The 49ers Are the Exception to the NFL’s Quarterback Rule

It’s no secret that the simplest path to success in the NFL is via elite quarterback play.

If we look at the final four teams left in the NFL postseason, we see the highest-paid player in the league (Patrick Mahomes), the #1 draft pick from two years ago (Joe Burrow), and a guy who was acquired for two first round picks this past offseason (Matthew Stafford).

Then we have the 49ers.

While San Fransisco just used three first round picks to get a franchise quarterback of their own, that guy won’t be starting in the NFC Championship game on Sunday. Instead, they’ll be starting a quarterback who has yet to throw a touchdown this postseason.

Jimmy Garoppolo is the clear weak link in an otherwise impressive group of quarterbacks in the NFL’s final four, but this isn’t the first time he’s experienced postseason success. As a starter in the playoffs, Garoppolo’s 4–1 and he’s just one game away from starting in his second Super Bowl.

While Garoppolo may not have a howitzer of an arm like some of the other QBs in the league, he still finds a way to win games.

But how?

There are several reasons we can point to that don’t involve Garoppolo himself — a great head coach/playcaller, elite pass-catching options, a strong run game, etc. — but that doesn’t mean Garoppolo doesn’t have strengths of his own. He leads the NFL in yards after completion per attempt (6.5) which reflects his uncanny ability to hit his receivers in stride and allow them to thrive after the catch. Sure, a portion of this league-leading stat is a reflection of who he’s throwing to, but Garoppolo’s own talents can’t be overlooked either:

The above clip goes down as an incompletion on Garoppolo’s stat sheet, but he executed the play to perfection. That is a tough and gutsy throw to make right into the teeth of the defense, and it perfectly highlights Garoppolo’s underrated arm talent. If the receiver caught the ball here, he very well could have gotten to the end zone.

While the above play shows what Garoppolo can do with his arm, let’s look at another clip to highlight how his brain and his feet impact the game as well:

The above play came with just 2:00 left in a tie ball game, and the first down conversion here was a back-breaker for the Packers’ defense.

When watching this play initially, it looks like a relatively simple throw and catch between Garoppolo and Deebo Samuel. However, when we break it down a little further, we see how the attention to detail in Garoppolo’s game makes this play possible.

First off, the play design here puts the defender at the top of the screen in a bind. He’s stuck guarding two potential pass-catchers, and Garoppolo identifies this weakness and attacks accordingly.

Look at how Garoppolo uses both his eyes and his feet to bait the defender into breaking towards the sideline, just to put the ball in the exact opposite location as soon as he turns his back:

The result of the play is Samuel — one of the most dangerous playmakers in the league — hauling in an easy catch with plenty of green grass surrounding him.

There’s so much more to this play than a quick little toss over the middle of the field, and it perfectly encapsulates what Garoppolo brings to this offense. His understanding of the play design allows him to manipulate the weak spot in the defense, which in turn allows Samuel to pick up a first down in one of the most critical moments of the game.

While Garoppolo’s strengths aren’t the first thing a scout or coach looks for when evaluating a quarterback, these traits allow him to move the ball well without possessing other-worldly arm talent.

Of course it’s important to note Garoppolo’s weaknesses still limit the type of offense San Fransisco can run. The throws over the middle of the field, misdirections, and understanding of the game are all lovely, but it’s rare to see him attack the deep or outside areas of a defense. When an offense is unable to attack certain spots, defenses can plan accordingly.

Luckily for Garoppolo, he’s working with a head coach who can mask some of his limitations.

Kyle Shanahan is one of the brightest offensive minds in the NFL, and he’s done a masterful job of building the entire offense around the strengths of Garoppolo and the rest of the 49ers personnel.

The 49ers run one of the most complex and interesting offenses in the entire league. They’re one of the few teams that truly build their offense around the running game (3rd highest rush rate in the NFL), and they utilize pre-snap motion at the highest rate in the league (69.1%) as well. All the moving parts make this offense a nightmare to defend, but the complexity also allows a quarterback like Garoppolo to find success simply by being “good enough.”

Jet sweeps, toss plays, and screen passes allow the 49ers to attack a defense in the wider portions of the field without asking Garoppolo to make too many difficult throws. The success of these plays opens up opportunities over the middle where Garoppolo can target guys like Samuel and George Kittle in the areas where he’s more comfortable throwing the football:

Once his guys get open over the middle, Garoppolo’s job becomes simple — make the easy throw and watch let the stars on the offense shine bright.

More often than not, this strategy is enough for a 49ers victory.

It’s rare to see a team make it this far in the playoffs without an elite quarterback, and while there are plenty of strengths in Garoppolo’s game, he’s still far from elite. Despite this, the superstar playmakers, genius head coach/playcaller, and top-tier defense in San Fransisco have allowed the 49ers to find success time and time again with Garoppolo under center.

It’s hard to win in the NFL without exceptional quarterback play, yet the 49ers are one game away from their second Super Bowl appearance in three years. They’ve already beaten the Rams twice this year, and if they manage to come away from this game with victory #3, it may be time for the NFL to start questioning how good a quarterback needs to be in order to win a championship.

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Michael Dolan

Michael Dolan

Football nerd who‘s here to learn and teach the sport by writing, analyzing, and studying the game. @TallGuyDolan on Twitter