Warranted or not, there were plenty of questions surrounding Jimmy Garoppolo during the first half of the season.
Is he good enough to win a Super Bowl? Is he worth his $137.5 million contract? Can he continue the 49ers’ tradition of elite quarterback play that’s been in flux since Steve Young retired in 1999?
There’s plenty of season left, including the playoffs, and Garoppolo will need to string together multiple campaigns like this one _ and perhaps win a Super Bowl _ before the skeptics disappear.
But the volume of those questions is lowering as the season goes on and Garoppolo continues to win for the NFC’s top team. Sunday’s epic win in New Orleans paired with the Seahawks loss in L.A. gave San Francisco the best record in the conference at 11-2.
Garoppolo on Wednesday was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his clutch performance against the Saints, when he threw for 349 yards and four touchdown passes en route to the last-minute comeback. It continued a strong run as Garoppolo goes through his first full season as a starter since missing nearly all of 2018 with a torn ACL.
Garoppolo, undoubtedly, has been playing like an elite quarterback.
He leads the NFL with 18 touchdown passes while his 113.6 passer rating is third in his past seven games since the Emmanuel Sanders trade.
“I think everybody’s kind of catching our stride and it starts with number 10,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “The preparation that he puts in week in and week out, the command that he’s starting to feel. The confidence and swagger that he plays with _ I don’t know if anybody has more of that than him.”
Garoppolo’s numbers weren’t nearly as robust in the beginning of the season, when the 49ers were winning mostly due to bruising defense and one of the league’s best rushing attacks.
Garoppolo during his first six games was 20th in the NFL with a 90.8 passer rating. And 20 quarterbacks had more touchdown passes than his seven.
So what’s changed, aside from adding Sanders?
“I think he’s continued to make big throws and stuff, but he’s obviously eliminated some of the turnovers, which I think is huge,” Kyle Shanahan said.
“Sometimes when guys make a bunch of big plays and turnovers, the only way to get them to eliminate the turnovers is to stop trying to make those big plays. I don’t think Jimmy has done that. I think he’s continued to make big plays, maybe even made more of them, and the turnovers have gone way down, which has been a huge step in the right direction.”
Turnovers have been Garoppolo’s Achilles heal. He began the year by averaging one interception per 28 pass attempts. In the past seven games, that number dropped to once every 45.
Shanahan pointed to Garoppolo’s experience, or lack thereof, as the reason for his improvement in not giving the ball away. Garoppolo before this year had never started more than five games in a season.
“Some people, the more they are out there, the more nervous they get and they go into a shell and just get worse. Jimmy, no matter whether a good thing or a bad thing happens to him, I feel it’s made him better each week,” said Shanahan. “He learns from it, he doesn’t over analyze it and freak out about it. He just learns from it, files it in the bank and then goes to the next week and tries to keep stacking them up.”
A case could be made for Garoppolo’s MVP candidacy, particularly if his numbers hold up over the final three games and San Francisco wins the NFC West. The 49ers control their own destiny. They’ll get the division crown and first-round bye if they win their remaining games against the Falcons, Rams and Seahawks _ and a 14-2 record.
It would also mean Garoppolo would have beaten Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson in Seattle Week 17 after the 49ers survived their gauntlet against the Packers, Ravens and Saints with a 2-1 record.
“I think we’re in a good spot as a team,” Garoppolo said. “I like where we’re sitting and everything, kind of control our own destiny. That’s where you want to be in December, so I think we’re in a good spot. Just got to keep it rolling right now.”
San Francisco on Sunday will host the Atlanta Falcons (4-9), who have won three of five games and are playing noticeably better than when they started 1-7. They are coming off a 40-20 victory over the Carolina Panthers as they shift their focus to Garoppolo.
“I think some of the things that jumped out to me were his release, his decision making, accuracy,” coach Dan Quinn said in a conference call with 49ers reporters. “You’re also seeing some of the players develop too.”
To Quinn’s point, San Francisco was often rotating receivers early in the season. Recently, Dante Pettis, Marquise Goodwin (who went on injured reserve Tuesday) and Richie James Jr. had been phased out in favor of giving Sanders, rookie Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne the vast majority of playing time.
Sanders has been a viable No. 1 option for San Francisco. He had his most productive game of the season in New Orleans with 157 yards on nine catches, including a critical 75-yard touchdown after the Saints made it a two-score game in the second quarter. He also added the second touchdown throw of his career on a double reverse pass that went to running back Raheem Mostert.
Bourne, who scored two touchdowns Sunday, was asked when he noticed the offense began to play at a different level.
“When Emmanuel got here, for sure,” he said. “It was kind of just showing us that we need to step up as a receiver group. And he’s come in and done a terrific job. He talked to me and Deebo before the game this last week and just talked about how important this home field and stuff like that is, knowing he’s been through it. And it just kind of woke us up. I feel like I was more locked in once he said it.”
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