Tag Archives: Jimmy Garoppolo

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.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Life without Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t turn out to be particularly smooth for the San Francisco 49ers.

Throughout Jimmy’s tenure as the top guy in San Francisco, there has been a lot of background chatter about his ceiling.  Is he a system quarterback?  A game manager? Or an elite kind of guy?

His season and the system he plays in lend no easy answers to those questions.  But one thing the early season has shown is that the 49ers are a better team with him than without him.

Injured about halfway through the Week Two conquest of the Jets, Garoppolo watched from the sidelines as the 49ers held onto that game, and convincingly took their Week Three contest against New York’s other struggling team.

But at about the point where some San Francisco fans were about to tab the quarterback position as an interchangeable part, the 49ers slogged through an ugly loss against Philadelphia.  There followed an even uglier loss to Miami in Week Five.

Garoppolo was actually back to start that game against the Dolphins (which added fuel to the QB discussion when he was replaced at half time).  The team was now 2-3, and at that point Jimmy didn’t look like the guy who could lead them back to the promised land.  Garoppolo just didn’t look like the same guy from 2019.

That, in fact, could be said of the whole team during the losses to the Eagles and the Dolphins.  The defense, of course, was adjusting to the absence of Nick Bosa (gone for the year with an injury) and DeForest Buckner (traded to Indianapolis).  But the mystery was the offense.

The 2019 version of the 49ers ran the ball 31.1 times a game (the second most in football) and ran their passing game off the running game.  They ran the ball 89 more times in their two playoff victories that year.  But, during the loss to Philadelphia, there were the 49ers chucking the ball 45 times while running just 20.  Against the Dolphins, they ran just 19 times while throwing 35 times.

Who were these guys?  And what had they done with the San Francisco offense?

In the NFL, the season’s tipping points come early – and especially so when playing in what is arguably football’s toughest division.  With the high flying LA Rams (who some analyst had suggested might be football’s best team) coming in for the Sunday Night game, a loss here would administer a severe blow to the 49ers’ playoff hopes.

Remembering Who They Are

And so, with his back sort of against the wall and his starting quarterback still not 100% on his bad ankle, coach Kyle Shanahan dusted off a game plan that could have come from the middle of 2019.  A plan that spoke to his team’s offensive identity.

Identity is actually a surprisingly important aspect of offensive success in the NFL.  It’s an act of self-definition around a core philosophy.  Last year San Francisco exploded onto the NFL scene as not just a run-first team, but as arguably the most explosive and creative of the run-first ball-clubs that have started to resurface in the NFL.

Sunday night against the Rams, that’s who they were.  Again.

Through the evening’s first 30 minutes, the 49ers controlled the ball for 21:22 of them.  This dominance included two touchdown drives that lasted more than six minutes each.  The play sheet looked balanced – 20 runs and 21 passes – but with only a couple of exceptions the passes were exceedingly short, high percentage passes that were really just an extension of that running game.  For the evening, of Garoppolo’s 33 passes, 9 were behind the line of scrimmage, and another 12 were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Carrying a 21-6 lead back onto the field after halftime, the 49ers leaned all the more heavily on the running game, calling 16 runs while Garoppolo dropped back 13 times (he threw 12 passes and scrambled once).  The 17 runs helped them control the clock in the second half as well, as they held the ball for 16:33 of that half on their way to a gritty 24-16 victory (gamebook) (summary).

The run commitment on the part of the 49ers is even more impressive than the raw number of attempts.  While the 2019 49ers averaged a healthy 4.6 yards per rushing attempt, the Sunday night 49ers averaged just 3.3.  The 17 second half runs averaged just 2.7 yards per, with no run longer than 10 yards.

But San Francisco kept running, anyway, because they remembered that that is who they are.

As For the Rams

All through the first 5 games of their season, the LA Rams had been what the 49ers were on Sunday night.  The 49ers’ identity was their identity.  It was the Rams who came into the game with the NFL’s second most rushing attempts (169 – 33.8 per game), while quarterback Jared Goff was throwing the ball only 30.4 times a game.

But the Rams knew that San Francisco was playing with significant losses in their secondary, and they were just determined to exploit them through the air.  This is a weakness that Sean McVay and the Rams fall into sometimes.  It’s a pass happy hubris that clouds their thinking and sometimes causes them to forget who they are.

On Sunday night, Los Angeles averaged 5.9 yards per rush – but only ran 19 times.  Rookie running back Darrell Henderson gained 88 yards and averaged 6.3 per carry – but was only given the ball 14 times.  They met consistent success when they went to their ground attack, but they chose not to use it.

Meanwhile, Jared Goff went to the air 38 times with middling results (19 completions, 198 yards, 2 TDs and 1 damaging interception).  As opposed to Garoppolo, 8 of his passes soared more than 20 yards up field (only 2 of them being completed), while only 19 were within ten yards of the line of scrimmage.  One of the better screen teams in the game, the Rams ran only 3 screen passes.

For most of the night, the Rams just looked out of sync – a common side effect when you forget who you are.

Speaking of Identities

For nearly forty years – going back to the days of Chuck Noll – the Pittsburgh franchise has been identified by its defense.  Since 1972, the Steelers have finished in the top five in total defense 24 times – finishing first 9 times.  In points allowed, they have been among football’s top five 18 times – leading 6 times.

Last year – even though they finished fifth in both measures – the Steelers mostly fell from relevance after they lost their starting quarterback in Week Two (even though they still battled on to an 8-8 record).  Ben Roethlisberger is back and looking (so far) as good as ever.  The defense is back, too – currently ranking second in yards allowed and third in points on their way to a 5-0 start.

This success, though, has to be taken with something of a grain of salt.  Their first four victories of the season didn’t come against the stiffest of competition.  They beat the NY Giants (currently 1-5), the Denver Broncos (currently 2-3), the Houston Texans (currently 1-5), and the Philadelphia Eagles (currently 1-4-1).

So that meant that last Sunday’s game against Cleveland (4-1 as they took the field) was their first “test” per se of the season.  I put that in quotes, because I’m still not convinced about Cleveland’s ability to show up for the big games.

At any rate, the Browns came in with four consecutive wins, scoring at least 34 points in each.  They came in with football’s top rushing offense – averaging 188.4 yards per game, while running the ball 34.4 time a game – also the most in football.  Their 5.5 yards per rush ranked second, and their 8 rushing touchdowns were tied for third most in the NFL.

The Steelers answered this challenge in dominating fashion with a 38-7 victory (gamebook) (summary).

The offense did well enough, but the star of the day was the Steeler defense that scored one touchdown outright on an interception return by Minkah Fitzpatrick, and set up three other touchdowns on short fields following another interception and two stops on fourth-and-short.

For the game, Cleveland finished with just 220 yards, went 1 for 12 on third down (0-for-5 in the second half), had its quarterback sacked 4 times, and pushed its way into the red zone just once.  In the game’s second half, they managed just 3 first downs and just 70 yards.

The vaunted Cleveland running attack finished with just 75 yards on 22 carries (3.4 yards per).

However significant a challenge the Browns may have presented (and remember, they are now without Nick Chubb), this Steelers team is beginning to attract the attention of some of the “experts” around the league.  Whether or not their gaudy record is a function of an easy schedule will quickly be put to the test as the Steelers are set to face the Tennessee Titans (currently 5-0) and the Baltimore Ravens (currently 5-1) in the next two weeks.

Last Sunday they were all over the field against Cleveland.  The prospect of watching them line up against Derrick Henry and Lamar Jackson makes for a compelling couple of weeks.

Just One Thing – Analyzing Super Bowl LIV

Sunday, December 29 in Kansas City, Missouri was cloudy, quite chilly, and memorably beautiful.  It was Week 17 of the 2019 NFL season – the final regular weekend of football’s one hundredth season.

Earlier in the week, Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid had decided to play his regulars and try to win the game.  There were reasons to consider the other path – resting his regulars before the playoffs began.  The Chiefs had long since locked up their division and were comfortably positioned to host a playoff game on WildCard Weekend.  They did have a chance to claim the second seed and a first round bye – but for that to happen the almost unthinkable would have to occur.  The woeful Miami Dolphins would have to go into Foxboro at the end of December and beat the defending champion Patriots.

An improbable enough scenario that Reid could be forgiven if he chose the path of safety.  As the fourth quarters of both games played out on that memorable Sunday afternoon, and it began to be apparent that both parts of this improbable scenario were playing out, an almost surreal euphoria settled over the denizens of Arrowhead Stadium.  A promising postseason had suddenly become much more promising.

Getting a first round bye is a huge factor in gaining the Super Bowl.  It is inexpressibly sweeter when that bye is won at the expense of a bitter rival – the much-detested New England Patriots.  The final day of the recently concluded regular season was one of the sweetest days to be a Chiefs fan in about a half century.

Two Sunday’s later, all of the hope and euphoria lie crumbled on the Arrowhead Stadium floor.

Thanks to Tennessee’s upset of Baltimore the night before, the road to the Super Bowl now led through Kansas City – a fact that made the transpirings that Sunday afternoon all the more bitter.

Playing as though they had forgotten every fundamental of football, the Chiefs were quickly buried in an avalanche of mistakes.  Dropped passes, blown coverages, blocked punts, muffed punts, pre-snap penalties – the Chiefs committed all of the above.  The beneficiaries of all this ineptitude were the visiting Houston Texans, who gratefully lapped up every gift they were presented.

Five minutes into the second quarter, Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn added the field goal that increased the Texans’ lead to 24-0.  The silence in the stands was palpable.  In the long history of playoff disappointments endured by the Kansas City fandom, this one just might have been the most heart breaking.  So good for so much of the season, and now with the road to the Super Bowl paved before them, and to blow it all in the very first quarter – it was a bitter result indeed.

And then, one thing went right for the Chiefs.  Just one thing.

On the ensuing kickoff, Mecole Hardman returned the kick 58 yards to the Texan 42.  And that was all it took.

Just like that, the Kansas City Chiefs remembered that they were not the mistake-prone, bumbling offense that they had shown themselves to be for the first 20 minutes of this contest.  They remembered that they were one of football’s most potent offenses.  Two plays later, they were in the end zone (Damien Williams taking the touchdown pass off his hip), and the reverse route was on.

Beginning with that touchdown, the Chiefs would go on to score on eight straight possessions – earning touchdowns on the first seven of those possessions.  Down at one point 24-0, Kansas City would advance to the Championship Game on the strength of a 51-31 thrashing of the Texans.

For twenty minutes, Houston had played as nearly perfect a game as they could have hoped for.  Had they held onto that lead, they would then have inherited home field for the Championship Round.  But they made one mistake on special teams and let the genie out of the bottle.

But the Kansas City story was just beginning to be written.

The next week they again overcame a deficit (this time just 10 points) on their way to the 35-24 conquest of Tennessee that advanced them to the Super Bowl for the first time in a half century.

Once there, though, they found their mercurial offense virtually silenced – in particular, by the defensive line of the San Francisco 49ers.  Over the 60 brutal minutes of Super Bowl LIV, Patrick Mahomes spent most of the evening running for his life. 

They played San Francisco to a 10-all tie through the first thirty minutes, but as the third quarter dissolved into the fourth quarter the relentless pressure began to get to Mahomes.  In the late third quarter and into the early fourth – even when he did have time to throw – Patrick’s accuracy began to suffer.

With 5:36 left in the third quarter, trailing 13-10 and facing a third-and-12, Mahomes couldn’t get enough loft on his throw over the deep middle, tossing the ball right into the waiting arms of San Fran’s Fred Warner.

San Francisco turned that interception into the touchdown that put them ahead 20-10.

With 1:10 left in the third, Sammy Watkins was breaking into an open window in the middle of the 49er zone, but Patrick skipped the throw in.

Early in the fourth quarter – still trailing by 10 – Mahomes drove KC to a third-and-six at the San Fran 23 yard line.  With still 12:05 left in the game, this drive represented their best chance (and maybe last best chance) to claw themselves back into the game.

Running out of the slot to the left, Tyreek Hill darted quickly into the open middle against nickel-corner K’Waun Williams.  With a good throw, it’s first-and-ten on the 15.  But, playing very fast at this point, Mahomes slung the ball well behind Hill.  Tyreek reached back to try to make a play on it, but only succeeded in deflecting the pass into the air, where Tarvarius Moore made the interception.

The next time the Chiefs got the ball, there were fewer than nine minutes left in the game.  With a first-and-ten on their own 29, Mahomes completed this pass to Hill, but the gain could have been much more than the 9 yards they got.  With room in front of Tyreek, Patrick threw the ball short – almost into the dirt in front of Hill’s feet, with Tyreek making an excellent diving catch.

A run from Williams picked up the first, and initiated the most telling sequence of Super Bowl LIV.

On first down, a false start from Laurent Duvernay-Tardif set KC back five yards to the KC 35.  Now with a first-and-fifteen, Hill settled into an opening in the zone in front of cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.  Charging hard, Moseley arrived at the same time as the football, successfully breaking up the pass.

Now it was second-and-fifteen.  Hill, lining up on the right side, threatened the 49er zone with a strong vertical stem, pushing Richard Sherman and Jaquiski Tartt deeper and deeper.  When Tyreek put his foot in the turf and turned looking for the ball, he was on the San Fran 43-yard line with no defender within six yards of him.  Calling the game on FOX, Troy Aikman offered that this should have been Patrick’s easiest completion of the evening.  Instead, Mahomes (throwing with Solomon Thomas’ hand in his face) delivered well short again.  Hill came back for the pass and made a strong enough play on it that he was originally credited with a 16-yard reception that was easily overturned on review.

So, here was the Kansas City season.  Fourth quarter.  Just 7:13 left.  Trailing by ten points.  Facing a third-and-fifteen from deep in their own territory against the NFL’s third-most feared pass rush (rated on percentage of sacks).

To this point in the biggest game of his young career, the electric Pat Mahomes was clearly struggling.  He had completed just 4 of his last 11, and for the game to that point he was 19 of 32 (just 59.38%) for 181 yards (averaging just 5.66 yards per pass attempt, and just 9.53 per completion).  Only 8 of his 19 completions had earned first downs, and he had thrown no touchdown passes to offset his two interceptions.  His passer rating to that point of the game was a humbling 49.09 to go along with 3 sacks San Francisco had already rung up against him.

Things could scarcely have looked much worse at this point.

And then, one thing went right for the Chiefs.  Just one thing.

On third-and-fifteen, Mahomes lifted his eyes to find Hill all alone deep up the left sideline.  In spite of pressure from lineman DeForest Buckner (who was hitting Patrick as he was releasing the ball), Mahomes arched a strike into Hill’s waiting arms for a game-changing 44-yard gain.

And just like that, the Chiefs remembered again that they were one of football’s most prolific offenses.  Beginning with that completion, Patrick would complete 7 of his next 9 for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Much like in the Houston game, KC went on to score touchdowns on their next three drives, flipping a 10-point deficit into an 11-point win, 31-20 (gamebook) (summary).

As with Houston, the San Francisco defense had played an exceptional game for 53 minutes.  But against Kansas City (who with the victory became the first team ever to come from 10 or more points behind to win three straight playoff games) any mistake could prove fatal.

In the almost three weeks since the official end of the season, this has been the lingering memory of this season’s playoffs.  In three post-season contests the Chiefs faced three quality defenses that each presented solid game plans that – for a time – were very well executed.  In all three games, at some point, the Kansas City juggernaut was on its heels and very vulnerable.

But if you were going to beat Kansas City this post-season, you needed to play mistake-free from opening kickoff to final gun.  It was a no-room-for-error tightrope that all these teams had to walk. At any point in the proceedings just one crucial play can flip the momentum.

And once the scoring starts, the Chiefs don’t need a lot of time to do big damage.  Against Houston, four of the seven touchdown drives took 2:03 of clock time or less.  Their three fourth-quarter touchdowns against San Francisco took 2:40, 2:26 and 0:13.

Super Bowl LIV Notebook:

Interceptions have always been something of a rarity in the Super Bowl – to a, perhaps, surprising degree.  When Jimmy Garoppolo’s desperation fourth quarter pass was intercepted, it marked the first time in Super Bowl history that both quarterbacks threw at least two interceptions.

For Patrick Mahomes, his 4.8% interception rate (2 interceptions in 42 tosses) was the highest for a winning quarterback in a Super Bowl since Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL (40) 21-10 over Seattle in spite of 2 interceptions from Ben Roethlisberger in just 21 passes (a 9.5% rate).

Garoppolo’s 2 interceptions came in 31 passes – a 6.5% rate. That is the highest rate for any Super Bowl quarterback since Rex Grossman had 7.1% of his passes intercepted in Super Bowl XLI – Chicago’s 29-17 loss to Indianapolis.  Rex threw 28 passes that day – 2 of them to Colts.

Garoppolo’s 219 passing yards were also the fewest by a Super Bowl losing quarterback since Grossman’s 165 yards against Indy.

The Chiefs finished with a surprising 129 rushing yards – a good chunk of those yards coming on Damien Williams’ clinching 38-yard touchdown burst.  As San Francisco ran for 141 yards, that made this the first Super Bowl since the before-referenced Pittsburgh-Seattle Super Bowl (number 40) in which both teams ran for at least 120 yards.  The Steelers ran for 181 that day, while the Seahawks pounded away for 137.

That run, by the way, pushed Williams to 104 for the game.  He becomes the first running back from a winning Super Bowl team to exceed 100 rushing yards since Dominic Rhodes piled up 113 rushing yards for the Colts against Chicago in Super Bowl XLI (41).

49er wide receiver Kendrick Bourne caught 2 passes on the evening for just 42 yards.  Those yards, though, made him San Francisco’s leading receiver in yardage for the game. You would have to go all the way back to Super Bowl XXXV (35) – Baltimore’s 34-7 demolition of the New York Giants – to find the last time that the losing Super Bowl team didn’t manage one receiver with at least 60 yards.  Ike Hilliard led the battered Giant receiving corps that day with 30 yards on 3 catches.

The Undercard

So much of the focus of Super Bowl LIV went to the matchup of the irresistible force (the KC offense) vs the immovable object (the SF defense), that the matchup between the 49er offense (second highest in scoring and fourth in yards) against the much-improved Chief defense became mostly overlooked.

Looking ahead, though, the significance of the 49er appearance in Super Bowl LIV cannot be overstated.  For the last couple of seasons, we have noted the rise of the Neanderthal offense in the NFL – a Neanderthal offense is one that seeks to run the ball more than it passes.  Unimaginable a few seasons ago, there are now several teams who identify as primarily running teams.  And now one of them – San Francisco – has advanced as far as the Super Bowl.

In their games leading up to the Super Bowl. The 49ers were at their Neanderthal best.  During the regular season, their 498 rushing attempts and their 144.1 yards per game were both the second best totals in the NFL.  They ran the ball 47 times in the Divisional Round against Minnesota, rolling up 186 yards.  Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw only 19 passes in that game.

Against the Packers in the Championship Game, they rolled up 285 rushing yards on 42 carries, while asking Garoppolo to throw just 8 times.

While logic would suggest that a similar approach – if effective – would go a long way towards keeping the KC offense on the sideline, apparently a run-heavy approach was never in the game plan.

On first down, of course, San Francisco employed a very Neanderthal approach.  The 49ers ran the ball 16 times on first down – 14 of those on first-and-ten.  This they did to excellent effect, rolling up 119 yards on those carries (8.5 yards per).

Off of that first-down running game, Garoppolo ran a devastatingly effective passing attack.  Throwing 12 times on first-and-ten, Jimmy completed 10 of those passes (83.33%) for 96 yards and a touchdown – a 127.78 rating.  As you might expect, the play-action pass was a featured part of the passing attack.  For the game, Jimmy was 12 for 15 (80.00%) on play-action for 123 yards (8.20 per attempt).  His lone touchdown pass came off of play-action, giving him a 123.06 rating for the game.

When he ran play-action on first-and-ten, he was 7-for-7 for 73 yards.  But all that changed on second down.

Against the Packers, San Fran ran the ball 12 times on second down for 101 yards (8.4 per), scoring 3 of their 4 rushing touchdowns on that down.  Against KC, they barely made the attempt.

On 16 second down plays, the 49ers ran just 4 times (for 12 yards).  They asked Jimmy to throw the ball 12 times on that down, with minimal results (6 completions for 66 yards).  Both of Garoppolo’s interceptions fell on second down – leaving him a rating of 27.08 on that down.

For all of that, though, Kansas City didn’t force many third-and-long situations.  San Francisco faced third down only 8 times all evening (converting 3)

Timely Defense

The game was, in fact, rather characteristic of how the Kansas City defense played down the stretch and into the playoffs.  They forced only one three-and-out, and throughout the contest they always seemed on the verge of yielding points.  San Francisco managed at least one first down in each of their first 7 possessions.  Two of those possessions consumed more than five minutes of clock time, and four of the seven ended in Chief territory – yielding two touchdowns, two field goals, one punt, one interception and a possession that ended with the end of the first half.

In many ways, the San Francisco offense clicked along according to plan – with one glaring exception.  San Fran had three consecutive possessions in the second half during which they held a lead.  They got the ball with 5:23 left in the third holding a 13-10 lead; their next possession came with 11:57 left in the fourth with a 20-10 lead; and shortly thereafter, still leading 20-17 with 6:13 left in the game they had another possession.

These possessions should have constituted the Neanderthal moment.  This is the game situation you strive for if you are that running team.  This was the time that San Fran needed to impose its will and take firm control of the game.  In those three drives, the 49ers ran 14 plays – 6 of them running plays that earned just 18 yards.  As they had done against Tennessee, the gritty Kansas City defense just did not allow the running game to take over.  They were disciplined in forcing Garoppolo to win the game with his arm.

And that would prove to be challenge enough.

All About the Pressure

As surprising as San Francisco’s decision to de-emphasize its running game was, Kansas City’s defensive response was equally puzzling.  Throughout the regular season, the Chiefs were a moderate blitzing team, adding extra rushers about 30% of the time.  Against a similar offense in Tennessee in the Championship Game, KC blitzed on just 9 of 34 passing attempts.

But against San Francisco they decided the answer would be the blitz.  And so they came.  They blitzed on San Fran’s first two passing plays (giving completions on both plays), and 10 times on the 49ers first 13 passes – including the last six in a row.

For the game, the Chiefs ended up blitzing 20 of Jimmy’s 33 drop backs (a surprising 60.6%).  And for 3 quarters the results couldn’t have been worse.

The 49ers’ offense is especially challenging to blitz.  The strength of their play-action attack was very effective in removing the pressure of the added rushers.  Typically, the line would react as though running a stretch play, with Garoppolo faking the hand-off and then rolling in the opposite direction of his line and – almost always – away from any trouble.  The first 14 times that the Chiefs blitzed, Garoppolo completed 12 of 14 for 131 yards and his touchdown pass to Kyle Juszczyk.

And then, as Kansas City began mounting its comeback, San Francisco stopped doing those things.  They still responded to the KC blitz with play-action, but it was a less-convincing “hint” of play-action with the line in pass blocking mode.  As the fourth quarter arrived, Jimmy stopped rolling out of the pocket and waited there for the pressure to arrive.  All of a sudden, instead of dictating to the Kansas City blitz, the 49ers stood still and let the KC defense dictate to them with a collection of delayed blitzes and overload blitzes that had Garoppolo throwing under heavy pressure for most of the last quarter.

After completing his first pass of the fourth quarter, Garoppolo’s numbers for the game read 18 for 21 (85.71%) for 195 yards (an average of 9.29 per attempted pass) with 1 touchdown and 1 interception – a rating of 101.39.  From that point on, Jimmy was only 2 for 10 for 24 yards and another interception – a 0.00 rating only because the rating system doesn’t allow for negative ratings.

When given a relatively clean pocket, Jimmy was 17 for 22 for 186 yards.  Under significant pressure – which didn’t happen on any consistent basis until that fourth quarter – Garoppolo was just 3 for 9 for 33 yards, an interception and a sack.  The last 6 times that KC blitzed, Garoppolo was 0-for-5 with the sack by Frank Clark on fourth-and-ten that pretty much closed things out.

Here again the KC defense continued their meme of rising to the occasion as they continued to play their best at the game’s most crucial moments.  But the deeper story is more complex than that.  Throughout the game, San Francisco ran plays and did things that worked.  And then they stopped doing them.

Receiver Deebo Samuel carried the ball on three rushing plays, gaining 32, 7, and 14 yards on those carries.  The last of those came on the third play of their first drive of the second half.  San Francisco never went back to it again.

Both coaching staffs have done an admirable job all season.  Under the pressure of the Super Bowl, though, I think out-thinking yourself becomes a very real danger.  San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan may have done that.

Andy Reid, I think, was guilty of that as well.

Unexpected is Not Always Best

After the 49ers toppled the Packers to earn the right to play in Super Bowl LIV, I made this observation about their defense:

As teams began to understand the San Francisco defense, they realized that what made them special was the defensive line – especially Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.  Beginning with their Week Nine, 28-25 win over Arizona, the league began constructing game plans that would minimize the impact of the defensive line, and force the linebackers and defensive back to beat them. 

Opponents began to run the ball with more commitment, and when they threw the ball they kept more blockers in the backfield to block.  Or, noting that the 49ers run a predominantly zone defense, they resorted to shorter, quicker passes and a more ball-control concept.  (Here is the full post.)

Noting that the 49er defensive line was the only part of the San Francisco defense that could cause real havoc with the Chief offense, I expected Reid and the offense to do some of those things against San Fran.  At the very least, I expected they would provide some help for their tackles (an occasional tight end, perhaps a chip from a running back).

But largely none of that happened.  The Chiefs did throw a couple of quick passes, but never really exploited the short openings in the zone.  Extra protection for Mahomes almost never happened.  Kansas City did run the ball with more than expected frequency and with good commitment, but not often enough to impact the pass rush.  And most surprisingly, they left their offensive tackles on an island against the San Francisco ends virtually the entire game – even though it was obvious before their first quarter was concluded that these were mismatches.

If asked to name the most dominant player of Super Bowl LIV, I would nominate San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa.  But he should have been.  The opposing coach practically invited him to be.

Against the Packers two weeks before, Bosa and fellow disruptive end Arik Armstead were frequently left alone against Packer tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga.  But Bakhtiari and Bulaga are two of the top tackles in football, and they gave as good as they got against the 49er ends.

Kansas City’s tackle tandem of Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz don’t rank with the pair in Green Bay.  They are a rather middling pair of tackles.  But Andy Reid’s game plan treated them as though they were as elite as the ends he would be asking them to block.  Even after it became apparent that they were in over their heads, Reid made no move to alleviate the situation.

Schwartz fared a bit better against Armstead – who sometimes moved inside to rush where the Chiefs could get a double-team on him.  But left tackle Fisher spent the game at Bosa’s mercy.  And Nicky almost took Kansas City’s crown away from them.

Coming mostly from Bosa, 25 of Mahomes’ 50 dropbacks came under heavy pressure.  I define this as pressure that either forces the quarterback to run for his life, or that has him being hit as he throws the ball (or within a step of being hit), or pressure that forces the quarterback to make another decision with the football (like throwing it away).  Patrick was just 7 of 17 with an interception and a 61.40 passer rating under this kind of pressure – to go with 4 sacks and 4 scrambles.  It was this consistent heat that held the explosive Kansas City offense to just 10 points up until the halfway point of the season’s last quarter.

Even after the Chiefs began their comeback, the pressure continued.  Five of Patrick’s last 10 passes – including the 44-yarder to Hill and the go ahead toss to Williams – came under this level of intense pressure.  At the end of the day, it came down to Mahomes making important throws under great duress.  That he was able to deliver a Super Bowl victory in a game where his line never, ever gained control of the line of scrimmage is just another indicator of how special Patrick is.

And how consistently exploitable the 49ers were in the secondary.  As I had previously noted, the 49er defense is elite at the defensive line level, but notably less spectacular after that.  If there was one player whose mistakes might be most responsible for San Francisco’s defeat, that player might be cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.

Moseley’s Miscues

San Francisco’s only poor moment in the Divisional win over Minnesota was the 41-yard touchdown pass thrown from Kirk Cousins to Stefon Diggs – a deep pass poorly played by then-starting cornerback K’Waun Williams.  That play led to Williams being shifted to nickel corner and prompted San Francisco to elevate Moseley’s to the right corner spot opposite Richard Sherman.

On Super Bowl Sunday, that decision came back to haunt them.

Throughout, Emmanuel was very solid in man coverage.  The problem, though, is that San Francisco is a predominate zone defense – they were in zone 54.8% of the time in Super Bowl LIV – and in zone, Moseley fights an almost irresistible urge to wander – a tendency that expressed itself in a few of the game’s most critical moments.

With 14:08 left in the first half, the Chiefs – already leading 7-3 – had a first-and-ten on their own 44 after an interception.  Tyreek Hill lined up opposite Moseley and started up-field on what seemed to be a vertical route.  But after about 15 yards, Tyreek began to bend his route toward the middle, and Emmanuel drifted with him.  That allowed Sammy Watkins to settle into the vacated area, where he pulled down a 28-yard pass.  That play set KC up inside the 49er 30-yard line, and led to the field goal that accounted for their last scoring of the first half.

It was also Kansas City’s only play of 20 or more yards in the entire first half – an erratic effort that saw them head into the locker room only 1-for-6 on third down, and having gained only 155 total yards.

San Fran dodged one on the first play of the fourth quarter.  It was Watkins this time who started wide but curled toward the middle of the field – taking Moseley with him.  This left Hill all alone up the sideline against safety Jimmie Ward (who thought he only had the short zone to that side).  It was the pass rush – this time from Dee Ford – that saved the day, not allowing Mahomes enough time to wait for Hill to clear and ultimately forcing an errant throw.

They weren’t so lucky about eight minutes later.  On third-and-fifteen, and the season trickling through Kansas City’s fingers, Moseley once again abandoned his deep responsibilities to follow Watkins over the middle – making possible the momentum-changing 44-yard toss to Hill, who had the entire sideline opened to him.

For the game, when throwing to his left (Moseley’s side) Mahomes was 9 for 12 (75%) for 133 yards (11.08 yards per attempt and 14.78 per completion) – a 110.76 passer rating.  It will be something for the 49ers to chew on over the offseason.

A Tale of Two Tight Ends

One of the intriguing pregame storylines were the two tight ends, each of whom led his respective team in both receptions and receiving yards. 

In his third season out of Iowa, San Francisco’s George Kittle earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl berth on the strength of an 85-catch, 1053-yard season – his second consecutive year with over 80 catches and more than one thousand yards.

With the emphasis on the run in the 49ers’ first two playoff games, George had fewer opportunities than usual, catching 3 passes against the Vikings for 16 yards.  He had just one catch against Green Bay for 19 yards.

On the other side of the field was Kansas City’s Travis Kelce.  In his seventh season out of Cincinnati, Kelce was named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl.  He followed up his 103 catches in 2018 with 97 more during the regular season, and completed his fourth consecutive thousand yard season – with his 1229 yards in 2019 ranking him fourth among all receivers in football.

Travis was one of the heroes of the comeback against Houston.  He caught 10 passes for 134 yards and 3 touchdowns in that game.  He was held to 3 catches for 30 yards against Tennessee.

Interestingly, in that game, Travis saw almost exclusive coverage from defensive backs, as the Titans decided to defend more against his speed than his size.

This coverage concept followed both tight ends into their Super Bowl showdown.  Kittle saw a lot of safety Daniel Sorensen – and drew more frequent double coverage than Hill.  As for Kelce, almost every time he lined up as the lone receiver to either side he drew the attention of the cornerback on that side.  When he lined up to the offensive right side (Richard Sherman’s side), he would be subjected to a very physical press coverage.  Even if San Francisco would resort to zone coverage afterward, Sherman would still jam him at the line to disrupt his route.

This additional attention was very effective for both defenses, as neither end was particularly prominent in the passing game.  Kelce finished with 6 catches for 43 yards, and Kittle caught 4 for 36 yards.  During the regular season, Kittle had caught 27 passes on third down – 18 for first downs.  In the Super Bowl, George had no third down catches, and was targeted just once on that down.  Kelce didn’t even have a third down pass thrown his way.

The difference, though, was the offenses around them.  The extra coverage on Kittle didn’t seem to compromise Kansas City’s overall pass defense.  On the other hand, while the 49ers were extra-concerned with Kelce, Tyreek Hill was targeted 16 times, catching 9 of them for 105 yards.

On the Toughness of the Chiefs

After they pushed their way past Tennessee, I made note of the unexpected toughness of the flashy Kansas City offense.  That toughness was again on display in Super Bowl LIV.  We saw it from Mahomes, who took several big hits and bounced back up every time.

On the last Sunday of the NFL’s one-hundredth season, that toughness found its best expression in the Kansas City running game and emerging running back Damien Williams.

In his second season in Kansas City after four uninspiring seasons in Miami, Williams began the season as the “other” back behind LeSean McCoy.  After rushing for just 256 yards in all of 2018, Damien began 2019 in quiet fashion.  Six games into the season, Williams had just 48 carries for 100 yards even – 2.1 yards per rush.  Then, in a Week 7 win against Minnesota, Damien scorched the Viking defense for 125 yards on just 12 carries.

From that point forward – with the exception of three late season games missed with an injury – Williams began to surpass McCoy on the depth chart.  LeSean wasn’t even listed as active for the Super Bowl.

Williams averaged 6.3 yards a carry over his last 5 regular season games, and ended the season just ahead of McCoy, 498 yards to 465.

During Super Bowl LIV, Kansas City ran the ball 10 times with less than four yards to gain for a first down – once on first-and-one; five times on second-and-one, once on third-and-two, once on third-and-one, and twice on fourth-and-one.  They converted 9 of the 10, with Williams going 7-for-7 in those chances.

One of the memorable plays from the game was the colorful spin-o-rama play.  This was one of the fourth-and-one plays called for with 1:57 left in the first quarter.

The Chiefs lined up with two wide receivers (Watkins and Demarcus Robinson) joining Williams in the backfield.  Just before the snap, all four members of the offensive backfield executed a 360-degree turn.  It was a flashy move that served a sneaky purpose as it now aligned Williams directly behind the center, where he took a direct snap.

Damien would pick up the first down, but it wouldn’t be easy.  While he was still a yard in the backfield, Sheldon Day overpowered Fisher, grabbing Damien around his knees. As Day’s hands slid down to Williams’ ankles, it seemed certain that Damien would go down – possibly before gaining the first down.

But somehow he pulled his feet out of the snare, and, executing a second spin move on the same play, he twirled out of the grasp of Emmanuel Moseley. Then – with the goal line in sight – Damien lowered his shoulder and plowed through Jaquiski Tartt’s attempted tackle.  He was ultimately pulled down inches short of the goal line, having made the first down with plenty to spare.

Perhaps no single play encapsulates the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs better.  Underneath the eye-candy – unpinning the flash-and-dash – was an unexpected core toughness.  The physical toughness to convert short-yardage runs against an elite defensive line, combined with the mental and emotional toughness to overcome large deficits in three straight playoff games to bring home a championship.

And as for Williams, the man who scored the first touchdown in their comeback win against Houston ended up scoring the last two touchdowns of the season.  He heads into the offseason as, possibly, the least celebrated 100-yard rusher (he finished with 104) in Super Bowl history.

For Kansas City it may work out better that way.  Better, perhaps, that you remember the glitter and pay less attention to the grit.