© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
After two weeks, the San Francisco 49ers are 2-0. Jimmy Garoppolo is still their starting quarterback, coming off an extremely on-brand performance in which he leaned heavily on screens and dump passes, while making a few key throws over the middle of the field.
He was not outstanding. Garoppolo was good enough against a young team which squandered opportunities against a 49ers defense — a defense which should remain in the NFL’s upper echelon and force errors from other similar, young teams.
His performance was highlighted by two great throws; one inch-perfect ball to Deebo Samuel in a very tight window over the middle, and another tight throw to Trent Sherfield on a slant. There were a few other nice plays, most of which were defined by him moving his feet, escaping pressure and either running or moving — ironically, the most impressive part of his game thus far — to find his checkdown and crucially, his four successful quarterback sneaks, one of which was for a touchdown, and another of which iced the game.
Were it not for some of his early misses, though, some of those sneaks may not have been necessary.
Garoppolo missed five throws badly. He missed an early dump screen to Kyle Juszczyk. He overthrew an open Mohamed Sanu down the left sideline early. He overthrew Brandon Aiyuk over the middle while under pressure and was nearly intercepted. He missed an open Trent Sherfield down the right sideline. And he was nearly intercepted again under pressure when he underthrew Deebo Samuel, forcing him to play defensive back.
Shanahan even pointed out that throw to Samuel (shown below) as having pick-six potential, and said Samuel “did a hell of a job breaking that up.”
Shanahan said Garoppolo nearly threw a pick-6 here:
"He did miss a little one on that out throw on the 3rd down that was their 1st all-out blitz of the game. He had to fade away from an unblocked guy…
Almost led to a pick-6, which Deebo did a hell of a job breaking that up." pic.twitter.com/cYu0dPt5vN
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) September 20, 2021
It’s throws like these that give Shanahan pause in his play-calling, and why he occasionally shuts Garoppolo out of his own offense. A prime example of that was when he all but shut Garoppolo down against the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs two years ago after Mychal Kendricks intercepted him… after Kendricks nearly intercepted him earlier in the game.
Remember, on Sunday, Shanahan decided to run the ball on third-and-eight (what looked to be a triple option with Kittle involved) two plays after one of Garoppolo’s worst misses to Sherfield, which would have made it a 2nd-and-2 situation. It appeared like Shanahan was trying to get some yardage to get to a manageable distance in four-down territory, but the option play was stuffed, and the 49ers punted from inside the Eagles half.
You don’t see many quarterbacks with Garoppolo’s mostly pocket-passing skillset running option plays on 3rd-and-8. That didn’t come off exactly like a vote of confidence from Shanahan to Garoppolo, which was in line with the passing approach.
Garoppolo threw 11 of his 30 passes behind the line, another five within five yards past the line of scrimmage, and another seven within 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. That’s 23 of his 30 passes less than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage: he was 19-for-23 on those attempts with a touchdown.
Past that 10-yard mark, he was 3-for-7 with two interceptable passes and two poorly thrown balls to open receivers to the boundary without being under pressure.
Given the talent around him, the effectiveness of the offensive line early on (Pro Football Focus has ranked the team first in offensive line pass blocking efficiency), and his increased comfortability and feel in the pocket, that might legitimately be a viable, winning strategy for much of the regular season, especially given the 49ers’ fourth-place schedule. Whether it will be enough to win the division is a murkier question.
But when the offensive line is protecting the quarterback well in the pass game, that should provide opportunities — and has — for explosive plays.
This offense is not predicated on taking deep shots often. Even if it was, that’s not an option that’s even on the table with Garoppolo. But it is an offense founded on setting up explosive play-action pass plays when the opportunity presents itself, and hitting them.
Shanahan’s offense has evolved over the years, but it’s always been defined by having a strong running game to set up those deep play-action attempts. And that doesn’t necessarily means 25-plus yard bombs down the field — it means stretching the field horizontally, and attacking the boundary past the sticks, which is where Garoppolo missed three times on Sunday.
Shanahan has incorporated various types of motions, eye candy, and new wrinkles to complement versatile talent, but the core of the offense is still to keep defenses off balance, and to disguise the run and passing opportunities as well as possible. He does not set out to run a dink-and-dunk offense (it’s also not the West Coast offense, and it’s not advisable to call it that to his face).
Maybe the best play in this offense, at least aesthetically, is “Leak,” when either Kyle Juszczyk, a tight end or on rare occasions — like the example below — a slot-aligned receiver, pretends to be a run blocker before “leaking” out by flowing with the defense down the line of scrimmage.
The quarterback often looks towards the opposite side of the field on the play action to sell the disguise, then comes back to a usually wide-open receiver on the other side of the field. There’s a setup, misdirection, then the execution of a perfectly-designed explosive play. That’s this offense in a nutshell.
Kyle hit the Bengals with one of his favorite plays for the #49ers first TD of the day.
This is the Leak concept, but typically he runs this with a tight end. This time, it’s Goodwin from a tight alignment.
He’s been running this play for years. This is a new little wrinkle. pic.twitter.com/1Ano3Y4Q7D
— Oscar Aparicio (@BetterRivals) September 16, 2019
And for as often as the 49ers throw the ball short, they absolutely demand that deep punch. They should have had it to win the Super Bowl, but Garoppolo missed; not sure if anyone remembers that.
Here’s what Shanahan looked like last year when Garoppolo missed Juszczyk on Leak, one of the many examples of why he drafted Trey Lance.
Shanahan when Jimmy missed Juice wide open on Leak. pic.twitter.com/NVr6Jkbcco
— Rich (@richjmadrid) October 20, 2020
Do not claim that Shanahan does not want to throw the ball deep. He absolutely does. But as he has recognized Garoppolo’s limitations, his offense has become inherently more conservative.
In Matt Ryan’s MVP season under Shanahan in 2016, Ryan’s average depth of target was 9.0 yards, which was tied for 12th among eligible quarterbacks. In Shanahan’s first season with the 49ers, Garoppolo’s average depth of target was 9.4 yards; C.J. Beathard’s was 8.1 yards.
Then, Garoppolo tore his ACL. In that 2018 season, Beathard’s ADOT dropped to 7.3 yards.
Garoppolo’s ADOT dropped to 6.7 yards in 2019, which was second-lowest mark in the NFL if you include Teddy Bridgewater’s seven games, and dead last if you exclude Bridgewater.
In 2020, that decreased again, to 6.5 yards per target. Only Alex Smith, with an ADOT of 5.4 yards, was lower. For reference, Nick Mullens’ ADOT was 6.9 yards.
Through two games this season, Garoppolo’s ADOT is 5.2 yards per game, with only Ryan (5.0 yards behind arguably the worst offensive line in the league, ranked 25th in pass blocking efficiency by PFF) and Andy Dalton (4.6 yards, is Andy Dalton) below him.
Shanahan knows how to use short passes and intermediate passes in the middle of the field — Garoppolo’s comfort zone — to take advantage of his explosive players and limit the room for error. He is limited by his quarterback who is objectively poor at throwing the ball to the boundary and any distance beyond 20 yards — and even fewer than that outside the hashes.
Here’s what that all looks like, visualized:
Overlaid Jimmy Garoppolo's passing charts through Week 2
That red area is the part of the field where he's yet to complete a pass – one deep right completion was the absurd TD catch and run by Deebo Samuel. https://t.co/GxMiG8gekm pic.twitter.com/6p7XDrZUdx
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) September 20, 2021
If you had a situation with a quarterback you didn’t fully trust, but wasn’t bad, what would you do?
You’d build even more heavily around the run game and completing the passes you knew that quarterback could complete, and add talent in the form of players who can do most of the work for you.
Having seen the yards-after-catch ability of George Kittle, Shanahan added Deebo Samuel, who is currently on pace to lead the league in yards after catch. He also added Jalen Hurd, who, while never healthy, had the right skillset and measurables to be a YAC stud.
The following year, Shanahan added Brandon Aiyuk, who has plenty of YAC potential and can at least theoretically stretch the field even if his quarterback doesn’t throw to him.
This year, it’s come full-circle, with the 49ers drafting Trey Lance, a man who can fundamentally alter the options the 49ers have on offense, and raise their ceiling in the long term both with his running ability, and arm talent.
Shanahan said Monday that he plans on a week-by-week basis with Lance and “whenever I feel like putting him in” and that he’d only use it because he could be “bringing a different element that we thought could help us with something that we’re going against.”
It’s not a viable long-term strategy to never target roughly two-thirds of the football field and rely on a lack of execution from opposing teams, stellar defense and no turnovers — or, at least, have some of your turnovers bailed out by penalties, or only commit them in garbage time.
The element that Lance can help the 49ers with is his ability to target not just the deep third of the field, but the boundaries.
This isn’t to say the 49ers need to start Lance right now; Garoppolo has performed well enough that it would be a fairly drastic, and probably ill-timed move. But to keep Garoppolo as this team’s starting quarterback down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs would be inherently limiting.
Shanahan made it abundantly clear that he’s seen enough of Garoppolo this offseason, and through two games, the same flaws we’ve seen in the past are rearing their head again. The 49ers can be competitive with Garoppolo at the helm, but their ceiling is lower, and margin for error much slimmer than with the man they drafted to lead the franchise.