SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Trailing by one point with 53 seconds left in a pivotal game at the New Orleans Saints in December, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo strolled to the huddle, looked his teammates in the eyes, raised his voice just enough to be heard above the earsplitting din of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and delivered a simple message.
“Let’s go win it.”
In a season full of memorable moments for the NFC’s No. 1 seed, this one was defining. It was the culmination of Garoppolo’s own comeback and a setup for an important one for his team.
After trading blows with Saints quarterback Drew Brees all day, Garoppolo delivered when it mattered most. On fourth-and-2, the Niners signal-caller threw a strike to tight end George Kittle for a 42-yard catch-and-run that would set up the winning field goal.
“To play the way that he played in that atmosphere against who his counterpart was, I don’t think it gets any better than that,” San Francisco tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “That was like the coolest thing ever. That’s because of him getting everybody on the same page in a crazy-ass situation.
“And we won it. We have all the confidence in the world in him.”
Since arriving via trade in 2017, Garoppolo has been seen many things — franchise savior, mistake-prone gunslinger, deliberate game manager — at various stages.
Garoppolo led the 49ers to five consecutive wins to close 2017, earning a contract that made him the game’s highest-paid player at the time. The expectations that came with it were out of whack for a player who had seven starts to his name. Then he got off to a rough start in 2018, before a torn ACL ended his season in Week 3. That injury tempered expectations coming into this season, and the outlook became hazier after an up-and-down preseason that included a five-interception practice and an exhibition game in which he posted a 0.0 passer rating.
Once the season began, however, Garoppolo never flinched. He has earned head coach Kyle Shanahan’s trust and respect for his willingness to accept feedback and stand tall in the pocket when it collapses. Teammates are drawn to Garoppolo’s understanding of how to relate to each of them and his refusal to fold when adversity strikes, not to mention his penchant for providing the hookup to the latest Jordan gear via his marketing deal.
Despite his endorsements, Garoppolo still finds himself at the center of heated debates among some regarding his ceiling. As Garoppolo embarks on his first experience as a playoff starter — versus the Minnesota Vikings (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC) — he has a chance to put to rest any remaining doubts. Not that those around the league hold the same questions.
“He’s using his experience to truly gain an ownership, an understanding of what they are trying to get done,” Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay said. “I remember even just watching their Thursday night game against Arizona and how impressed I was with just his poise, his ability to operate, create some off-schedule plays. Always been impressed with just his ability when things collapse around him, his ability to speed it up, where he’s a really natural thrower of the football.”
After starting every regular-season game for the first time, Garoppolo had one of the best campaigns by a quarterback in 49ers history — no small feat given their legacy at the position. He finished 329-of-476 for 3,978 yards and enjoyed a 69.1% completion rate and 8.36 yards per attempt with 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions for a passer rating of 102.0. Those statistics are good enough for fourth in franchise history in single-season yards and completions and third in completion percentage.
Beyond his place in Niners lore, Garoppolo finished this regular season in the top 10 in the NFL in passer rating (eighth), completion percentage (fifth), yards per attempt (third) and touchdowns (tied for fifth). And while his 13 interceptions ranked 23rd, he threw just three in the final six games.
And as impressive as his stats might be, it is Garoppolo’s ability to bounce back from mistakes that stands out most. While he says he doesn’t have a specific process, Garoppolo acknowledged he usually “gets angry immediately” before moving on.
According to Elias Sports Bureau data, on drives after throwing an interception, Garoppolo went 36-of-39 (92.3%) for 429 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions and a passer rating of 129.6. He also directed four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, third most in the league.
“He’s unfazed by everything,” Niners receiver Kendrick Bourne said. “He seems to have a lot of critics, but he’s just very poised about everything. He cares more about what we have to go through and make it through to get to the next point. So, I don’t think he worries about what people think of him. I think that’s the biggest thing. You see a lot of quarterbacks, they throw one pick and then they kind of change their whole game plan. You just never see Jimmy do that.”
Part of the reason Garoppolo is able to have such a short memory is an increasing comfort and confidence in his knowledge of the offense and his surgically repaired knee. When Garoppolo was injured in 2018, teammates would find him in the building early in the morning and late at night rehabbing or studying film.
Garoppolo spent time with Shanahan’s father, longtime former NFL head coach Mike Shanahan, developing a deeper understanding of the system. Garoppolo turned that knowledge into production this season, as Kyle Shanahan has reached deep into the playbook knowing Garoppolo can execute the calls.
“Now that we can do everything that coach Shanahan wants with Jimmy and now he has control of it, it’s just so smooth with him at the helm,” Kittle said. “When he’s in the huddle, everyone looks up to him and everyone hears his voice. That’s what we need as a leader and a quarterback.”
As for the knee, Garoppolo had some rust to knock off early on, but with each passing week things have slowed down, helping him post a 107.6 passer rating since Week 9, fourth best in the league.
“Taking care of the knee, getting that back to normal and not worrying about that, but just playing football again,” Garoppolo said. “You take a year off with the ACL and everything, it takes a little while to get back into it.”
When Shanahan worked with Matt Ryan while with the Atlanta Falcons, Ryan struggled in his first season. During the second season, Ryan became the league’s Most Valuable Player. Garoppolo has had more stops and starts than Ryan but appears to be coming into his own at the right time.
“You’ve got to see a lot of football to understand how to play this position,” Shanahan said. “This is the first year I feel like he’s been able to get through it all and see it all. Anyone who does that goes through some ups and downs.
“Up to this point, throughout his ups and downs he’s continued to gradually climb, and he’s a much better quarterback right now than he was at the beginning of the year.”