The San Francisco 49ers came into Thursday night's matchup in Nashville with a golden (pardon the pun) opportunity. Beat a Titans team that had lost three of four, and the Niners could accomplish a pair of things.
The first would be to strengthen their hold on one of the wild-card spots in the NFC. The second would be to up the pressure even more on an Arizona Cardinals team that leads the NFC West but has lost two in a row.
For a time, it appeared that's exactly what was going to happen—San Francisco dominated the first half in most respects. But that domination netted the team just a 10-point lead, because there was one player on San Francisco's roster who just about single-handedly kept the contest from turning into a blowout.
That same player, who has drawn the ire of fans in the Bay Area more than once this season, also committed the turnover that allowed the Titans to tie the game. Then led the drive that tied the game again after Tennessee took the lead.
That player, more than any other, is going to be the catalyst who determines how deep the 49ers will advance in the playoffs. Or if they will even make the postseason. And while it's a notion that may send more than a few San Fran fans reaching for the spiked egg nog, the reality is that the 2021 San Francisco 49ers are going exactly as far as Jimmy Garoppolo takes them.
We might as well get the bad out of the way first. And by "bad," I mean most of Garoppolo's game against Tennessee.
At first glance, Garoppolo's stat line against Tennessee doesn't look half-bad—26 completions in 35 attempts for 322 yards. But peel a layer or two off the onion, and the tears start to flow.
Were it not for Garoppolo miscues, this game would have been over at halftime. After scoring a touchdown on their first drive, the 49ers drove back down the field on their second possession. Then, Garoppolo made a terrible decision with the ball that resulted in a Jackrabbit Jenkins interception in the end zone.
That pass never should have left Garoppolo's hand.
It gets worse. On San Francisco's next drive, Garoppolo missed a wide-open Kyle Juszczyk on a deep throw that likely would have resulted in a touchdown. After Tennessee drove down and kicked a field goal to open the second half, Garoppolo sailed an awful throw over Deebo Samuel's head that was picked off by safety Amani Hooker.
Garoppolo's mistakes kept Tennessee in the game until the Titans finally came to life offensively. And while to Garoppolo's credit he also led a 95-yard fourth-quarter drive to knot the game at 17, the good wasn't enough to overcome the bad.
And that right there is the rub with Jimmy G. The issue that could (and probably will) derail San Francisco's season.
This 49ers team does a lot of things well. San Francisco entered Week 16 seventh in the league in rushing offense—despite multiple injuries at running back. Per Football Outsiders, San Francisco's offensive line ranks in the top half of the league and sports arguably the league's best left tackle in Trent Williams. In Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle, San Francisco has passing-game weapons that quite a few quarterbacks would give an organ to line up alongside.
San Francisco's defense ranked sixth in yards allowed per game entering Week 16 and features an elite edge-rusher (Nick Bosa) and a top-10 off-ball linebacker (Fred Warner). Add in one of the game's best offensive minds in head coach Kyle Shanahan, and you have a team that doesn't have a ton of weaknesses.
But none of that matters, because the team's weakest link just so happens to play the most important position in football.
It's not like Garoppolo isn't capable of playing well. After a slow start to the season, the eight-year veteran caught fire over the past couple of months. Over the eight games preceding Thursday's loss, Garoppolo posted a triple-digit passer rating six times. He threw 12 touchdown passes against just four interceptions. And San Francisco peeled off six wins in eight contests to get back in the playoff chase.
Want a stat that boils Jimmy Garoppolo down to his barest essence? In the seven games in which Garoppolo hasn't thrown a pick, the Niners are undefeated. In the seven games in which Garoppolo has been intercepted (counting Week 16), San Francisco has won once.
Here's another: In San Francisco's eight wins, Garoppolo has two giveaways. In the six losses in which he was under center, Garoppolo has turned it over 11 times.
When Garoppolo plays well and doesn't make mistakes, the Niners win. When he struggles and turns it over, the Niners lose. That's it. Period. Full stop.
That wouldn't be as big an issue if Garoppolo had shown the ability to go on a run. We have seen quarterbacks for whom there will be no bust in Canton go off in the postseason and lead teams all the way to a Super Bowl win.
Looking at you, Joe Flacco. Right. At. You.
But with Garoppolo, the clock is seemingly always counting down. It's just a matter of time until Jimmy G becomes "Jimmy Geez." His longest streak without a pick this season is two games—which would in a best-case scenario put him on track for another clunker on Wild Card Weekend.
Now, there are no doubt fuming 49ers fans reading this who know exactly what must be done and are convinced Shanahan should bench Garoppolo yesterday in favor of rookie Trey Lance.
The moment Shanahan does that, any chance the 49ers have of a playoff run is over. Through. Kaput. Lance is an immensely talented young prospect with a bright future. But he's not Mac Jones, who had significant experience running an offense similar to the one he's operating in in New England. Lance played FCS ball and looked it during his lone start of the season.
You aren't beating the Rams in L.A. in two weeks with Lance under center.
Like it or not, the 49ers have thrown in their lot with Garoppolo through the rest of this season. He will start at home against the Texans next week. And in what could be a critical regular-season finale in Los Angeles the week after. If he plays well, the 49ers will win at least one of those games and could easily win both. It's entirely possible that Garoppolo will still lead the 49ers to the playoffs.
But that clock has already started counting down to the next appearance from Jimmy Geez. His next appearance will probably be a season-killer.
And then a very interesting offseason in the Bay Area will begin.