There was a moment in the third quarter on Sunday that, for Jimmy Garoppolo, kind of signified where he is now—in his eighth NFL season and fifth playing for Kyle Shanahan.
The significance of the play itself really wasn’t much. It came on a second-and-9 with 3:40 on the clock and the 49ers up 38–17. The call was a drift route concept off play-action, and Garoppolo hit Deebo Samuel, his best receiver on this afternoon, for 16 yards and a first down. And sure, it moved the Niners out of the depths of their own territory, and to the Lions’ 37. Still, they wound up punting four snaps later.
But to focus on just that would be missing the point of what Garoppolo was trying to distill for me during our conversation as he and his teammates made toward the buses for the long flight back to the West Coast. This was more about feel, command and everything a quarterback is looking to become within an offensive scheme.
“I don’t know if you know what a drift is; it’s like a slant route, kinda, with Deebo from the slot,” Garoppolo explained. “And [Lions linebacker] Jamie Collins is on him, and he was guarding him but pushing through at the same time to get outside of him. And it just all happened so slow. And I don’t know, in the past, I think I would’ve hesitated, but today I just ripped it. We got a big play out of it.
“It’s just plays like that that kind of go unnoticed. But as a quarterback, you notice them.”
Indeed, if you look back at the play, you can see it: Collins played Samuel outside, turned his back to the ball, and before Samuel made his break, the ball was out and spinning fast to the left of the linebacker, eventually landing right in Samuel’s hands as he cleared Collins in the coverage.
Forget the result of the play. This sort of thing, to a quarterback, can always be read as a sign that the coaches’ offense is becoming his offense.
And yet, just three snaps later, third pick Trey Lance was back in the lineup as the team’s short-yardage quarterback to try to convert a third-and-1, which was another reminder that even as the offense has become more and more Garoppolo’s as he enters his fifth year as a Niner, it will, sooner or later, be someone else. Namely, it’ll be Lance’s.
Now, the good news for San Francisco: The Niners held off a feisty Lions team on the road on Sunday, scoring a 41–33 win, after leading 38–10 at one point, to open their season 1–0. The unorthodox quarterback plan worked, too, as the Niners averaged an NFC-best 8.0 yards per play. San Francisco rushed for 131 yards. Garoppolo posted a 124.2 passer rating. Lance threw a touchdown pass. The defense survived an injury to star corner Jason Verrett.
But underneath all that is how we got here in the first place. And why it’s taken, and will continue to take, the right kinds of people to make it work.
We’re 15 games in! Lots to get to in this week’s MMQB column. Here’s what you’ve got to look forward to …
• A look at where Joe Burrow and his Bengals are.
• An explanation of how Kyler Murray’s playing style is driving the Cardinals.
• David Culley—a surprise star of Week 1.
But we’re starting with the 49ers and their fascinating quarterback situation.
About a month ago, I was in San Francisco and talked to Shanahan, Garoppolo and Lance about what the season might hold, how Shanahan was holding a competition (of sorts) and the possibility that, in the end, both guys might wind up having a role in the offense. And much of that came together in the Niners’ preseason finale against the Raiders, with the coaches’ rolling out a true quarterback shuttle, with Lance and Garoppolo’s going on and off the field the way a nickel corner might come on situationally to relieve a third linebacker.
What we saw Sunday against the Lions was not that.
Garoppolo lost a botched snap on the Niners’ first offensive play of the season. On the team’s second possession, a seven-play, 59-yard touchdown drive, Lance came on twice—first for a one-yard run on first-and-10 from the Detroit 16, then to throw a touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield on first-and-goal from the Lions’ 5.
The results there had plenty of people, the Lions staff included, thinking America was about to see a whole lot more of Lance. But the rookie took only a couple more snaps from there, logging two carries for a single yard the rest of the day, without throwing another pass.
The reason? Well, one certainly could be that the Niners didn’t really need Lance on this afternoon, because Garoppolo, as the above throw to Samuel illustrated, threw it really, really well. He started the game on a heater, connecting on his first seven throws for 104 yards, and was steady throughout—finishing with his eighth passer rating above 120 (124.2) in those five years in San Francisco and his highest yardage total (314) since Dec. 8 of the Niners’ 2019 Super Bowl season.
“Kyle was on fire with the play-calling,” Garoppolo said. “He really was in a zone.”
And as Shanahan got into a zone, Garoppolo found himself joining the coach there.
“There were a couple [throws] where it’s just, I don’t know, you’re seeing the defense, it’s slower to you,” he continued. “You’re not trying to process the play so much as before. The play-calling, and just getting the play running this offense, is as complicated as I’ve been around. So that part, once you get past that, you can start playing football again. And that’s kinda where I’m at now. Just seeing the defense better. Things are slowing down for me.
“It felt slower out there today, and that’s always a good thing.”
Which, of course, could also be the frustrating thing, if Garoppolo allowed it to be.
He was traded to San Francisco around Halloween 2017, sat for a couple of weeks, then lit the world on fire over the last six games of that season, Shanahan’s first as the Niners’ coach. The next year, with expectations sky high, he blew out his ACL in Week 3. The year after that was the Super Bowl year. And then last year was another marred by injury for the Niners, with one of those being to Garoppolo himself.
Then came the trade in March, at which point Garoppolo could be excused for glancing over at the exits. For a while, the truth is, his radar was up for that.
But over time, he’s come to peace with his place in San Francisco, temporary as it might be, and has done his best to embrace the situation with a team he believes can compete for a championship. That took, over the summer, some talks with the coaches, and Shanahan in particular, on how the rotation between him and Lance might work. And that was right around when I was there, and talked to both quarterbacks about it, with each tepid on the idea.
“I mean, the concern was just as a quarterback, you’re used to being the guy,” Garoppolo said Sunday. “It’s a little bit of where you don’t want to be a distraction to everyone else, at least that was my thought, just with having two of us like that. It’s one of those things, like I said, where you’re checking your ego at the door and just playing ball at the end of the day.”
Which isn’t to say Garoppolo didn’t have his feelings on some of the ideas that had floated around—or didn’t think there was a point of diminishing returns.
“If it was series by series, which I think when we were talking, that was kinda what the thought was, that really would’ve been more the rhythm thing,” he said. “Because that was in the discussions for a little bit and I was like, ‘You know, I don’t know how that’s gonna work, just being out for that long and not throwing.’ Switching off like how we’re doing it, it’s different. The rhythm thing doesn’t matter as much—one or two plays isn’t too bad.”
The Shanahan plan that manifested Sunday didn’t put either guy in that spot.
The aforementioned two snaps happened in a red-zone situation. Lance came in again on a third-and-20 from the Lions’ 36, a spot where the Niners just wanted to get closer to put Robbie Gould in better position for a field goal. (Lance ran for two yards on that play, and Gould missed a 54-yard kick.) And Lance’s final snap came on a third-and-1 at the end of the third quarter. The Lions stuffed him for a one-yard loss, forcing a punt.
And that was pretty much that. The rest of the afternoon became about protecting a lead and maybe getting a wakeup call in watching it slip away—“There was a bit of relaxation, I guess you could say, on the sideline,” Garoppolo said. “I hate to even say that, but we learned a valuable lesson. Some guys got taken out a little too early, guys started to relax, and in this league you can never relax. So it was a weird finish.”
But when that finish came, Garoppolo could honestly say that there really weren’t any surprises. He knew Lance would play, and how much would ride on situations, and that’s exactly how it played out.
“Throughout the week, you try to plan as well as you can,” he said. “But just situationally, you never know what Kyle’s feeling or what he’s gonna call, what he was setting up on the prior play. I think just throughout the week, you kinda get a feel for it. Short yardage, things like that, you kinda have a good idea of what’s gonna happen. I don’t know, it’s just one of those things that you gotta check your ego at the door, really.
“That’s what it really comes down to. And it’s tough as a quarterback but it is what it is.”
On this day, what it is was a win and a banner performance from a quarterback still a couple of months short of his 30th birthday.
Does he wish that this was his turning the corner and getting ready to take the next step as the Niners’ long-term quarterback? Of course. Would this work if he and Lance weren’t getting along as well as they have? Probably not. (“If he would have came in and kinda been an entitled rookie, it would’ve been a little different,” Garoppolo said of Lance. “But honestly, he’s been cool from the get-go.”) And is it tough that Garoppolo doesn’t know where he’ll be playing next year? He didn’t say so, but you’d think it’d have to be.
That’s why, for now, Garoppolo’s dealing, like he said, with what is, rather than what might’ve been—and what is in San Francisco, as he sees it, is a veteran quarterback at the top of his game, leading a team that’s got reasonable Super Bowl aspirations. And if that veteran quarterback plays well, then he should be fine.
“It was a weird offseason as a whole,” he said. “But I think it was more that I kinda saw the writing on the wall. I’m one of those guys, whatever it takes for the team to win, I really am about it. It’s one of those things where you gotta swallow your pride a little bit as a quarterback. You’re not used to that type of thing. But at the end of the day, whatever it takes to get the win, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
And in Week 1, Garoppolo did plenty for the Niners in that regard.
BURROW’S BENGALS ARE GROWING
If anyone wanted to know whether Joe Burrow was going to be timid in his first game back from his ACL reconstruction, or whether the Bengals would be timid on his behalf, they got their answer with less than a minute left in overtime Sunday and Cincinnati in fourth-and-1 from its own 48.
The safe call there would’ve been to punt and settle for a tie with the Vikings. Instead, Zac Taylor went for broke, and Burrow, in the process, doubled down on his coach’s bet on him by taking the whole thing into his own hands.
“The defense put a guy over the center and then two guys in the A-gaps,” Burrow explained from the locker room after the game. “So I knew it was gonna be tough to run the ball against that look. And so we had the other play—we went to the line with two plays and that was the second play. So I went ahead and changed it to the play where I hit C.J. [Uzomah]. And there he's really my third read, and I don't think we've thrown that to him in two years.
“But credit to him for being ready for that ball.”
Indeed, with everything on the line, Burrow feathered the ball over Uzomah’s shoulder for a 32-yard gain to get to the Vikings’ 20 with 31 seconds left. Two snaps later, rookie Evan McPherson came on to drill a 33-yard game-winner and get Cincy to 1–0 with a 27–24 win.
So after all that, I asked Burrow—knowing he felt like he was really rolling before he went down last November—whether he’d have felt confident enough at the end of last year to change the play in a crucial spot like he did in this one. It didn’t surprise me much that he answered, yes, he’d have been totally O.K. doing that a year ago. But from there, he took our discussion to an interesting place.
“I think I would've been able to make that play last year—I don't know if we would've pulled that game out as a team last year, though,” he said. “I think as a team, we just have individuals that have really put the work in and understand what we're trying to do and are really resilient. The defense really stepped up today. [The Vikings] were in position to win the game, and then we knew we had to get a turnover.
“Germaine Pratt took the ball away from Dalvin Cook, and the rest is history. It's a really team game that we won today.”
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Of course, Burrow’s right. Without Pratt’s play, which took possession from the Vikings inside the Bengals’ 40 with two minutes left in OT, the quarterback and his sparingly used tight end wouldn’t have been in position to make theirs moments later.
But the larger point Burrow was making was just as poignant here. The Bengals haven’t been to the playoffs in six years, and fewer and fewer players still on the roster were there for that—Uzomah’s one of just four left. So in many ways, the team, over the last few years, has had to learn to win in the NFL. And that means winning games like the one it played Sunday, where things came unraveled very, very quickly.
The Bengals had a two-touchdown lead late in the third quarter and were up by 10 well into the fourth quarter, and let those leads slip away.
“We gave up the lead, and last year I think we would've crumbled,” Burrow said. “We started to. We started to crumble, and then guys really stepped up and made plays when we needed them to. That’s winning in the NFL, and that's what we're learning to do. I love the Bengals, but they haven't been super successful the last five years. So there’s a lot of guys here that have been here during that time that are just now learning how to win.”
The difference, as Burrow sees it, is visible in how the Bengals strategically plucked free agents from consistent playoff programs the last two years—Trey Hendrickson and Vonn Bell from the Saints, Trae Waynes and Riley Reiff from the Vikings, Mike Hilton from the Steelers, Chidobe Awuzie from the Cowboys and Mike Daniels from the Packers. And then, in how those guys affected what the summer was like.
That, really, laid the groundwork for a team ready to take body blows in Week 1 and keep swinging through them, because, in camp, the pressure on everyone was ratcheted up.
“Everyone was communicating with more intensity on the field,” Burrow said. “As an offense, when you’re going up against a defense who’s yelling out calls, it really gives the impression that they know what they’re doing and they’re confident in their scheme and that they're gonna play fast. And that’s what I saw out of the defense all camp.”
So that defense wound up forcing a fumble to stem the tide pushing against the Bengals in overtime, and then the offense that dealt with that defense for six weeks responded in kind.
The hope now is that it carries over to next week.