When trying to figure out how good any quarterback really is, it's easy to get trapped in football's chicken-or-egg conundrum: Should credit go to the quarterback, to the supporting cast, or to the coach and system?
Everyone knows Garoppolo played pretty darn well last year. Everyone also knows that not much was asked of him: Niners coach Kyle Shanahan drew up creative plays and game plans, the running committee gained 2,305 yards, and George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and others turned short tosses into long gains. Heck, the 49ers won an NFC title game in which Garoppolo only threw eight passes.
On the other hand, it wasn't all ice cream and unicorns for Garoppolo last year. The 49ers lacked a true No. 1 receiver, and their starting tackles (and Kittle) were injured for a while midseason, which must have nerfed the QB's production a bit. Also, so what if a quarterback throws mostly short passes and hands off a lot? Drew Brees throws mostly short passes. Troy Aikman handed off a lot. Both of them turned out OK. All that matters is the final score.
We could argue in circles forever. Instead, let's dig a little deeper to find some secrets of Garoppolo's success and determine if he will be able to carry them forward.
Dink, Dunk and YAC
Let's start by determining whether Garoppolo was really earning his living on short, easy throws last year.
NFL Next Gen Stats uses "Average Intended Air Yards" (IAY) and "Air Yards to the Sticks" (AYTS) as measurements of a quarterback's dink-and-dunk tendencies. The names are self-explanatory: IAY measures the average length down the field of every pass attempt (using GPS data), while AYTS measures how far in front of or behind the first-down marker each throw travels.
- Garoppolo finished with the third-lowest IAY in the NFL last year with 6.5. The bottom five for 2019: Teddy Bridgewater (6.2), Derek Carr (6.3), Garoppolo, Brees (6.7) and Joe Flacco (6.8).
- Garoppolo also finished with the second-lowest AYTS in the NFL last year, with his average throw reaching its final destination 2.5 yards in front of the sticks. The bottom five: Bridgewater (with a remarkable AYTS of -3.3), Garoppolo, Carr (-2.3), Flacco (-2.2) and Marcus Mariota (-2.2).
As Brees' presence on the lists above illustrates, neither IAY nor AYTS is meant to gauge whether a quarterback is playing well or poorly. But all of the signal-callers on the lists have well-earned reputations for play-it-safe (far too safe, in several cases) short passes.
Garoppolo got more out of all of those short passes last year than any other quarterback. His receivers led the NFL with an average of 6.6 yards after catch last season, per Pro Football Reference. Here are the top five in YAC: Garoppolo, Ryan Tannehill (6.2), Patrick Mahomes (6.1), Carr (5.9) and Kirk Cousins (5.8).
Many of the yards that Garoppolo's receivers gained after the catch were the result of broken tackles. Per Football Outsiders, Kittle and Samuel ranked fourth and fifth in the NFL in broken tackles on receptions. Kittle led all tight ends with 25. Samuel led all wide receivers with 24.
We now have a clear picture of just how system-dependent Garoppolo was last season: The 49ers passing game ran on micro-short passes followed by mighty efforts from receivers after the catch. Garoppolo and Carr appeared on all the lists above, and that's a reason for 49ers fans to worry: Since his second Pro Bowl season in 2016, Carr has produced several campaigns of pretty statistics but disappointing results.
The Goal-Line Specialist
The 49ers are thought of as a run-oriented team, so you might think Garoppolo handed off to the committee in most goal-to-go situations. Instead, the 49ers threw the ball inside the 10-yard line exactly as often as they ran (40 attempts each), and Garoppolo was one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the NFL near the end zone (all splits via Pro Football Reference):
- Garoppolo attempted 40 passes inside the 10-yard line, the third-highest total in the league. The top five: Tom Brady (45), Jameis Winston (42), Garoppolo, Baker Mayfield (39) and Andy Dalton (38).
- Garoppolo led the league with 25 completions inside the 10-yard line; Jared Goff and Aaron Rodgers were second with 23. His completion percentage of 62.5 percent in this situation was sixth among NFL starters. And Garoppolo tied Lamar Jackson for the league lead with 16 touchdown passes inside the 10.
That goal-line efficiency was great for last year's 49ers, and it accounted for 59 percent of Garoppolo's passing touchdowns. It's also not a very good indicator of future success, because goal-line efficiency and opportunities fluctuate wildly from season to season.
Garoppolo may well be a gifted decision-maker and tight-window sniper. But there's much more evidence that Shanahan is a clever situational play-caller with a knack for crossing up defenses. There are a lot of plays like the following touchdown to Ross Dwelley against the Cardinals in Garoppolo's goal-line portfolio. You can decide for yourself if this is great quarterbacking or outstanding game-planning:
Pressure and Play Action
Let's get this out of the way now so my fellow stat-heads don't blow up my phone: There's a mountain of evidence that proves a great running game has nothing to do with play-action success. That said, the 49ers had both a great running game and considerable play-action success.
Per Football Outsiders, the 49ers used play action on 32 percent of passing plays, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. Because you are dying to see another top-five list: Ravens (33), Rams (33), Chiefs (32), 49ers and Titans (31).
The 49ers averaged 9.8 yards per play-action play, third in the NFL behind the Titans (11.3) and the Buccaneers (10.4). The 49ers averaged just 6.6 yards per pass without play action: 13th in the NFL. The wide split suggests Garoppolo frequently received an extra boost from Shanahan-designed play fakes.
Garoppolo also rarely had to throw with defenders in his face. Opponents only pressured 49ers quarterbacks on 25.5 percent of throws last year, the fourth-lowest rate in the league. The bottom five: Saints (23.4), Bengals (23.9), Patriots (24.2), 49ers and Raiders (25.6).
You'll notice that Brady's Patriots are on that last list, as are Brees/Bridgewater's Saints and Carr's Raiders yet again. A low pressure rate and a high percentage of short passes go hand-in-hand, for obvious reasons. Quarterbacks who often play with a lead (Brady, Brees, Garoppolo) also tend to have low pressure rates, because they are rarely under siege while trying to lead fourth-quarter comebacks.
That's why it's always wise to be skeptical when a quarterback suddenly has a career year with the help of a stacked supporting cast. It's the chicken-or-egg situation again: We know Brady and Brees can create their own favorable situations, but if the circumstances change for some newcomer, he could end up laying an egg.
Trust the System
Labels like "system quarterback" and "game manager" are perceived as somewhere between insults and declarations of war. But every quarterback south of prime Brady is a system quarterback in some way, and game management is a real skill. There are only a few dozen humans on earth at any given time who are capable of executing Shanahan's offense at a high level, and Garoppolo has proved he is one of them.
That said, Garoppolo is heavily reliant on short passes and YAC, play action, clever goal-line game-planning and favorable game situations to be effective. And he's 28 years old and entering his seventh NFL season, so he's unlikely to get much better. It's hard to argue that he's better than the Carr/Cousins range of quarterback: the type who needs his supporting cast and scheme to elevate his play, as opposed to vice versa.
And now for the good news, 49ers fans: Shanahan's offense is still one of the most efficient, unpredictable schemes in the league. The team added rookie Brandon Aiyuk to its receiving corps. The defense still looks stacked. Garoppolo can be a system quarterback and still win lots of games—because the system works.
Garoppolo will probably never be good enough to lead the 49ers to a championship. But they are good enough to lead him there. The chicken-or-egg argument is silly anyway. All that matters is getting a seat at the feast.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.