Jimmy Garoppolo isn't supposed to be here.
The San Francisco 49ers made explicit plans last summer to move on from the game-management era. Kyle Shanahan named 2021 first-round draft pick Trey Lance the starter in July. Garoppolo had already said his goodbye, ready to take on the next chapter of his NFL career ahead of an anticipated offseason trade.
But things changed starting in the preseason. A trade didn't transpire. Garoppolo got a new deal. Then Lance got hurt in Week 2. Now, 12 weeks into the NFL season, Garoppolo is in the midst of the best campaign of his career for a 49ers team that sits atop the NFC West at 7-4. After a four-game winning streak, the 49ers have caught up with the Philadelphia Eagles as co-favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Is Jimmy Garoppolo's return a blessing in disguise?
The surge begs the question: Can the 49ers get to the Super Bowl this season with Garoppolo at quarterback? And if they get there, can they win? More than one statistical measure suggests that Garoppolo isn't the same quarterback whose mistakes proved critical in losses in Super Bowl LIV and last season's NFC championship game.
In 10 games this season, Garoppolo is completing 67.4% of his passes for 238.1 yards per game with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. He's not a threat to lead the league in passing. But he's limiting the mistakes that have plagued him in the past. His 4-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is by far the best of his career. In his previous best season as a starter, Garoppolo threw 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. That was the 2019 season that saw the 49ers advance to the Super Bowl.
His effort adds up to a career-best 103 quarterback rating that ranks as the fifth best in football behind Tua Tagovailoa, Geno Smith, Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes. Advanced metrics confirm his improved play.
What the advanced stats say about Garoppolo
Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric analyzes gains based on specific football situations. The formula is complicated, but the concept is simple. It places higher value on yards gained that are theoretically harder to obtain. It takes into consideration — among other things — down and distance, placement on the field, such as a goal-line situation, and the strength of opposing defenses. It then assigns a percentage compared to the average NFL performance.
Garoppolo ranks third among quarterbacks in DVOA this season behind Tagovailoa and Mahomes with a rating of +27.2% on passing plays. It's a career high for Garoppolo in seasons where he was a full-time starter. For perspective, beleaguered and benched Carolina Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield ranks last among qualifying passers with a negative DVOA of -37.8%.
Does this mean that Garoppolo's a top-three quarterback? Of course not. It's just one more tool to measure a player's performance. Nobody's mistaking Garoppolo for an MVP candidate. But he doesn't have to be. The 49ers offense is built around Garoppolo getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers and letting them take things from there. The 49ers have some of the best playmakers in the league.
They include All-Pro receiver Deebo Samuel, three-time Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle and third-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who's in the midst of his much-anticipated breakout as San Francisco's leader in catches (51), yards (652) and touchdowns (6). Then there's the trade-deadline addition of Christian McCaffrey, whose upside is the most dynamic back in football. If he's healthy for a playoff run, watch out. Meanwhile, San Francisco sports the league's best defense in terms of points (15.7) and yards (281.7) allowed per game.
Will Garoppolo revert to mistakes of the past?
In short, Garoppolo doesn't have to throw the ball like Mahomes or Tagovailoa. He doesn't need to be as dynamic as Hurts or Josh Allen. For San Francisco to succeed, he needs to run the offense efficiently and keep it moving in close games. This means avoiding the game-crippling mistakes that have frequently been his downfall.
Take, for example, his flailing first-half interception against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. See his overthrow of Emmanuel Sanders with a chance to take the lead late in the same game. Or his under-pressure pick against the Rams on the final drive of last season's NFC championship game. They were all critical. They add up to plenty of reason for skeptics to not trust him moving forward. If you don't trust Jimmy G, you don't trust Jimmy G.
He hasn't completely eliminated those issues in 2022. Garoppolo threw two interceptions and failed to move the 49ers offense into scoring position after halftime in a 28-14 loss to Atlanta Falcons in Week 6. But that effort marks the exception rather than the norm for Garoppolo in 2022. Since an interception in a Week 7 loss to Mahomes and the Chiefs, Garoppolo's played four straight games without a turnover. San Francisco's won each of those games. His interception rate this season is a career-low 1.3%, good for fifth in the NFL. His previous best rate as a starter was 2.9% last season that ranked 26th.
Does this mean that Garoppolo's improvement will translate to the playoffs if the 49ers indeed make the postseason? Again, no. Statistics and advanced metrics aren't crystal balls and they can't contextualize all the human elements of athletic competition. They don't take into account an interception on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints that was overturned by penalty. Garoppolo could succumb to the pressure of a high-stakes scenario and make an infuriating postseason mistake, and neutral observers wouldn't bat an eye.
But he's trending sharply in the right direction with a not insignificant sample size on a team that's built to contend for a championship. For 49ers fans who were less-than thrilled to see Garoppolo take the reins in Week 2, it adds up to an optimal scenario.