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Jimmy Garoppolo was good enough to win a Super Bowl until he wasn’t

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Jimmy Garoppolo was solid for three quarters ... then it all came crashing down.

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The biggest question the 49ers faced this postseason boiled down to their $137 million man. Would Jimmy Garoppolo — he of the 208 total passing yards in his first two playoff starts — be able to stand up under the bright lights of the NFL’s biggest stage?

Over the course of three quarters, and even in the midst of a very Jimmy Garoppolo brain-fart interception, he proved San Francisco’s faith was well-placed. Then, as the walls closed in around him and the Chiefs mounted their typical postseason comeback, Garoppolo tapped in to his favorite Chinua Achebe novel. Things fell apart.

A 20-10 lead turned into 20-17. Then a 24-20 deficit. Then, finally, a 31-20 loss. In that span, Garoppolo completed only three of his 11 passes. He took a sack he absolutely could not afford to take on fourth-and-10. His final pass of the game — a last-gasp heave downfield, trailing by 11 points with under a minute left on the clock — was, fittingly, intercepted.

After outplaying Patrick Mahomes for the first three quarters, Garoppolo was forced to watch his fellow QB get showered by red and yellow confetti and tell the world all about his Disney plans. How’d we get there? Let’s start with the good:

Garoppolo excelled when he was asked to make intermediate throws

Garoppolo didn’t throw downfield much during the Niners’ 13-win regular season. Per Sports Info Solutions, he threw only 32 passes 20+ yards downfield, completing 19 of them. That gave him the best deep-ball completion rate among all NFL starters last fall, but also showcased Kyle Shanahan’s reticence to air out the ball.

That trend persisted in the Super Bowl. Garoppolo only attempted two passes of 20+ yards, doubling his total from his first two playoff starts. It was a different story in the intermediate space 10-19 yards downfield.

San Francisco’s potent rushing offense averaged 6.4 yards per rush Sunday, which drew Kansas City’s linebackers a little closer to the line of scrimmage every play. That, coupled with the sticky press coverage of the Chiefs’ cornerbacks, left a squishy chunk of open space in the middle of the field where Garoppolo thrived. He threw nine passes into that intermediate range — mostly to Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel — completing six for 101 yards.

The one blemish on that record? An underthrown toss-away (well, it might have been a toss-away) Bashaud Breeland stepped under for a first-half interception. It was just as ugly as it sounds.

Pick aside, this was an improvement over his regular season — and proof Garoppolo could unlock an extra gear when his team needed him the most, at least for three quarters. Here’s how he performed on those throws through the rest of 2019, which also suggests why the Niners may have found those opportunities in the middle of the field; Kansas City wasn’t expecting it.

With Garoppolo moving the chains for big gains through the air and a yard-churning rushing attack keeping the Chiefs off balance, the Niners didn’t punt until the fourth quarter. That’s where everything went haywire.

The 49ers put this Super Bowl win on Garoppolo’s shoulders, for better or worse (Worse — it was worse)

Through 3.5 quarters of Super Bowl 54, the 49ers led the Chiefs, 20-10. Garoppolo’s numbers looked like this:

  • 22 passes
  • 18 completions
  • 195 yards
  • 8.9 yards per pass
  • 1 touchdown
  • 1 interception
  • a 99.8 passer rating

Those are Super Bowl MVP numbers! But he was also buoyed by rushing game that had run for 109 yards on only 17 touches. Shanahan, as he is wont to do in the Super Bowl with a lead, turned away from the run. The Niners ran the ball just five times in the fourth quarter, one of which was a Garoppolo scramble on third-and-long. That made sense when San Francisco was working on a comeback in the final three minutes, but not as much in the 12 minutes that preceded it.

This focused the spotlight on Garoppolo, who couldn’t withstand the pressure. His final four drives, all in the fourth quarter, ended with a punt, punt, turnover on downs, and an interception. He completed only two of his final nine passes as the Chiefs crashed through his line and forced him to step up and attempt throws in the face of newfound pressure:

That push up front messed with Garoppolo’s timing, forced him into bad throws, and effectively scrambled his circuits. He suddenly couldn’t hit targets downfield. His passes got swallowed up at the line of scrimmage as Kansas City blew through play-action fakes that didn’t fool anyone.

Per Pro Football Focus’s Eric Eager, Garoppolo completed just one of his nine passes when the Chiefs brought pressure. Kansas City turned the opportunity created by the Niners’ stagnant offense into back-to-back touchdowns and a lead with less than three minutes to play.

That left Garoppolo to attempt a game-winning drive in the Super Bowl — and after guiding San Francisco to its own 49-yard line, he threw the one pass he’ll most want back from Sunday night:

Garoppolo made the right risk on third-and-10 to target an open Emmanuel Sanders deep downfield. He just threw the wrong pass. One play later, the Chiefs’ pass rush would envelop him up on fourth down for what was effectively a game-clinching sack. He’d try one more deep pass on the night. It was intercepted in what turned out to be the Niners’ last offensive snap of the 2019 season.

This doesn’t have to be Garoppolo’s legacy (but it might be)

When the pressure was dialed up to max, from both a Super Bowl and pass rush standpoint, Garoppolo faded. He couldn’t see through the fog of the Chiefs’ onslaught, and that doomed Shanahan’s pass-heavy approach to the fourth quarter. While San Francisco couldn’t afford to let off the gas against Kansas City, Steve Spagnuolo’s blitz-heavy defense meant the 49ers couldn’t effectively pass, either.

So what comes next for Garoppolo? He played three fairly strong quarters of football at the Super Bowl, which ultimately was only good enough to break the Bay Area’s collective heart. Even so, this wasn’t a lost performance in the wake of his first season as a full-time, 16-game starting quarterback. For nearly 50 minutes, he looked like a Super Bowl MVP. Then, once the Chiefs figured him out, he didn’t.

That’s a problem for the Niners. It’s not an unsolvable one. The difference between hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for San Francisco may have come down to 10 minutes of play from a 28-year-old quarterback. Now the 49ers have the offseason to figure out how to set those 10 minutes right in 2020.