OPINION: Jimmy Garoppolo playing for his job this weekend vs. Colts

Sunday Night Marks Beginning of Critical Two-Week Stretch for San Francisco’s Signal-Caller

Throughout his career, Jimmy Garoppolo has rarely been bad.
He has also rarely been great. On Sunday night against the Indianapolis Colts, he will need to be the latter. So far in 2021, the average Quarterback Rating is 95.2, and Garoppolo’s is 96.9. In both of the 49ers wins, he was above that mark. In the two losses that Garoppolo started, he was beneath it. Slightly above average is an appropriate description of San Francisco’s signal-caller, whose shortcomings get disguised with a quality running game and a top-tier defense. However, the 49ers are 11th in rushing and 17th in total defense. With impactful injuries to both, it is hard to see either improving by much. It is up to Garoppolo to pick up the slack, something he has seldom done. If he cannot on Sunday and the 49ers fall to 2-4, Garoppolo’s time as the starter will hang by a thread.

For a team with Super Bowl expectations entering the season, the confidence in its most important position never seemed high. Head coach Kyle Shanahan publicly hinted that it was Garoppolo’s job since the summer, but was not definitive. Perhaps that was purposeful, but trading multiple first-round picks for Garoppolo’s heir-apparent in Trey Lance spoke loudly that Jimmy’s time in the Bay Area was near its end. Since then, there has been a lot of pressure from media and fans to start the kid, something they saw after Garoppolo sat in Week 6 with a calf injury. Lance played like most rookies in their first NFL start, poorly. Yet, a one-score loss to the undefeated Arizona Cardinals was hardly disheartening given the circumstances. This week, the quarterback decision was also made by injury, with Lance (knee) being unavailable.

It is difficult to tell whether Shanahan wants Garoppolo to start or whether he does not think Lance is ready. Both are probably true.
Shanahan trusts Garoppolo to orchestrate his complex offense and open the playbook. However, Lance is more dynamic as a dual-threat, and successful ad-libbing can be just as dangerous in today’s game as a perfectly drawn-up play. Still, in Shanahan’s eyes, the two quarterbacks are not equal. He favors Garoppolo, for now. But each week, the talent gap gets harder to ignore.

Right now, the 49ers are tied for 30th in completions of 20-plus yards (13) and are in dire need of chunk plays. The Colts have given up 19 explosive passes (15+ yards on a single pass) and 18 explosive rushes (10+ yards on a single rush) this season, both about league average. Hopefully, a banged-up defense will provide more opportunities for Garoppolo to move the ball down the field. The other area the 49ers have struggled with is on third down. They rank 25th in the NFL, converting just 35.6% of the time. If driving the ball through the air is not the answer for Garoppolo, then extending drives has to be. So far this season, fans have not seen either consistently.

To be fair, Lance did not aid improve either of those areas for San Francisco in his few opportunities. The difference is that inconsistency from a rookie is not startling. Lance has a long way to go on the learning curve, but may not be far behind when it comes to helping the 49ers get results. Shanahan’s selling point has always been that Garoppolo gives the 49ers the best chance to win. The first two weeks against lesser competition, the plan worked. In Garoppolo’s last two starts against division rivals, it did not. Garoppolo is supposed to be the safety blanket. If he cannot be that against Indianapolis, then what is the point?

A playoff berth at this point is already an uphill climb and the 49ers are essentially gunning for the final Wild Card spot. After Indianapolis, they get the Chicago Bears, who are also in quarterback flux with fellow rookie Justin Fields. Right now, the state of the 49ers is closer to Chicago than the team with Super Bowl aspirations. If Garoppolo does not bend the scale back towards contender, Shanahan will have a hard time explaining why he should continue to start. Garoppolo needs to win on Sunday night, otherwise, the 49ers season, and his job, are in jeopardy.

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