Nobody was quite sure what to expect out of Jimmy Garoppolo this season. The quarterback was coming off an ACL injury and only had 10 career starts under his belt. He’s been called both the “weak link” of the 49ers’ offense and has picked up the “game manager” label.

But it’s time to finally give Garoppolo his due as one of the better starting quarterbacks in the league. While Garoppolo was effectively executing Kyle Shanahan’s offense earlier in the season, he’s put together some truly impressive performances in the back half. He guided the 49ers to a 2-1 record against a historically difficult three-game stretch.

And most recently, he engaged Drew Brees and the Saints in a shootout and came out on top, 48-46. In a hostile environment at the Superdome, Garoppolo led the 49ers to a comeback win in a pivotal battle for playoff seeding.

That kind of success is par for the course for Garoppolo this year. He’s eighth in the league in passer rating (103.9), fourth in passing touchdowns (25), fourth in yards per attempt (8.3), and fifth in completion percentage (69.5). He has the 49ers at 11-2, the best record in the NFC.

Let’s take a look at what Garoppolo has done so far and why his play this season shouldn’t be overlooked.

Garoppolo went toe-to-toe with Drew Brees

Taking on Brees isn’t the litmus test for most quarterbacks, because that would be one helluva test. But Garoppolo played one of his best games of the season against one of the best to ever throw the football.

Garoppolo and the 49ers went into their Week 14 game against New Orleans with a lot of pressure. They needed a win to regain the top seed in the NFC playoff standings, whereas a loss would have kept them as the fifth seed. And he delivered, big time.

Garoppolo completed 26 passes for 349 yards, four touchdowns, and an interception. More importantly, he organized a last-minute drive to give the 49ers the victory after Brees and the Saints nearly stole the game with a late score of their own.

Some of Garoppolo’s best work comes in the middle of the field, and that was evident against the Saints. Earlier in the season, he threw some questionable passes that way. Yet in recent weeks, he’s been deadly efficient over the middle. On slant routes, he’s been particularly successful. Observe:

This was a simple slant following a false start, and it was a good one. There were three players in position to potentially undercut this slant, but Garoppolo gave the ball enough air and timed it just right with Saints linebacker Demario Davis turned around. That play went for 31 yards and contributed to an eventual touchdown in the first quarter.

A big part of San Francisco’s offense is getting the ball to their speedy playmakers underneath. While those types of plays are easy to screw up, they often look effortless when they work.

Garoppolo can get the ball into tight windows on contested plays thanks to his quick release, as you can see on this strike against New Orleans:

This was a relatively simple touchdown from Garoppolo to Kendrick Bourne, but what’s impressive is Garoppolo’s release. He fired that pass in there and put it high and away. Even though the defensive back could have broken it up, he had basically no chance to intercept it.

That wasn’t the only time Garoppolo hooked up with Bourne on a red zone touchdown. Garoppolo had another throw in which he showcased his ability to extend a play.

Garoppolo’s protection started to break down, but he wisely rolled to his left, allowing his line more time to get situated. Borne, after breaking on his route, cut inside and Garoppolo zipped another bullet of a pass right to him for a score. His quick release was on display, as was his confidence in the face of pressure.

Plays like the one above are constantly flubbed by lesser (or more inexperienced) quarterbacks, especially in the red zone. Resetting and re-establishing your eyes downfield after a scramble is one of the best qualities a good quarterback can have, and Garoppolo has it.

But can Garoppolo do anything other than throw over the middle? Well …

This was on the 49ers’ third possession, and it’s the deepest shot we’ve seen Garoppolo take this season. At first glance, I thought the ball might have been a bit underthrown, but if you actually look at Emmanuel Sanders’ speed while the ball is in the air, he’s not decelerating by any appreciable amount. I think Garoppolo put the ball exactly where he wanted to, and Sanders wound up making it an even bigger play by turning it into a touchdown.

Garoppolo can make all types of throws, and he can shred a defense doing it.

He can come through in the clutch, too

At 11-2 as the starter this season, Garoppolo is doing something right. Even the 49ers’ two losses to Seattle and Baltimore came by a combined six points. He also had some strong performances late in games that easily could have been a loss.

Garoppolo was responsible for:

  • A go-ahead touchdown pass vs. Steelers with under two minutes in Week 3
  • Three touchdowns late in a comeback win vs. Cardinals in Week 11
  • Three straight scoring drives to regain the lead vs. Saints in Week 14

It’s hard to define what makes a player clutch through raw stats, beyond the fact that Garoppolo’s three fourth-quarter comebacks rank second in the league behind only Russell Wilson. The 49ers have struggled at times, though they usually come out on top and it certainly helps that Garoppolo doesn’t panic when his team is behind.

The 49ers fell behind quickly against the Saints, 20-7, after Brees led them to touchdowns on their first four drives. Garoppolo and the 49ers stuck with it and took the lead at halftime.

Things were looking pretty good until Brees and the Saints drove 76 yards to take a one-point lead with under a minute to go. At the time, it was easy to think Brees had done it again — snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Then Garoppolo put together a seven-play, 63-yard drive that succeeded on the back of a short pass to George Kittle on fourth-and-2.

Kittle gets all the credit in the world for turning that short pass into a 39-yard gain, but Garoppolo did well to find his favorite target in that situation.

Garoppolo was his most clutch in that Saints game. From trying to keep pace with Brees to regaining the lead in the final minute, it was a complete performance from the quarterback. And it was one that could ultimately help the 49ers get homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

Are Garoppolo’s interceptions a concern?

While Garoppolo’s stats are good, his interception total is still high. He has 11 of them through 13 games, and only seven quarterbacks have thrown more picks this year. Some were fairly bad (the pick to Luke Kuechly vs. Carolina stands out), but the full picture requires looking at the circumstances around the interceptions.

His one interception against the Saints wasn’t exactly his fault:

That interception went off the hands of Sanders, yet the pick goes on Garoppolo’s stat sheet. Someone as reliable as Sanders making that mistake is a good indicator of how things can look a lot worse on paper than they actually are.

I went back and watched all of the picks Garoppolo threw this season and discovered that five of the 11 went off the hands of his receivers. Rookie Deebo Samuel and the underperforming Dante Pettis were the biggest culprits.

Garoppolo has only had two multiple-interception games this season, and he has yet to throw more than two in a game. Garoppolo had two picks against the Steelers, but both of them were off the hands of his targets.

While the 49ers have not clinched a spot in the playoffs, it’s more of a formality at this point. They have the best record in the conference and just need a win in Week 15 to clinch.

If Garoppolo can lead the 49ers to wins over the Falcons, Rams, and Seahawks to close the season, they’re guaranteed the top seed. If he fails to beat the Seahawks again, though, they could wind up with the fifth seed playing a wild card playoff game on the road.

Either way, Garoppolo has proven to be the real deal, though the scrutiny will only increase in the postseason. No matter what happens, the 49ers can feel good about their franchise quarterback going forward. He’s shown he can make any throw, he doesn’t things snowball when the game is going sideways, and he has no overtly poor performances this season.

For the first time since Colin Kaepernick took them to the NFC Championship in the 2013 season, the 49ers will be in the playoffs, and Garoppolo’s success is a big part of that.

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