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How 49ers have learned to embrace the duality of Jimmy Garoppolo

© Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

No one loves living inside the hash marks like Jimmy Garoppolo. That’s both a very literal and figurative assessment of his game. Garoppolo thrives between those tight spaces, and often unravels outside of them. He is simultaneously bad and good, terrible and elite, a burden and the backbone of this team.

When you add all that up, you’re left with a quarterback who exists in a perpetual grey area, whose highs and lows bring him back to the mean. The mean suggests he’s average, neither wholly good nor bad.

But average does not adequately describe the heights of those highs and depths of the lows.

That’s why you can’t talk about the man without inviting chaos. There is a certain fury that emerges when discussing Garoppolo.

The reality is that he is a limited, turnover- and injury-prone quarterback who is excellent within a certain range, with a propensity to make some outstanding throws inside of, and at the edge of that range.

He also possesses a level of confidence which is up there with the greats of his position. Whether he can or cannot make a throw is irrelevant. Garoppolo almost always believes he can, and his unflappable disposition coupled with that unreasonable confidence is part of why he’s so well-respected and trusted by his teammates.

In all likelihood, he’s going to make a throw, or two, or three, which send a rapturous groan through the 49ers-heavy crowd at SoFi Stadium this Sunday. But damn if he won’t play the rest of the game like it never happened.

His performance against the Packers was exceedingly on brand.

Take his inch-perfect hole shot to George Kittle down the left sideline. Place it side-by-side with his interception, also targeting Kittle. Same quarterback, same drive.

That Kittle interception was a point of conversation in Kyle Shanahan’s Wednesday press conference. Shanahan saying Garoppolo knew immediately that he shouldn’t have made the throw.

“He knows that that he was just too aggressive on that play,” Shanahan said. “But that’s something you work with all those guys on and it’s going to happen at times because they’re the quarterback, but they’re the ones that are responsible for it and sometimes the best play is a sack.”

But there’s that element of Garoppolo that’s pure, borderline blacked-out confidence. It’s boom or bust, and you don’t get the best of Garoppolo if you try to tell him to avoid those tight-window throws.

Shanahan took a dive into the exhausting polarity of Garoppolo, who rarely throws the ball away when in trouble. He explained that the same things that make him lose his mind as a coach can also get the 49ers out of the jams they tend to always find themselves in.

I think one of the hardest things with Jimmy is when people are covered, he believes he can just put the ball in the right spot, which he does a lot.

That throw that he threw to Jauan Jennings on third-and-5 that we were hot, he didn’t have time to throw that ball and somehow he created it, which is one of the most talented throws I’ve ever seen and Jauan ended up dropping it. That was unbelievable. 

Was it the best decision? It was, because it was right on the money, but that’s the stuff that not many people can pull off and that is risky. 

So that’s a fine line when you have someone as talented of a thrower as Jimmy, that he doesn’t feel the same way always in the heat of the battle that he can’t make that throw. 

Now, when you watch it on tape and stuff, then he’ll see it. But you’re not thinking about that when you’re playing a sport. You’re just reacting. 

And those are the things that I try to put him in better situations, and sometimes when it doesn’t go the right way, yeah, it’s disappointing. 

But I can’t tell you how many times that I don’t think anyone’s open and there is no play to be made and we need to make one or the game’s gonna be over and he finds a way to make it. And I’m not then saying, ‘Hey, don’t do that.’ I’m thanking him for that and that’s playing quarterback in this league, so it goes both ways.

As with almost all things Garoppolo, is it good or bad? The answer: yes.

Early on against Green Bay, he was excellent. He was let down by drops on irreproachable throws to George Kittle for a would-be touchdown and a third-down dart to Jauan Jennings which Kyle Shanahan said on Wednesday was “one of the most talented throws I’ve ever seen.”

He was also under pressure from a Green Bay front which had the highest pass rush win rate (16.33 percent) and pressure rates (14.29 percent) of any team in the playoffs thus far, as Rashan Gary long-armed his way through Tom Compton and into Garoppolo’s lap.

But then the Brett Favre wannabe version of Garoppolo came out in a way that was so similar to his interception against the Dallas Cowboys a week prior. He escapes pressure brilliantly, rolls out to his right and… disaster.

Then there were the two fluttery balls to the flat, which, if Packers defenders had picked their heads up to track, could have been easy pick-sixes.

He does this constantly. Fine, fine, great, disaster and/or near disaster.

But what follows disaster for Garoppolo is typically his best work. Sometimes, if not often, it is aided by luck. He’s not unlike the comic book character Domino, stumbling perpetually towards safe haven while leaving disaster in his wake.

After the defense stumped Aaron Rodgers for the sixth time on Saturday, and Arik Armstead satisfied his hunger with a second sack of the day, Garoppolo helped orchestrate a game-winning drive.

It didn’t look like all that much. He opened with the ole reliable choice route over the middle to George Kittle for 12 yards.

After a short run with Elijah Mitchell, Garoppolo identified the middle-field linebacker De’Vondre Campbell who had to decide which of two in-cutting routes — Brandon Aiyuk’s or Deebo Samuel’s — to cover and Garoppolo dictated his decision by looking right to Aiyuk, then coming back to Samuel for the easiest of throws over the middle.

That was the extent of Garoppolo’s work on that drive. And it was enough. Shanahan put the ball in Samuel’s hands on three-straight runs followed by a couple-yard fullback dive to set up the game-winning, literal ice-in-his veins 45-yard field goal from Robbie Gould.

Kittle took issue with the criticism of Garoppolo after the win, pointing towards his steely demeanor.

“Jimmy, I can’t say enough about that guy,” Kittle said. “The shit that he takes, people consistently just try to pull him down and all he does is try to deliver. He leads his team. He’s the sense of calm in the huddle. He’s the sense of calm in the storm and he allows us to play football at a high level.”

Garoppolo does lead this team even when his play is an active, clear detriment, which is far more often than any other quarterback remaining in the playoffs.

But he’s one more win away from going back to the Super Bowl, potentially against the Kansas City Chiefs, again. And he’s had plenty of moments this season which rightfully inspire confidence, like his double comeback against the Bengals, a crucial late throw early against the Eagles, and the comeback against the Rams in Week 18.

Most of those drives are defined by yards after catch, but his ability to throw short passes with precision timing is a legitimate skill that is probably under-appreciated, and it leads his targets on a path for those rumbling post-catch runs.

This isn’t the rain-soaked, calf-hobbled Colts debacle. We’re not in the teeth-chattering Wisconsin cold. Shanahan said the shoulder injury isn’t even part of the equation at this point.

This is going to be a home game in Los Angeles against a team the 49ers know better than any other and have beaten six-straight times. As Shanahan put it, both teams know exactly what to expect.

“I think it makes for a little bit more fun of a football game because that’s truly what it’s about,” Shanahan said. “It’s just a football game and everyone’s gonna go out there and a lot’s on the line. We’re gonna play as hard as we can. They’re gonna play as hard as they can and we’re gonna see who makes the most plays and who makes the least mistakes.”

Will Garoppolo — who has four-straight games with interceptions, and six in total over that stretch — limit the mistakes on Sunday? We don’t know.

But as Fred Warner said in explaining why the 49ers trust Garoppolo, it almost doesn’t matter.

“Well, I mean, we’re able to maintain trust in him because we keep winning,” Warner said.

“A quarterback, if you went down the list of order of importance of positions on the team, like, quarterback’s number one. A team’s success is very heavily dependent on the quarterback position. So the fact that we’re winning games is not just a surprise, Jimmy’s playing great football.

“And it’s a team game. It’s not just all heavily dependent upon if Jimmy does well, when we’re gonna win. No, he does exactly what we need him to and he comes into work every single day and it is the exact same person.”

There’s a little bit of cognitive dissonance there, but it also checks out.

Warner is saying the 49ers trust Garoppolo because they keep winning and that Garoppolo is also playing well. He also clarifies that, while quarterback is the most important position, it’s a team game, and it’s not on Garoppolo to win the games himself.

So the 49ers trust Garoppolo because they keep winning, but he’s not necessarily the reason they’re winning.

It makes perfect, maddeningly unreasonable sense.

They need Garoppolo’s steady-yet-unreliable stewardship, but they also don’t, because they sometimes win in spite of him. But he’s also there when they need him most, except when he’s not.

What is clear is that the 49ers have every weapon at their disposal to sweep the Rams in their home stadium and host the Super Bowl there two weeks later and Garoppolo is a major part of the climb to get to this stage, and had a solid six-game stretch from Los Angeles until his thumb injury in Tennessee.

Garoppolo, who has been written off even before Trey Lance was acquired, can ride his own wave of mayhem to a second Super Bowl berth in three years. All he has to do is make less mistakes than his opponents. And he might not even have to do that.


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