It took just two starts and two wins for Jimmy Garoppolo to prove the 49ers made a terrific trade for him. Whether the descriptive word is “it” or “wow,” Garoppolo has the factor for long-term quarterback success in San Francisco.
The only negative in how Garoppolo played against the Bears and Texans is he cost the Niners a few spots at the top of the 2018 NFL Draft. Everything else Garoppolo has done, even with the first two interceptions of his NFL career, has been outstanding.
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For the team that once had Joe Montana and Steve Young back-to-back, there have been a few bright flashes with the likes of Jeff Garcia, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick. But in terms of West Coast offense styling, looking the part of a long-term leader and having the right combination of arm strength and mobility, Garoppolo is set up to be the team’s best since those Hall of Famers.
Garoppolo had the luxury (like Young behind Montana) to blossom behind the greatest of his time with Tom Brady in New England. Since the 49ers acquired Garoppolo at the trade deadline, coach Kyle Shanahan has quickly found out Brady-like qualities have rubbed off on Garoppolo — with a noticeable twist.
“Tom is a slower moving guy, which gets him a lot of patience in the pocket and he stays there very calm,” Shanahan told reporters this week. “That’s also how he moves naturally, where Jimmy is more a quick-twitch guy; sometimes it’s harder to get those type of guys to slow down and be patient in the pocket, because they just move faster.
“That’s what has been impressive with Jimmy, and I’m sure he does get that from watching a guy like Tom do it. You want both in your game. Jimmy does have both. That’s what allows him to stay in the pocket and let things develop. When there isn’t one he does have a chance to get outside of there and extend the play.”
Shahanan earlier this season hinted at not rushing Garoppolo into action, but once C.J. Beathard got hurt, the rookie coach went all in playing with his new toy. With the crucial decision of either franchise-tagging Garoppolo or signing him to a lucrative, long-term extension, the 49ers had no choice but to test their investment.
Even with what would be called a versatile-but-limited offensive supporting cast in relation to other teams — such as Garoppolo’s former team, the Patriots — Shanahan has called a variety of plays in the endless quiver that is his passing playbook. Speedy wide receivers, physical tight ends and quick fullbacks — hello again, Kyle Juszczyk — Garoppolo has used what he has to make big plays.
Consider that Matt Ryan struggled through one full season before getting into an MVP groove under Shanahan. Garoppolo getting into the offense now likely will set him up for a breakout in 2018.
Garoppolo’s 49ers numbers in a short sample size, beyond a perfect 2-0 record as starter, have been excellent to match the eye test. His 9.0 yards per pass attempt would be tops in the league. His 313.5 yards per start would also be No. 1. When looking back at his 2-0 stint for the Patriots while Brady was suspended, Garoppolo’s current play looks eerily similar to what it was more than a year ago.
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Another natural comparison for Garoppolo’s early splash is Tony Romo — and not just because they, like Kyle’s father Mike and Saints coach Sean Payton, both were notable NFL names to quarterback at Eastern Illinois. Romo was 26 when he was handed the reins in Dallas, and no playoff wins aside, he had a highly efficient career.
Garoppolo is that age now, and like Romo being developed by Payton in Dallas, his work under Kyle Shanahan raises what he learned with Josh McDaniels to a whole new level. When Romo got his chance full-time in the middle of the 2006 season, he immediately played well, using his arm and mobility to push the ball downfield. Romo went 6-2 in his first half-season to suggest he would be special. Now Garoppolo is well on his way.
The fact that Garoppolo has lifted the entire team to look much better than the two the 49ers once were worse than — Chicago and Houston — can’t be written off as the product of favorable matchups. His play on the road has inspired to the point that no one is surprised the 3-10 Niners are favored by two points against the 8-5 Titans in Garoppolo’s first home start for San Francisco on Sunday.
Garoppolo found the right holes in the Bears’ and Texans’ defenses. He will take advantage of the Titans overloading to stop the run, sidestep their aggressive pass rush and pick apart their big secondary weaknesses.
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The Jaguars in Week 16 and the Rams in Week 17 don’t figure to be nearly as comfortable games against stronger playoff contenders — given Jacksonville’s dominance against all passing games this season and Los Angeles’ often nasty scheming with Wade Phillips. But seeing how Garoppolo handles a stretch of struggle is also important to the 49ers getting a full assessment.
Garoppolo, who not long ago was an uncertainty and a major risk, suddenly is bringing the 49ers close to competing with the rest of the league’s best.