There was a chance to see what the San Francisco 49ers could actually look like in 2020. After the former NFC West bottom-feeders went from having one of the worst records in the NFL in 2018 to a Super Bowl appearance in 2019, this season seemed promising, until San Francisco was plagued with injuries.
Its playoff hopes are now dwindling, but what’s more concerning is the team’s uncertainty at its most important position. The 49ers turned its division upside down last year, and everyone else was on notice for what head coach Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo could accomplish working in tandem. Shanahan was one of the hot, young head coaches that mirrored the same success the Los Angeles Rams saw with Sean McVay. Garoppolo was one of the hot, young quarterbacks who arose out of Bill Belichick’s system to find that early success with Shanahan.
The 49ers were positioned to have another deep playoff run prior to the start of the season. San Francisco had the fourth-most returning snaps and had the highest percentage (88.3%) of players returning on defense, according to ESPN. But the 49ers suffered a loss right out of the gate to the Arizona Cardinals before dominant victories over the New York Jets, 31-13, and New York Giants, 36-9. San Francisco’s 2-1 start was just fine, but a litany of injuries, including one to Garoppolo, caught up with the team.
Now, we’re over a quarter of the way into the season and the 49ers are at the bottom of their division with a 2-3 record with a passer moving further away from his previous success. During the Week 5 loss to the Miami Dolphins, San Francisco benched Garoppolo in favor of C.J. Beathard, who has had just 10 starts and 14 career games played. The turn of events now begs different questions for the 49ers’ season: Can Garoppolo stay healthy? If not, should they consider and prepare for other options at quarterback?
Garoppolo missed the past two weeks with a high-ankle sprain—another injury on the litany of roadblocks that have affected his career dating back to New England—and Sunday was the first chance to finally see this offense with all of its parts together. Garoppolo along with tight end George Kittle, running backs Raheem Mostert and Jerick McKinnon, and wide receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel were finally on the field together for the first time all year. But Garoppolo lasted only half of the game before Beathard came in for relief.
Before departing, Garoppolo couldn’t drive the ball downfield and often found himself making bad passes. He was visibly unable to move through his progressions. He often hesitated to put any added pressure on his right foot, which, in turn, caused a number of errant passes and two interceptions.
“You could tell he was affected by his ankle,” Shanahan told NFL media after the game. “I know he doesn’t normally throw the ball that way and I think he was struggling a little bit because of it; and the way the game was going, I wasn’t going to keep putting him in those positions knowing we were going to have to throw it a lot to come back.”
Garoppolo’s first-half statistics left a lot to be desired; it was one of the worst starts of his career. He was 7-of-17 passing for 77 yards and two interceptions. Garoppolo was under pressure from a defense not particularly excelling at pass-rush and was sacked three times. He didn’t, and hasn’t, completed a pass over 20 yards; compare that to last season when he had the highest completion rate (61%) on throws exceeding 20-or-more yards.
If Garoppolo can’t physically play to the level that helped the 49ers get “from Mobile to Miami,” then they’ll have to make a difficult decision at a new fork in the road. San Francisco shouldn’t necessarily turn the page on Garoppolo, yet. His sample size is too small to realistically think the 49ers would move on from a $137.5 million-dollar passer; in fact, benching and keeping that expensive passer healthy is the logical thing to do. But if Garoppolo’s injuries continue to threaten the team’s long-term success, it would be smart to consider all of the options. After all, Garoppolo hasn’t yet proven he’s more than a system quarterback; why not find another hot, young quarterback to insert into this system and yield similar success?
The 49ers have multiple options in the 2021 NFL Draft. The Draft Network’s senior draft analyst, Drae Harris, named Kyle Trask as a realistic option in the quarterback class, saying:
Kyle Trask is a traditional pocket passer with good mechanics. He’s a natural thrower with an effortless release. He’s been a good decision-maker with the football. He has sufficient mobility out of the pocket but shows instances of short-area elusiveness and awareness within the pocket to sidestep and avoid the rush. He has played in a system with pro concepts at Florida, which should ease his transition to the NFL, particularly with regards to setting protection, identifying fronts, and other nuances of the position. He needs to improve at going through a full progression, hitting his check downs, and do a better job manipulating and moving defenders with his eyes. The arrow’s pointing up with this young man, as he only has 13 starts to date. When the process concludes, he will likely be a fast riser.
The 49ers play best when they have a lead and need a quarterback who can push the ball downfield to do that, whether it’s Garoppolo or anyone else. The problem here is Garoppolo isn’t making a strong case that he can do that this season, even when he is healthy; in the first two weeks of the season he excelled in the short-to-intermediate passing game but wasn’t effective beyond that—which is also, in part, due to the influx of injuries to skill players.
They’ll be eyes on the quarterback situation heading into a divisional game against the Rams and a Week 7 matchup versus the Patriots; teams with some of the better passing defenses. Los Angeles has allowed the second-fewest yards (197.8), and New England falls just outside of the top 10, allowing the 12th-fewest (233.8). But what will be the most interesting is San Francisco’s long-term plans for Garoppolo, a quarterback who can’t seem to shake injuries or a middling career when everything isn’t working their favor.
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