As the QuarterBack Turns

I suppose at this point the NFL fans in the Bay area are referring to 2019 in fairy-tale tones – once upon a time, long, long ago.

If you can remember that far back, you will remember that the 49ers had answers everywhere you looked.  You want to talk defense? The 49ers were second best in yards allowed and number one against the pass.  Opposing passers averaged just 5.92 yards per pass attempt, and only 9.7 yards per completed pass.  Both those numbers were football’s best.  San Fran also racked up 48 sacks (football’s fifth highest total) dropping the opposing passer on 8.5% of his drop-backs (the third highest ratio in football).

The soul of that great defense was unstoppable end Nick Bosa and unbeatable cornerback Richard Sherman – both named to the Pro Bowl.

If you want to talk offense, you began with the running game – the NFL’s most feared west of Baltimore.  Their 498 rushing attempts and their 144.1 rushing yards per game both ranked second.  Their 23 rushing touchdowns were the most in the league.

That running game was fueled by two blazing fast runners – Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida.  Mostert’s 5.6 yards per carry was second in the league.  Breida – at 5.1 – wasn’t too shabby himself.

When they threw the ball, all was well then, too.  Franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was healthy and distributing the ball to an impressively deep collection of receivers.  It began with George Kittle – arguably football’s premier tight end.  He was joined by veteran wide out Emmanuel Sanders and two exciting young superstars – Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne.

Yes, way back in 2019 there were answers everywhere.  That was then.

With the movement of Bourne to the COVID-19 restricted list, the 49ers took the field tonight against Green Bay without any of the players I’ve mentioned so far.  Some form of attrition (mostly the IR) has claimed every. single. one of them.

Beginning with a Week One loss against Arizona, the 2020 season has played like a soap opera – and every time the viewer is treated to an answer, two more questions open up.

But – like all soap operas – this one has multiple story lines.  One, in particular, that keeps the fans chattering centers on the play of quarterback Garoppolo.  Last year couldn’t have gone better for him as behind his excellent 102.0 passer rating, the 49ers took a 15-3 record into Super Bowl LIV against Kansas City.

But even with all this success, the questions persisted.  Were the 49ers a good team raised to greatness by Garoppolo’s charisma and nearly uncanny ability to make the big throw at the biggest moments of the game (excepting here one pass in the Super Bowl)?  Or was he just a system quarterback, made to look great because he was surrounded by a supremely talented team?

As it will almost always develop in a good soap opera, the warts start to show in season two even in our most beloved heroes. (A footnote here.  I never watch soap operas, but I’ve been told that these elements are staples of the genre).

And so, in episode one of “As the Quarterback Turns,” our hero plays quite well, throwing for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.  But the good guys lost a 24-20 decision to Arizona when Jimmy threw incomplete three of four times in the red zone (basically) with less than a minute and a half left in the contest.

Hmmm.

In episode two, Jimmy G was off to a terrific start, completing 14 of his first 16 passes for 2 more touchdowns.  But, cue the organ music, an ankle injury sent him to the sidelines.  On their way to an easy 31-13 beating of the woeful Jets, 49er faithful were treated to Jimmy’s backup finishing up the game – a third-year undrafted free agent named Nick Mullens.  Nick, as a rookie, had gotten 8 starts while Jimmy was injured in 2018.  He went 3-5, but had some good moments while posting a 90.8 rating.

On this Sunday afternoon, though, Nick was not good.  His 8 completions in 11 tosses accounted for just 71 yards and were accompanied by an interception.

This provided an apt cliffhanger.  Since Garoppolo would be missing a few games with the injury, thoughts of Mullens taking over filled the 49er faithful with much anxiety.

Fortunately, though, in episode three San Francisco was playing New York’s other struggling team (the Giants), and Mullens turned all of the anxiety into accolades.  He was terrific.  He completed 25 of 36 for 343 yards and a touchdown in a 36-9 victory.

More than just the prettiness of the numbers, Nick showed an ability and willingness to go up the field that the faithful infrequently saw with Garoppolo.  And now, the discussions about Jimmy could begin in earnest.  Is it possible that he 49ers might, in fact, be better off with Mullens?  Stay tuned for the next episode.

Bad Nick was back in episode four, as Mullens threw 2 interceptions and lost a fumble.  Coming off the bench in that game was Mullen’s backup, C.J. Beathard.  Trailing Philadelphia 25-14 with less than six minutes left, CJ led the 49ers on one late touchdown drive, and had them on the Eagle 33 when time ran out on him.  Hollywood, I promise you, doesn’t do the unexpected plot twist any better than this year’s San Francisco 49ers.

Our hero returns for episode five, but the results are just plain ugly.  Jimmy plays the first half, throws two interceptions, and leaves with a 15.7 rating and a 30-7 deficit.  Garoppolo is still obviously too injured to play on his ankle.  Beathard returns for the second half.  He’s not great, but he doesn’t do any more damage, and the 49ers limp home 2-3 on the season after a 43-17 waxing at the hands of the Dolphins.

Were there calls now for Beathard to be the quarterback? I’m sure there were.  But it would be Jimmy G under center in our next episode.

Episode six finds our heroes in Levi’s Football Emporium in Los Angeles.  The Rams, that Sunday evening’s opponents, brought a 4-1 record into the contest – significant, because LA shared the same division with the 49ers.  It wasn’t exactly a must win, but a loss here would really sting.

Rising to the moment was Garoppolo.  Healthy(ish) for the first time since the season’s early weeks, Jimmy tossed 3 first half touchdown passes, achieved a passer rating of 124.3, and led San Fran to a much needed 24-16 conquest.

Back at .500, and finally looking like the team we remembered, it would certainly be easy sailing from here.  Right? Well, that’s not how soap operas work.

In episode seven, San Francisco pushed its record to 4-3 with a 33-6 conquest of the Patriots.  Good news, yes, but Garoppolo raised warning signs again as he chucked 2 more interceptions, putting together a 79.5 rating.

All this, then, set up episode eight, the first big showdown with the nettlesome Seattle Seahawks.  The Hawks – as you will remember – came within a fraction of an inch in the last game of the 2019 season from claiming the division title.  This year’s Seattle team came into the game with a gaudy 5-1 record, looking to push the defending champions from the bay a full 2.5 games behind.

But the Seahawks also came into the game last in the league in pass defense and twenty-ninth in sack percentage.  If there was ever a moment for the on-again-off-again Garoppolo to seize, this would be it.

In the aftermath of Seattle’s convincing 37-27 victory (gamebook) (summary), the kindest thing you could say about Garoppolo’s performance is “disappointing.”

At 11-for-16, his 68.8% pass completions was plenty good.  But the 11 completions went for just 84 yards (7.64 per) and he threw a crushing interception.  He finished the game with a 55.2 passer rating.

And injured.

What was the issue?  A combination, probably, of many things.  Was he still playing injured from before?  Almost certainly.  TV analyst Mark Schlereth pointed out a few times that Jimmy was still lifting that injured heel as he threw – a situation that was probably responsible for a couple of his throws that were well off target.

A bigger problem was probably all the injuries around him.  Without a running game to provide a base (San Fran ran only 22 times for 52 yards), and without all of his top receivers, Jimmy looked a bit like a fish out of water.  Some of the opportunities that he had he just didn’t take advantage of – either because he was playing so fast in his head that he didn’t see them, or because even though he saw them, he didn’t trust himself to be able to throw the ball that far.  Of his 16 passes, none of them sailed more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Two plays in particular stand out to me.

The game is still scoreless with 5:47 left in the first quarter.  San Fran faces a first-and-ten from the Seahawk 37.  After the play-fake, Jimmy rolls to his right.  Kittle quickly find the void in the middle of the zone and settles down about 13 yards up the field.

At this moment, George is directly in front of Jimmy and open.  Is it possible that Garoppolo can’t see him?  Jimmy doesn’t pull the trigger.  Instead, he stops, turns, and tries to hit Ross Dwelley in the left flat, throwing it well over his head.

A little more than a minute later, the 49ers face a third-and-five on the Seattle 20.  Still scoreless, now just 4:13 left in the first.

The Seahawks were in Cover-3, and the 49ers had the perfect play called.  Lining up wide right, rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk ran a vertical stem against the cornerback responsible for the deep right third – Quinton Dunbar.  When Brandon broke his route and curled in at about the 10-yard line, Dunbar stopped with him – leaving the entire deep third open.  When Bourne – whose route was taking him to the deep right corner – saw middle linebacker Bobby Wagner settle short watching Kittle’s crossing route, Kendrick knew he had a walk-in touchdown and raised his hand for Jimmy to deliver him the ball.

Again, Jimmy didn’t pull the trigger.  Instead, he saw Kittle with a step on D.J. Reed on his shallow cross.  But Jimmy’s throw was bad.  It was behind the receiver, and Reed came away with the interception.

Seattle promptly drove to the game’s first touchdown.

Jimmy did not play well – whatever the reason.  But I think the outstanding issue for Garoppolo wasn’t either of these factors.  To fully understand Jimmy’s bad day, you have to factor in the unexpected pressure that he was under.

All season, so far, the Seahawks have been in the middle of the NFL in blitzing – and have consistently struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks.  But on this Sunday afternoon, the Seahawks blitzed Jimmy lustily.  Of his 20 total dropbacks, Seattle sent extra rushers on half of them.

But it wasn’t just the quantity of the blitzes – it was the quality of them.  On 6 of the 10 blitzes, the pressure was significant enough to impact the play, with the Seahawks – who came into the contest with just 9 sacks over 6 games – dropping Jimmy on 3 occasions – 2 of them on blitzes.  The other sack came after they showed a potential seven-man blitz but dropped three interior defenders back while sending Reed from the slot.

On far too many of the blitzes, Jimmy had to deal with free rushers – or nearly free rushers.

It’s a 13-7 Seattle lead with 3:00 left in the first half.  Jimmy is on his own 13, facing a first-and-15.  Seattle blitzed off the left corner.  San Fran ran play-action with Jerick McKinnon running left to right, leaving no one home at all to pick up Ryan Neal’s blitz.  Jimmy managed to get a throw off for Aiyuk, but not where he could catch it.

Now there is just 1:23 left in the half with the Niners on their own 27 facing third-and-13.  Another blitz.  Wagner shot past center Hroniss Grasu in a blink and was on Garoppolo about as soon as the snap got back there.  This sack is listed in the Next Gen stats as one of the 16 or so fastest sacks of the season.

Jimmy’s final play of the game (and possibly season) came with 4:31 left in the third.  The Seattle lead has grown to 27-7, and San Fran faces a third-and-2 from its own 33.  Seattle blitzes again, but adds a twist.

Defensive end Alton Robinson crosses the face of right tackle Mike McGlinchey, heading toward right guard Daniel Brunskill.  This move from Robinson prevented McGlinchey from getting out in time to pick up Reed’s blitz as DJ (who made a significant impact in this game) came screaming around the corner.

As he saw Robinson head his way, Brunskill disengaged from L.J. Collier in order to pick up Alton.  In his mind, Daniel must have thought he was passing Collier on to the center.  But Grasu and left guard Laken Tomlinson were both occupied by Poona Ford.  The result was that both Reed and Collier sprinted almost untouched into the backfield.  Jimmy spun out of the initial contact and saw an opening to his left.  But as soon as he headed into it, Robinson closed it, with Garoppolo crumpling awkwardly underneath him.

The result was the dreaded high ankle sprain.  The prognosis is about six weeks, if there is no surgery needed.

But the plot twists don’t end there.

Needing a replacement again, Nick Mullens stepped into the breach, and was good Nick again.  Playing in just the fourth quarter, Mullens led the 49ers on 3 scoring drives.  He completed 18 of 25 (72%) for 238 yards and 2 touchdowns (a 128.4 rating).

Yes, Seattle blitzed him, too (14 times in his 25 pass attempts), but Nick seemed quicker to recognize and seemed to have a better idea where his hot routes were.  And when he had time, Mullens didn’t hesitate to chuck the ball up-field with a confidence I haven’t seen from Garoppolo since, well, 2019.

The discussion about Jimmy’s merits as the starting quarterback are now postponed.  He is out of the picture for the foreseeable future.  And now someone is going to get an extended audition to quarterback this team, starting tonight as the 49ers faced the Green Bay team that they eliminated in last year’s NFC Championship Game.

The first chance – as you might have guessed – went to Mullens, who played OK when you remember that he still has a depleted team around him.  His 22-for-35, 291 yard, 1 TD and 1 interception night pans out to an 86.7 rating.  The team lost this one to the Pack, 34-17.

Was Nick good enough to earn himself another chance?  Probably.  Good enough to stem the conversations about him?  Probably not.

For what happens next, you will have to wait for the next episode of As the Quarterback Turns.

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