Drew Brees vs. Jimmy Garoppolo:  A Week 14 Quarterback Comparison

Aaron S. Miller

Brees vs Jimmy G
Images Courtesy USA Today Sports

If back in August someone had told you that the Week 14 NFC battle between the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints would be a 10-2 team versus a 10-2 team, you’d be beside yourself. Sure, the Saints would be heading into the season staring down a potential third straight division title, but the 49ers were 4-12 last season and 6-10 the season prior. What then, too, if you were to add that this would occur despite Drew Brees missing 5 games with a thumb injury? 

Well, the 2017 addition of head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, not to mention a Robert Saleh-led defense with a bevy of first round selections and a healthy Richard Sherman, have finally begun to bear fruit. In much the same way as the enduring relationship Payton established and cultivated with Drew Brees upon his signing in 2006, Shanahan made a somewhat audacious move his rookie year in San Francisco, sending a second-round pick to the New England Patriots for third year former Eastern Illinois signal caller Jimmy Garoppolo. 

Garoppolo would play 6 games his first year with the 49ers, and his second year in red and gold was abruptly cut short due to a week 3 ACL tear. In his third year now with San Francisco, “Jimmy G” has led the 49ers to their first 8-0 start since Joe Montana in 1990, and presides over the #6 ranked total offense. 

This week Garoppolo heads to New Orleans where he will face future future Hall of Fame inductee Drew Brees.  While there is high likelihood a meeting of teams this balanced will be won and lost in the trenches, both Jimmy Garoppolo and Drew Brees will have their marching orders. Let’s look at how they’ve fared in 2019. 

In 12 appearances thus far in 2019, Garoppolo has amassed 2,896 yards at a 69% clip, throwing 21 TDs against 10 interceptions.  These numbers are good for a respectable 101.2 QB rating.  He runs the #16 passing offense, and his capability in the pocket can open up the ground attack, where the 49ers trail only the Baltimore Ravens in rushing offense.

© Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Due to an unfortunate thumb injury in Week 2 against the Los Angeles Rams, Drew Brees has only appeared in 7 games so far this season.  He is completing a blistering 73.8% of his passes for 1,791 yards for 12 TDs against 4 interceptions, which is good for a QBR of 104.4. Through a limited body of work in to date in 2019, it’s somewhat difficult to assess these two QBs on basic statistics alone.  Let’s have a look at a more advanced breakdown of some of these numbers. 

Per Sports Info Solutions, Garoppolo leans heavily on passes behind the line of scrimmage through to just 9 yards out. Of his 358 attempts on the season, Jimmy G has attempted more than half (237–66%) within this range.  All three of the men in his hydra rushing attack boast receiving abilities, so this isn’t any sort of revelation. Interestingly, Brees sports the same 66% of attempts within this range.  Also unsurprising when you consider he has one of the premier pass catching RBs to work with in Alvin Kamara.  Things get a tad more interesting, however when you look at the bigger picture. 

Data included from Sports Info Solutions

This graphic breaks down each of Garoppolo’s and Brees’ 2019 attempts by thirds of the field and distance, and includes their completion percentage by distance intervals of 0-9 yards (short), 10-19 yards (intermediate), and 20+ yards (long) passes.  Some trends are immediately clear.  With exception to Garoppolo’s proclivity to throw deep passes to the left-third of the field (and Brees showing a preference for the right-third), either QB appears to be most comfortable with the middle-third. Within 0-9 yards and including completion percentages, both Garoppolo and Brees have a very similar short passing profile this season.

Though Garoppolo overwhelmingly targets his receivers at an intermediate range, he is only completing half of those attempts on the season.  Brees however spreads the ball out a bit more between 10-19 yards past the LOI and is completing roughly 70% of his passes there. 

Perhaps the most glaring finding from this review of the respective signal callers’ proclivities, is that Garoppolo is sporting a plus 20 completion percent difference when compared with Brees on balls over 20 yards.  A couple of factors could influence this interesting nuance.  Between the 49ers acquiring speedy Emmanuel Sanders from the Denver Broncos and featuring a premier TE on the roster in the form of George Kittle, there’s more opportunity (and improved odds) for attempts and completions at that distance. 

© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

While Brees has Kamara and one of the very best WRs in the league in Michael Thomas, neither are routinely receiving passes from Brees beyond that intermediate range.  The receivers most often found 20+ yards out are guys like Ted Ginn and Jared Cook, and neither have been necessarily excelling at that distance this season.  Honorable mention for Cook, however, as he’s come on nicely since the bye. It’s also worth hazarding, though Brees would never admit it, that his recently injured thumb has his otherworldly passing talent at somewhat of a more worldly level for the time being. 

So, what is the significance of these numbers?  After all, these are two powerhouse teams and the whole “Any Given Sunday” mantra remains immortal.  The 49ers aren’t exactly the kind of team you yearn to take big shots on downfield, especially with a pass rush featuring rookie sensation Nick Bosa alongside the likes of Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner bearing down incessantly. 

The percentages and figures above demonstrate, perhaps unsurprisingly, that in 7 appearances this season Brees is playing in a manner best suited to counteract a dominant defensive front.  Short, quick screens and intermediate routes to get the ball out of his hands quickly and into the hands of Kamara and Thomas who can work in space.     Eventually, and provided such a strategy yields the expected outcomes and keeps Brees mostly upright, it would not surprise to see Payton dial up something deep (look to the middle and right-thirds of the field potentially) to catch the 49ers suspect defense off kilter. 

© Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

With Garoppolo, the Saints will need have a healthy appreciation for his underneath game and a slew of screen passes to the likes of Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert.  Perhaps more importantly though, is the Saints secondary will need to be mindful of Garoppolo’s desire(and ability) to deliver a strike deep downfield.  Marshon Lattimore will likely stick with Sanders, and expect to see Demario Davis covering George Kittle, at least on short and intermediate routes. Into that 20+ yard territory, Marcus Williams becomes an essential safety blanket where he has been excellent in coverage all season. 

Superficially, it may seem like a somewhat silly exercise to compare Jimmy Garoppolo with the likes of an all-time great like Drew Brees.  While a young Jimmy G has a long way to go to achieve comparable heights to the Saints living legend, the numbers bear out that Garoppolo is no slouch and, as such, ought to be respected.  To say that this game would merely be a battle between an elite (and historic) 49ers' defense and the Saints perennially great offense, betrays what the 49ers can do with the ball and overlooks the Saints own potent defense. 

It’s no doubt going to be a slog in the Big Easy this Sunday, and either QB can make (or break) the difference in this one literally single handedly.