Survey the four quarterbacks remaining in the NFL playoffs, and it’d be easy to conclude they’re like three aces and, oh, a four of hearts. If this quartet were a boy band, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Matthew Stafford would be the ones who can play their own instruments; Jimmy Garoppolo would be the one who’s in the band just to look good.
That’s what happens when Burrow, Mahomes and Stafford are carved into their teams’ starting lineups, while Garoppolo’s name is written in faint pencil. The other three are franchise cornerstones; Garoppolo’s time in San Francisco might be measurable in days.
And yet. Here he is, 60 minutes from a Super Bowl and 120 minutes from a title. Given the way Jimmy Garoppolo has landed on his feet after falling down so many flights of stairs, is it so ridiculous to expect that this strange NFL odyssey might have a couple more surprises in store?
Garoppolo has spent his entire career pinballing between being the source of affection and being utterly disregarded. It began, of course, back in 2014, when the Patriots drafted him with the expectation that Tom Brady was on the way out. Spoiler: Brady went on to win four more Super Bowls, three with New England, spurred in part by the thought that anyone could replace him. The Patriots, lesson learned, dealt Garoppolo to San Francisco on Halloween 2017.
Since then, Garoppolo has actually played pretty decently … when he’s been on the field. He’s missed 25 games over the course of his four full seasons in San Francisco … which is why he found himself on the other end of the big-armed rookie/aging vet equation earlier this year.
Every quarterback plays with an expiration date floating over their head, but rarely is that date in such bright, glowing neon as the one above Garoppolo. Despite the fact that he led San Francisco to the Super Bowl — and came within three minutes of winning it — Garoppolo had to watch as the 49ers dealt away a raft of draft picks to get Trey Lance at No. 3. Forget grooming a replacement. This was bringing in a new significant other while the old one’s still living in the apartment.
Garoppolo could have sulked. He could have demanded a trade. He could have buckled under the pressure. Instead, he learned from Brady: he just went out there and won games.
After sitting at 3-5 as late as November, the Niners finished 10-7, capped by a victory over the Rams to catapult themselves into the playoffs.
To hear Kyle Shanahan tell it, the impending divorce has made this year all that much sweeter:
“The more that we all can accept [Garoppolo’s impending departure] and know it and not beat around the bush, the easier it is to go on with your jobs,” he said Monday afternoon. “And that’s what we’ve all done, and we’ve all enjoyed each other as people. We all respect the hell of each other in our profession. And I think it’s just allowed everyone to move on and be themselves. And I think throughout the year, that’s allowed him to get better, it’s allowed our team to get better, it’s allowed me to get better and focus on what we should focus on, and just trying to be as good at our jobs as we can.”
The idea that the threat of extinction makes life that much sweeter might be a little dubious in this case, but it’s undeniable that Garoppolo has produced numbers that look better on paper than in person. His passer rating of 98.7 ranks ninth in the NFL, fractionally ahead of Mahomes. He threw for a higher completion percentage and fewer interceptions than Stafford. He didn’t really do anything better than Burrow, but few quarterbacks did this year. Garoppolo’s passes don’t end up anywhere near the “Improbable Completions” category of the NFL’s Next Gen stats.
In other words, he holds up his end of the team deal … and not a whole lot more. Which is fine! When you’ve got Deebo Samuel wrecking shop all over the field, and players like George Kittle able to catch anything this side of low earth orbit — to say nothing of a hungry, swarming defense — you don’t necessarily need to have a thoroughbred quarterback.
Wins are a terrible measurement of a quarterback, but it’s worth noting that Garoppolo’s 49ers are 6-0 against the Rams, which if nothing else is a testament to the current regime’s ability to keep Los Angeles in check. Garoppolo can throw back-breaking interceptions, yes, but against both Dallas and Green Bay he (for the most part) hit the throws that kept his team in the game, series after series.
The Broncos proved in 2015 that if your defense is good enough, if your receivers and run game are crafty enough, you don’t need a rocket-armed wolverine of a quarterback to win a Super Bowl. The Ravens proved it twice, both in 2000 and against the 49ers in 2012. Why not San Francisco this year?
Sometimes, a quarterback doesn’t need to be Tom Brady 2.0 to win. Sometimes, Jimmy Garoppolo 1.0 is just enough.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.