The NFC championship game turned into a nightmare scenario for the 49ers. With their run game stymied and their defense struggling to get off the field, San Francisco had to turn to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to save their season and they fell short.
This was always going to be the issue when the 49ers opted to roll with Garoppolo in 2021. It’s also the reason they traded three first-round picks to move up and take Trey Lance in this year’s draft. When the 49ers’ formula for winning didn’t work, they weren’t going to be able to lean on their quarterback.
It wasn’t a great omen Sunday when Garoppolo’s first throw, a third-and-7 toss to tight end George Kittle on the 49er’s first drive, sailed over Kittle’s head. A better throw might’ve gone for a touchdown.
In all it wasn’t a bad first three quarters for the QB. He went 13-for-21 for 202 yards and 2 touchdowns in that span. The wheels came off when the game was in the balance though.
Garoppolo in the fourth quarter went 3-for-9 for 30 yards and an interception, and the game turned in a spot that exposed head coach Kyle Shanahan’s lack of faith in Garoppolo to make a play.
Early in the fourth quarter the Rams scored a touchdown to cut the 49ers’ lead to 17-14. San Francisco was cruising and looking for a touchdown that might effectively put the game away. A 9-yard run by running back Elijah Mitchell on a first down put the 49ers at the Rams’ 44-yard-line.
On second-and-1 Mitchell was stuffed for a loss of 1.
On third-and-2 fullback Kyle Juszczyk was tripped up for no gain.
Then the 49ers punted.
They never even pretended to want to put the ball in their quarterback’s hands. Not on second or third down, and certainly not on fourth. The ultra-conservative trio of calls after Mitchell put the 49ers in fourth-and-short is perhaps a flaw in Shanahan’s game calling, but it’s hard to believe it doesn’t have something to do with the quarterback.
After that 49ers punt the Rams went 63 yards on nine plays and kicked a field goal to tie the game.
What happened next was perhaps the worst-case scenario for San Francisco. They put the ball in the air three times. All three throws were incomplete with a delay of game penalty sprinkled in on second down. None of the throws were particularly close either.
Los Angeles went down and kicked the go-ahead field goal, leaving Garoppolo with 1:46 and one timeout to orchestrate a game-tying or go-ahead drive.
What ensued was more disaster. There was another incompletion, then a completion to wide receiver Jauan Jennings for negative-3 yards, and then an interception on a shovel pass that sailed high for RB JaMycal Hasty. The game was over. Garoppolo went 1-for-6 for negative-3 yards and a pick in what may very well be his final plays as a 49er.
This was always the problem with Garoppolo. He isn’t a ‘bad’ player. He’s limited. And those limitations are easy to hide when the defense is playing lights out and the run game has defenses scrambling (or the special teams is scoring touchdowns). Sunday it came down to the quarterback. The 49ers needed a playmaker and that’s not what Garoppolo is.
Unfortunately for Garoppolo and the 49ers, winning consistently in the modern NFL requires the quarterback to make plays when all else fails. That’s why they’re moving on, and any doubts about why the 49ers would part ways with a quarterback that got them to the NFC championship game were eliminated.
Eventually every season in the NFL is going to come down to the QB, and San Francisco just wasn’t good enough.