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By Anthony Treash
The 2018 season for the San Francisco 49ers was disappointing. Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was lost for the year with a torn ACL in Week 3, and San Francisco’s defense was the lowest graded by PFF, leading to a 4-12 record. Fast forward to the midway point of this season, and the Niners are 7-0 and PFF’s highest-graded team overall.
The difference between the two rosters is marginal. On offense, the 49ers have Garoppolo back and picked up running back Tevin Coleman, but lost both starting left tackle Joe Staley and fullback Kyle Juszczyk already. As for the defense, San Francisco landed a couple of gems on the defensive line in Dee Ford (via trade with Kansas City) and Nick Bosa (second overall pick), but maintained nearly the same coverage unit that PFF graded last among all teams in 2018.
Nonetheless, many may presume Garoppolo is a key component in the Niners’ success this season. This isn’t necessarily the case. Before we get to who is actually behind the 49ers’ undefeated record, let’s break down the impact of Jimmy G in San Francisco’s offense.
Jimmy Garoppolo: The Good
Garoppolo has been a smidge above average, ranking as PFF’s 13th highest-graded quarterback with a 73.3 grade midway through the 2019 season. He has, however, been producing positively graded passes at a decent rate. Eighth overall, in fact.
A lot of Garoppolo’s success stems from his patience on long-developing plays. When his time-to-throw eclipses 2.6 seconds, the 49ers’ offense is fifth-best in expected points added per play. (EPA puts yards gained on a play into context like down, distance, and field position, to give the best measure of per-play efficiency.) Moreover, on these passes Garoppolo ranks seventh in passing and first in yards per attempt at 11.5.
On the passes he makes when his first read is not there, Garoppolo is PFF’s sixth-highest graded QB at 75.8 and ranks second to only 2018 MVP Patrick Mahomes in yards per attempt at 10.5.
Garoppolo hasn’t thrown deep much this season, with the lowest average depth of target among the current 32 starting quarterbacks at 6.5. However, when Garoppolo lets it fly, he has been stellar. On throws of 15 or more yards, Garoppolo has recorded an 85.6 PFF passing grade and a big-time throw to turnover-worthy play ratio of 5-to-2, while ranking first in adjusted completion percentage (by over 3 percent) at 69 percent and throwing the second-lowest rate of uncatchable passes.
Coach Kyle Shanahan plays to his players’ strengths in his offensive scheme, and he’s doing just that with Jimmy G. Over a small, scattered sample size his first few years in the NFL, it was clear Garoppolo is a much more polished passer through the use of play-action. This season, Garoppolo’s 33.7 percent play-action usage is the fourth-highest among quarterbacks, and on those passes, Garoppolo’s passing grade improves to 77.2 and he’s put up the seventh-most yards per attempt at 10.1.
Based off this data, it’s not shocking to hear Garoppolo has been meticulous against zone coverage. Against these coverage schemes, Garoppolo ranks eighth in passing grade, eighth in yards per attempt, fourth in accurate pass rate and first in accurate-plus pass rate (essentially perfectly placed passes). Luckily for Jimmy G, defenses have been playing the Niners in zone coverage more often than not – they have faced Cover 3 and quarters over 55 percent of the time, which is the highest in the NFL by a large margin. Kudos to Shanahan for causing this through play-action and motion.
Jimmy Garoppolo: The Bad
There’s a common theme with Jimmy G’s struggles in 2019: He’s forcing too many quick throws into tight windows. Garoppolo has an average time-to-throw of 2.33 seconds, the quickest among starting quarterbacks. When Garoppolo throws in 2.5 seconds or less, the Niners rank 22nd in EPA per pass play. Some of this falls on his supporting cast, but Garoppolo is the 26th-graded quarterback on those throws.
While he’s been astute against zone coverage, Garoppolo has been the opposite against man coverage. Again, this has a lot to do with him forcing too many throws. Garoppolo isn’t letting his receivers get open against man coverage, and on quicker throws of 2.5 seconds or less, Garoppolo is the lowest-graded QB in the NFL.
Plenty of quarterbacks struggle with tight-window passing. Garoppolo is 30th in PFF grade in that regard. Most of Garoppolo’s negative tight-window plays lie in the slot or out wide, where he ranks dead last in passing grade. It’s not like Garoppolo is faltering when under duress. As mentioned earlier, he remains incredibly calm when he realizes he shouldn’t go to his first read.
With that said, Garoppolo’s play from a clean pocket is alarming. Under such conditions, Garoppolo has the second-lowest average depth of target at 5.9 yards, which in turn has produced a 20th-ranked average of 7.6 yards per attempt. By playing it safe from a clean pocket, Garoppolo has produced the second-lowest big-time throw rate and is 21st in PFF passing grade.
Is Jimmy Garoppolo holding the 49ers back from a Super Bowl?
Garoppolo is playing in one of the best offensive schemes in the NFL under Shanahan. Through a low usage of 11 personnel, a mixed bag of 12, 21 and 22 personnel, and a high usage of motion, Shanahan has given Garoppolo an offense that is a headache for opponents.
Last year’s Niners defense was bad in all phases. This season, it has gone from worst to first. The addition of Bosa, who owns the league’s highest pressure rate by nearly 2.5 percent, has brought out the best in this pass-rushing unit. Among edge rushers with at least 150 snaps, the 49ers have four in the top 20 (Bosa, Arik Armstead, Ford and Ronald Blair III).
Garoppolo isn’t getting much help from his receivers. While George Kittle is the highest-graded tight end in football at 93.1, no wideout has a grade higher than 68. That could change, as Emmanuel Sanders was recently brought in via trade.
Whereas Garoppolo is better when he holds onto the ball longer, a quick-passing offense happens to be Sanders’ greatest strength. On targets of 2.5 seconds or less this season, Sanders is PFF’s eighth-highest graded receiver and is one of just four wideouts to catch 100 percent of their targets. In his first week as a Niner, Sanders saw four targets in 2.5 seconds or less, and he caught all four while Jimmy G produced a positively graded throw each time.
Garoppolo hasn’t been a bad quarterback, but he hasn’t been a great one either. The addition of Sanders will certainly help, but ultimately Garoppolo has to limit turnover-worthy plays and sprinkle in a few more big-time throws.
If he can do this, the 49ers can definitely win the Super Bowl.
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