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Garoppolo or Cousins? The talent gap is narrow, but with one key distinction

© Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re looking for stats to prove how much better Jimmy Garoppolo is than Kirk Cousins, you’re in the wrong place. Really, there’s no “right” place for that because the stats don’t favor Garoppolo in most categories.

The one exception is third-down conversion percentage and passing accuracy on third downs where Garoppolo is arguably the best in the NFL, and Cousins is in the upper echelon. But outside of that, the numbers are mostly even, or in Cousins’ favor.

While you might assume Cousins is a checkdown robot (and he can certainly get in that habit), his depth of target average is about a yard-and-a-half further than Garoppolo’s, whose average is the third-lowest in the league. That’s not to say those numbers are a negative thing, considering how many yards after catch magnets the 49ers have stashed at skill positions.

But the idea that Garoppolo is throwing the ball downfield and Cousins isn’t, is flatly untrue.

Here is a smorgasbord of stats comparing the two; the first set your standard ones, and the second group more focused on success in key downs and late-game situations.

What shows up is that Garoppolo in late-game situations (which have recently been close-game situations), is incisive. While his 13 interceptions stand out from Cousins, he’s only thrown a single pick in the fourth quarter, while a third of Cousins’ six interceptions have been in the fourth quarter.

Garoppolo is the best in the league at converting third downs with passes, and the only quarterback who converts 50 percent of the time. Right behind him, at 48 percent, is Cousins.

Both are fantastic in the fourth quarter and while Garoppolo had five game-winning drives in the regular season compared to Cousins’ one, Cousins had a game-winning drive and touchdown to Kyle Rudolph over the Saints in the Wild Card game.

Garoppolo has a better quarterback rating on the road (Garoppolo is fourth with a 109.0 rating and Cousins is 10th with a 101.2 rating) than at home, while the reverse is true for Cousins, (Garopppolo is 15th with a 96.0 rating at home and Cousins, with a 116.4 rating, is third).

There is something to be said for the Vikings (associate head coach Gary Kubiak, offensive coordinator Mike Stefanski) protecting Cousins more than Shanahan protects Garoppolo, though to say Shanahan doesn’t protect Garoppolo would be delusional. The eye test does, however, indicate the Vikings protect Cousins more than Shanahan does with Garoppolo.

But, the main difference in these quarterbacks isn’t their ability to run an offense effectively; both have proven they’re very good quarterbacks. It’s their predictability or lack thereof, and ability to make off-schedule plays.

Cousins sticks to the script, and for the most part, isn’t all that gifted in the art of improvisation. Garoppolo is at his best, and sometimes his worst, when he goes off script.

It’s why Shanahan wanted Cousins and maybe would still want him over Garoppolo if given the chance to switch on equal contract terms. He likes a quarterback who sticks to his very well-written script and understandably so, given his elite play-calling abilities.

Garoppolo’s worst assets are taking sacks instead of throwing the ball away or trying to force throws instead of quickly getting off his first read and progressing to the next. Cousins is averse to “unnecessary” risk and far more careful with the ball, which, most of the time, is a positive.

But you don’t remember great quarterbacks for the plays that all went according to plan, look no further than Deshaun Watson last week. To win a Super Bowl, you absolutely need some unplanned magic from your quarterback and there’s no question Garoppolo has that flair for the spectacular.

“The Catch” didn’t happen because Joe Montana threw the ball away on third down (despite the implication by some that it was his intention). He double-clutched and lofted a prayer that only Dwight Clark could, would, did, inevitably haul in.

This is no attempt to say Garoppolo and George Kittle are about to recreate The Catch, but Garoppolo has the makeup to pen his own iconic moment.

Higher risk? No question. But greatness necessitates that risk.

Cousins is a very good quarterback who might just win a Super Bowl, but I have a hard time selling the idea that he’ll ever be remembered as “great.”

Garoppolo, however, has proven that he’s at least at Cousins’ level in his first full season as a starting quarterback, and is 21-5 as a starter (Cousins is 44-42-2, and 18-12-1 since joining the Vikings). The talent level at this point might be even, but the approach is on another plane, and Garoppolo clearly has the higher ceiling. He has the willingness to take the type of risks that great quarterbacks need to take, and Saturday might just require such a risk.


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