SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Following the San Francisco 49ers‘ failed last-minute comeback attempt against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo wanted to do more than just go back and watch what went wrong.
Garoppolo had led a 95-yard drive to Seattle’s 2-yard line. With two chances to score and, potentially, win the game, both of his pass attempts fell incomplete. Seahawks 30, 49ers 23.
It was the latest in a series of disappointing losses to a division rival and left the Niners with an inescapable feeling that they had given the game away through mistakes.
But Garoppolo only waited a week for his redemption against the Cincinnati Bengals. With the game and the Niners’ playoff hopes on the line in overtime, Garoppolo calmly dissected Cincinnati’s defense, completing 6-of-6 passes for 78 yards and the winning touchdown. 49ers 26, Bengals 23.
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“Jimmy is a dawg,” receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who caught the game winner, said. “When we’re all in the huddle and the quarterback has no doubt that we’re going to go down and win games, everybody feels it. The last couple of weeks, we’re super confident that we can go down and put seven on the board from no matter where we’re at. When your quarterback leads, that’s a great feeling.”
It’s a feeling the 49ers haven’t had much of since Garoppolo arrived at the end of 2017. Whether because of Garoppolo’s injury issues, the team’s reliance on a dominant defense and running game or both, the Niners have rarely needed Garoppolo to offer more than a steady hand when they’ve enjoyed success.
When they haven’t been competitive, Garoppolo has struggled to take on the role of leading man in San Francisco’s offense. It’s one of the reasons (along with injuries) that San Francisco traded so much to land Trey Lance with the No. 3 pick in this year’s draft. The hope is Lance will one day raise the ceiling of the offense to a point where he can carry them to victories.
For now, the job clearly belongs to Garoppolo. The 49ers have never openly admitted they wanted to replicate the 2017 Kansas City Chiefs model with Garoppolo in the role of Alex Smith and Lance as Patrick Mahomes, but it’s undoubtedly played out that way even as the offseason question of what happens next with Garoppolo looms.
Those Chiefs went 10-6 with Smith as the starter for all but a meaningless Week 17 game and bowed out to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC wild-card round. At 7-6 and in the sixth spot in the NFC playoff picture, Garoppolo and the Niners seem to be following a similar trajectory.
And though Garoppolo has had his share of struggles, he’s also playing well enough to help the 49ers finally string wins together.
Since Week 8, Garoppolo has a QBR of 64.4 (fourth in the NFL), 1,831 passing yards (third), 11 touchdowns (tied for 8th). The Niners are 5-2 in those games.
While much of that success can be attributed to the Niners’ resurgent running game and a more opportunistic defense that’s generating takeaways consistently, Garoppolo hasn’t been an innocent bystander. During that seven-game stretch, Garoppolo has attempted 29.43 passes per game, which is 20th in the league and right in line with his full season average of 29.25.
“You always want to [throw more], it’s just part of being a quarterback,” Garoppolo said. “But now I guess as I’ve gotten older, it’s just about winning and in this league, that’s all it is. And you keep doing that good things will happen to you.”
The difference for the Niners and Garoppolo is he’s making the most of his opportunities, with the quality of those completions superseding the quantity. In the most recent seven-game stretch, Garoppolo ranks first in the NFL in yards per attempt (8.89) and yards per drop back (7.76).
As is often the case in coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, many of those yards have come after the catch, as Garoppolo is 19th in air yards per attempt (7.61) and third in yards after the catch per completion (6.1). Through that, Garoppolo still hasn’t pushed the ball downfield much, with just 7.1% of his attempts traveling 20-plus yards in the air (29th in the league).
But one thing Garoppolo has done that has made a difference is cut down on turnovers. It’s been a significant point of emphasis for Shanahan to his team and Garoppolo, in particular. This season, the Niners are 6-0 when Garoppolo — who has eight interceptions — doesn’t throw an interception and 1-5 in games when he does. In Garoppolo’s 43 regular-season starts with the team, San Francisco is 14-4 when Garoppolo doesn’t have a pick.
“We’re a hard team to beat when we don’t turn the ball over at all,” said Shanahan, whose team is 12-1 since 2019 when they have no turnovers. “Usually I try to sell to our team, ‘If you don’t turn it over, you’re pretty much guaranteed to win almost,’ if you look at the stats with that.”
Although Garoppolo’s current stretch is arguably his best since coming to San Francisco, it’s come with some shaky moments. Garoppolo has missed open receivers — either not seeing them or missing with an inaccurate throw — and hasn’t been able to break his habit of forcing the ball into traffic.
Those kinds of mistakes will be magnified in the coming weeks. Which is why Garoppolo remains hard on himself, even in victory.
“I kind of have my own just system of going back through things and you try to replay the play in your head, how you saw it,” Garoppolo said. “You know, did you do everything the correct way? What did you miss? Where did the error occur? And you just kind try to … figure things out that way.”