As the fourth quarter whittled away in a 20-17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, it became increasingly clear that in a postseason dominated by quarterbacks, the 49ers had finally reached a moment when they could no longer hide theirs. The defense could do only so much for so long. It had superbly shut down the Dallas Cowboys and Dak Prescott, and mercilessly put the clamps on Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Eventually, the 49ers played less than perfect Sunday, dropping an interception, losing a wideout in coverage or simply failing to break an offense. And in that moment, it required help at a critical juncture, like the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game.
Inside that moment, the 49ers needed Garoppolo to be something more than he has been in the past two years. Something not just capable but special, like the cornerstone the team thought it was getting when it signed him to a massive contract that has paid out $110 million since 2018. Just one critical drive when it was needed the most, like what Joe Burrow has given the Cincinnati Bengals or Matthew Stafford has given the Rams.
That’s what the 49ers needed in the last 1:46 on Sunday, with the faint hopes of knotting the score with a field goal or in their wildest dreams, putting the game away with a 75-yard touchdown drive. Instead, San Francisco got two things: A drive that featured an incompletion, a reception for -3 yards and an interception. And a titanic reminder that Garoppolo is a quarterback problem, not a solution.
Just like he was back in April, when the 49ers tried to replace him with Aaron Rodgers before finally settling on drafting replacement project Trey Lance.
Time will tell whether Lance was ultimately the right choice to settle in as the franchise’s cornerstone. But the assessment on Garoppolo is now chiseled in granite. He’s not the guy. It's precisely what the 49ers telegraphed to everyone in the NFL for the better part of nine months. A situation that mirrors the bind the Rams were in last offseason with Jared Goff, but was remedied by beating the 49ers to the punch for Stafford and setting Sunday’s chain of events into motion long ago.
Of course, we can slice up Sunday’s failure against the Rams plenty of different ways. Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan is going to face no shortage of heat in the coming days, weeks and months for how his teams have faded with leads in fourth quarters. We can nitpick a defense that had miscues at inopportune times. But there’s no denying that San Francisco’s biggest failure was having to put the fate of the team into Garoppolo’s hands in the final two minutes, despite knowing what the outcome was likely to be against a very good Rams defense.
Needing Garoppolo to drive the team 75 yards for a conference championship win — under intense pressure, no less — is like needing to park the team bus on the moon. It’s not happening and there’s no good reason to be stuck in that predicament in the first place. Yet, that’s where San Francisco was in the final moments of Sunday. No longer able to lean on the defense to pave the road all the way to the Super Bowl, and no longer able to cover up for what Garoppolo couldn’t do in the most pressurized moments of need.
That’s part of what made all of the pablum over the past week about Garoppolo changing his NFL stars so absurd. People were talking about him as if he had somehow been the defining pilot in this impressive postseason run, rather than just another passenger in a first-class seat. Garoppolo hadn’t been tested the way so many other quarterbacks were in these playoffs. He wasn’t Josh Allen furiously taking back leads or Patrick Mahomes teleporting a team in 13 seconds. He wasn’t Stafford responding to Tom Brady’s best shot by finding Cooper Kupp behind the defense in the face of an all-out blitz.
He was Just Jimmy — and that’s capitalized because that’s what his nickname should be going forward. No more Jimmy G. It’s Just Jimmy. A quarterback who can caretake a team with the best of them, but isn’t extracting a win out of a crushing defeat when you need it.
He has repeatedly proven this, so we can dispense with the curiosities about this offseason. It’s going to end up where last year’s break almost did: With Garoppolo walking out the door and into the arms of a desperate team. That, or taking a gargantuan paycut to stick around and make the 49ers quarterback picture even more awkward in 2022.
So don’t read too much into Shanahan taking the classy route or teammates flying their Jimmy flag in the near future. The process of departure began in the fourth quarter Sunday. And it’s going to pick up speed.
Shanahan said he’s “not gonna sit here and make a farewell statement” about his quarterback. Well, he doesn’t have to. Garoppolo made that statement himself. It was repetitive and familiar. A desperate replay of an end in San Francisco that’s simply coming one year later than intended.