let's start with the places where we should feel the most safe in 2018 and beyond:

What we definitely know about Jimmy G

He's going to lose a game ... eventually. Let's start with an easy one. Garoppolo isundefeated as a starter, and as exciting as the thought of a few 16-0 seasons must be for 49ers fans, the man simply has to lose at some point. Ben Roethlisberger famously started his career with 14 consecutive wins across the regular season and playoffs before losing to the Patriots in the 2004 AFC Championship Game. Garoppolo would have to go 7-0 to match that mark.

Generally, though, Garoppolo's teams haven't been blowing out the competition. Across his time with the Patriots and 49ers, Garoppolo's starts have generated 198 points on offense and 144 on defense. The Pythagorean expectation suggests Jimmy GQ would typically win 4.7 of those games. Instead,his team has won seven of seven.

As I mentioned earlier, though, Garoppolo has been able to mind-control kickers into doing his bidding late in games. During his three years with the Cardinals, Catanzaro was 22-of-26 between 40 and 49 yards. One of his four misses from the range was the would-be 47-yard game winner against the Pats,a game in whichStephen Gostkowski hit from 32 and 53 yards out in the fourth quarter duringwhat would be his worst season as a pro.

Niners kicker Robbie Gould also pushed Garoppolo over the line in a couple of victories. To be fair, when Gould hit a 24-yarder to beat the Bears with four seconds left in Garoppolo's first start with the team, it came after Garoppolo moved his offense 86 yards on a drive that lasted more than five minutes. Against Tennessee, though, Gould needed to hit three field goals from 45, 48 and 50 yards out in the fourth quarter alone to finishthe Titans.

During his starts, Garoppolo's kickers have gone 22-of-22 on field goal tries and 17-of-18 on extra points. (Those numbers include a blocked extra point try by the Jaguars in 2017 but don't include a field goal Gostkowski missed against the Dolphins long after Garoppolo went down injured.) The opposing kickers in those games have gone 8-for-10 on field goals and 11-of-13 on extra points. There were 10 games last season in which a team won by kicking five field goals or more, and Garoppolo won two of them. It's tough to count on that continually occurring.

Truthfully, Garoppolo might not have to wait long for his first NFL loss as a starter. September could be a painful month for the 49ers, because ...

The schedule is going to get more difficult quickly. If you bring up the schedule the 49ers faced last season, any Garoppolo fan is going to counter with the fact that their new quarterback dropped 37 points on Jalen Ramsey& Co. in Week 16 as part of a 44-33 victory. While he threw an interception in the end zone, Garoppolo deserves credit for producing a solid game -- 242 yards and two touchdowns -- against the league's best defense.

Otherwise, though? Garoppolo didn't have to face much during his run, even if the numbers say otherwise. The Texans were worn down by offensive mediocrity and already struggling with injuries by the time they played the 49ers in December. The Titans ranked 21st in defensive DVOA. The Rams finished sixth in DVOA, but the 49ers faced them in Week 17, during which the Rams sat Aaron Donald, Lamarcus Joyner, Mark Barronand Alec Ogletree and took outConnor Barwin and Michael Brockersafter one series. The Bears, who finished 14th in DVOA, kept the 49ers out of the end zone on a day in which Gould hit five field goals in a revenge game.

During the first half of the 2018 season, Garoppolo and the 49ers will have four games against defenses that finished in the top six in defensive DVOA last season, including the same Rams, the Vikings, and a pair of games against the Cardinals. He'll go up against the Chargers, who ranked ninth in pass defense DVOA and got progressively scarier as the season went along. He gets the Packers and Lions and Chiefs. OK, he's going to throw for a lot of yards on the Chiefs. There are some tough matchups in there, though, and we'll get a better sense of how Garoppolo looks against some aggressive, top-level defenses.

He's not very mobile. One of Garoppolo's strengths is his level of comfort in the pocket. He's usually excellent about keeping his eyes upfield despite having a rush swirling around him, and while Garoppolo doesn't consistently have that sort of preternatural skill to find the space to step up in the pocket and make plays, it wouldn't be a surprise to see that come as he gets more live reps.

At the same time, though, Garoppolo doesn't have the mobility to get away from pressure if it arrives, and he's not going to threaten teams as a rusher. Garoppolo was never much of a runner during his time at Eastern Illinois; while this includes sack yardage, Garoppolo's 244 carries in school produced minus-83 yards. As a pro, after you strip out kneel-downs, Garoppolo has run the ball a total of 10 times across seven starts.

Shanahan's offense requires Garoppolo to be functionally mobile on play-action, but teams aren't going to have to account for him outside of sneak situations. He also posted the best Total QBR in the league (71.6) when pressured a year ago. I'm not saying this about his mobility to suggest it's a big deal or a serious flaw, but instead because it seems like one of the few things we can absolutely take for granted about Garoppolo.

What we probably know about Jimmy G

He's good. Is there a chance that the 272 passes we've seen from Garoppolo aren't representative of his actual ability level? Absolutely. We see veteran quarterbacks who piece together similar -- or longer -- stretches of great football who don't live up to that level of play elsewhere. Josh McCown threw 13 touchdown passes against one pick and posted a 109 passer rating on 224 passes for the Bears in 2013. Andy Dalton posted a 106.2 passer rating and averaged 8.2 adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) for the Bengals over 14 games in 2015 and hasn't topped a 91.8 rating or 6.3 ANY/A otherwise.

In terms of young quarterbacks, there are also passers who took far longer than 272 passes to establish themselves at the beginning of their careers. Remember that Drew Brees posted a 73.7 passer rating with more interceptions (31) than touchdowns (29) in his first three seasons, with the Chargers subsequently deciding to draft Eli Manning (before trading him for Philip Rivers). That was over a 909-pass sample. Alex Smith was mostly a mess for 1,514 pass attempts and six seasons before eventually figuring it out under Jim Harbaugh. Kirk Cousins couldn't stop throwing interceptions over 407 pass attempts in three seasons, and then suddenly figured things out, cutting his interception rate from 4.7 percent over that run to 2.1 percent after.

If we're looking for quarterbacks who played this well early in their careers before struggling shortly thereafter, though, it's tough to find recent comps. Robert Griffin III was phenomenal as a rookie, but the knee injury RG III suffered during the 2012 playoffs limited his effectiveness thereafter. Top picks such asSam Bradford and Tim Couch got more playing time early and were impacted by injuries. When you try to find quarterbacks similar to Garoppolo, the closest comp is Lions passer Greg Landry, who started his career by going 10-5 over three years and then made the Pro Bowl in his fourth season. That was also the last time Landry made the Pro Bowl, as he spent years as a banged-up starter before eventually winning Comeback Player of the Year. It's also a comp that's nearly 50 years old.

Most of the players who play as well as Garoppolo has this early in their careers turn out pretty well. Not all of them are stars, but there are also passers like Dave Krieg, who went on to have lengthy careers without being perennial Pro Bowlers. When Brian Burke studied how much Garoppolo's 2016 season impacted his future outlook in terms of a Bayesian analysis, he found that we would need to see 500 above-average pass attempts from Garoppolo before it would be safe to assume that the 26-year-old was actually an above-average quarterback in terms of yards per attempt.

We're not there yet, but everything we've seen from Garoppolo so far suggests he's on the level. If he can keep up it up for a full season, it would be safe to say thatJimmy G is a franchise quarterback.

His coach is an excellent offensive mind.There might not be an offensive guru held in higher regard around the league than Shanahan. Jalen Ramsey implied that Shanahan essentially won league MVP while using Matt Ryan as his on-field proxy. There is no tougher offensive critic Shanahan could impress.

It's also fair to say, though, that the shelf life of offensive gurus isn't necessarily very long as head coaches. Josh McDaniels got off to a 6-0 start in Denver and subsequently went 5-17 before being fired. Chip Kelly wasn't able to find an answer once teams grew comfortable with his tempo in Philadelphia. Adam Gase rode a 9-1 stretch to the postseason in 2016, only for his Dolphins to fall apart last season.

A look back also reminds us that Shanahan hasn't always been able to coax success out of his offenses. He had success working closely alongside Gary Kubiak at the beginning of his coordinating career in Houston, but Shanahan's four years in Washington delivered just one above-average offense by DVOA, which came during that remarkable campaign with RG III in 2012. During the three other seasons, Shanahan's offenses ranked 19th, 23rd and 25th.

In Shanahan's lone year with the Browns in 2014, the offensefinished 24th in DVOA. He then took over a Falcons offense that had been ranked 10th in DVOA and saw them fall all the way to 23rd before turning things around with that stunning 2016 campaign. The Niners were 31st in win probability added per game on offense in 2017 before turning things over to Garoppolo, after which they improved to second in the same category.

You would say that Shanahan couldn't do much with bad quarterbacks, and maybe that's true, but those quarterbacks weren't exactly awful. He started his career in Washington with Donovan McNabb, who was coming off a Pro Bowl year in Philadelphia and wasn't even average in D.C. After one year with the admittedly middling duo of Rex Grossman and John Beck, Washington drafted both Griffin and Cousins, the latter of whom only solved his turnoverphobia after Sean McVay took over as coordinator. Brian Hoyer started 14 of the 16 games for Shanahan in Cleveland and then six of the first 11 in San Francisco. Ryan started all 16 games for the Falcons in 2015 and even had a career year from Julio Jones along for the ride.

And yet, even given the fact that Shanahan oversaw below-average offenses in five out of six seasons between 2010 and 2015, he authored one of the most devastating attacks in league history in 2016 and looked to be a step ahead of everyone else once the 49ers inserted Garoppolo in 2017. Shanahan's reputation as a fertile offensive mind matches up with the numbers we've seen over the past two seasons. Shanahan and Garoppolo should continue to be a great fit. It's also not fair to say Shanahan's offense is guaranteed to continue looking the way it has since the beginning of 2016.

Garoppolo's offense is going to be among the league's best on first down. As I've mentioned before, the 2016 Falcons were an absolute juggernaut on first down. They averaged 7.58 yards per play on first down when no other team since 2001 (where ESPN's data begins) has topped a 7.05-yard first-down average. Given how teams are averaging more yards per play over the past decade than ever before, it's fair to assume that the 2016 Falcons were the best first-down offense in football history.

There's no way the Falcons were going to be able to keep that up with or without Shanahan around in 2017. Contrary to what you might have guessed, they were actually a very good first-down offense under Steve Sarkisian, finishing third in yards per play (6.35) and sixth in first-down percentage (36.1 percent). They're not the story here, though.

Over the last five weeks of the season, the 49ers averaged 6.49 yards per first-down play. That was the second-best rate in the league. They moved the chains or scored on 38.6 percent of their first-down attempts. That was the third-best rate in the league. And while the numbers aren't always in love with Shanahan's offenses from years past, his units have consistently been better than you would have expected given their overall performance on first down:

There's nothing really obvious about what Shanahan is doing differently on first down, either. My first guess was to think about the outside zone scheme and wonder whether Shanahan called for a ton of play-action, and for the 2016 Falcons, that was absolutely the case. Ryan & Co. went with play-action 19.6 percent of the time on first down and produced 11.4 yards per play in doing so, which ranked second and first in the NFL, respectively. Over the five-week sample at the end of 2017, though, the 49ers were in the middle of the pack in terms of play-action usage on first down. Whatever Shanahan is doing, it's working, and the league doesn't appear to have caught up.

Garoppolo handles pressure well. The sampleis extremely small -- just 72 dropbacks -- but Garoppolo has posted a 70.6 Total QBR under pressure. The best mark for any other quarterback with 50 dropbacks or more under pressure is Jameis Winston at 55.8. Garoppolo will likely regress toward the mean with a larger sample, but what we've seen so far has to at least augur some hope he'll remain toward the top of theleague as the sample grows.

What we don't know about Jimmy G

Whether he can stay healthy. Health is a meaningful skill for NFL quarterbacks. Every passer is susceptible to fluke injuries, and wear and tear eventually slows down every quarterback, but certain passers have the ability and instincts to avoid bigger hits and/or the physical size and strength to absorb them without suffering a serious injury.

The only way to know whether a quarterback can hold up is to see him play year after year, and we just don't have that information with Garoppolo. If anything, what we've learned so far isn't promising, given that Garoppolo separated his shoulder in his second career start. He has been sacked on only 4.4 percent of his dropbacks as a pro, though, and given that he isn't running the ball frequently, Garoppolo shouldn't be getting hit all that often.

Whether his weapons can stay healthy. The 49ers have invested in a bevy of free agents to give Garoppolo options, but many of them have injury issues, both past and present. The 49ers gave McKinnon $12 million in cash this season to serve as their primary back, but McKinnon has never been the lead back in an offense for any length of time and has never topped 20 carries in a game as a pro. Both McKinnon (knee) and backup Matt Breida (shoulder) suffered injuries in the preseason opener that will likely keep them out until Week 1 of the regular season.

The preseason opener also took down Kittle, who separated his shoulder. Shanahan also hopes to get Kittle back for Week 1. Garcon didn't miss a game during his final four seasons in Washington, but the 32-year-old suffered a neck injury that cost the Mount Union product the second half of his 2017 season. Fellow wideout Marquise Goodwin just finished the first 16-game season of his career and has a scary track record of concussions, including five reported concussions between August 2016 and December 2017.

How the line will play. One of the reasons the 2016 Falcons were so dominant? Their offensive line both played at a high level and stayed healthy for all 16 games. Atlanta returned four of its starters from 2015 and made an enormous upgrade at center by signing Alex Mack, who transformed the running game. Last season, with Chris Chester retired and both Andy Levitre and Ryan Schraeder missing time, the line simply wasn't as effective.

You'll often hear about how Shanahan's quarterbacks need a year to grow comfortable in his scheme, but the same might also be true for his offensive line, given how important continuity and communication can be in one of the league's longest-running zone schemes. The 49ers don't have continuity, but they do have talent: their offensive line room includes five former first-round picks and center Weston Richburg, who comes over on a five-year, $47.5 million deal in free agency.

The 49ers will have three new starters with Richburg, first-round pick Mike McGlinchey at right tackle, and the winner of a competition at right guard between journeyman Mike Person and 2016 first-round pick Joshua Garnett, who missed all of Shanahan's inaugural season with a knee injury. Left guard Laken Tomlinson improved in 2017 after struggling mightily in Detroit, but he's still a work in progress. It's possible that the 49ers overwhelm teams with one of the league's most athletic offensive lines, but that line might not truly coalesce until 2019.

Whether interceptions are going to be a problem. The one blemish on Garoppolo's impressive 2017 campaign is his interception rate. He threw five picks in five games, producing an interception rate of 2.8 percent. If Garoppolo had enough attempts to qualify for the rate leaderboards, that interception rate would have ranked 27th in the league, between Dak Prescott and Jay Cutler.

Football Outsiders' game charting project makes those numbers look even worse. In addition to those five picks, FO found three additional dropped interceptions for Garoppolo, bringing him up to eight would-be picks in five games and an adjusted interception rate of 4.8 percent. Again, had Garoppolo kept that up, he would have posted the league's second-highest adjusted interception rate behind Trevor Siemian.

While the interceptions will be something to monitor in 2018, I'm not as concerned as those numbers suggest. For one, Garoppolo was joining a new team and learning a new offense in midseason. It's not uncommon for an interception rate to spike in that situation, as we saw with Carson Palmer when he was traded to the Raiders in 2011.

In watching those interceptions, I wouldn't put much of the blame for several of them on the quarterback. One pick saw Garoppolo throw a pass slightly behind Louis Murphy but well within his catch radius, only for a trailing Kyle Fuller to catch up and rip the pass out of Murphy's hands. Garoppolo threw a pick against the Texans where it looked like Trent Taylor settled in a spot while Garoppolo thought his route would continue. He was hit in the middle of his motion by the Jaguars' defensive line for a wobbly pick in the end zone from Barry Church. Only two of the interceptions seemed like Garoppolo was making a bad decision, with both picks coming at the hands of Rams rookie Kevin Peterson in Week 17.

Interception rate also can be an incredibly inconsistent statistic from year to year. Remember that Prescott set the NFL record for most pass attempts to begin a career without an interception in 2016 as part of a season in which he threw just four picks on 459 pass attempts -- an interception rate of 0.9 percent. In his second season, Prescott subsequently threw 13 picks on 490 attempts,andhis interception rate tripled to 2.7 percent.

While we know that quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Alex Smith have a remarkable ability to avoid interceptions, it takes a while before we gain much meaningful insight into how a quarterback protects the football. When Danny Tuccitto studied the topic in 2014, he found that it takes 1,681 pass attempts for a quarterback's interception rate to stabilize, or roughly about three full seasons of data. Garoppolo will already be into the back half of his five-year, $137.5 million extension by then.

He didn't throw an interception in his 94 pass attempts with the Patriots, which amounts to more than one-third of his total career sample and drops his career interception rate to a much more reasonable 1.8 percent. We'll know more about his ability to avoid interceptions in a year and much more in three, but that's true of just about everything when it comes to Garoppolo. He's one of the league's most fascinating figures heading into 2018.

Related Video