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After a late run of success last season, followed by a summer filled with glowing profiles and predictions of greatness, Garoppolo looked, well, human in Week 1. He rushed many of his passes. He threw behind some receivers and overthrew others. And it got worse as the game wore on. Slow down the tape just before some of his ugliest misfires in the second half and you can see him flinch just as he releases the ball.
The Vikings blitzed on one third-down play in the fourth quarter, and all Garoppolo could do was bend over and absorb the blow. It was not a good look: the $137.5 million wunderkind, face of the 49ers franchise and early-adopter’s choice for NFL Next Big Thing reacting to a safety blitz as if he were bracing for an emergency water landing.
Vikings defenders took note. “As the game goes on, you have to bring the pressure on him,” defender Danielle Hunter told reporters after the game. “You see that he’s starting to get scared.” The final stats back Hunter’s assessment up. Garoppolo completed just 15-of-33 passes for 261 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions for the afternoon, enduring three sacks (one by Hunter) and nine hits from defenders.
These aren’t the kind of headlines the 49ers were hoping for when they traded a second-round pick for Garoppolo, a deal that caused such seismic repercussions with the Patriots organization that it almost culminated in anonymous New York Times op-ed pieces. Or when Garoppolo went 5-0 as a starter down the stretch last season. Or when they signed a 26-year-old quarterback with just 12 career touchdown passes—six fewer than Tom Brady has thrown in Super Bowls in his career—to a five-year contract with $41.7 million in guarantees in early February.
If Garoppolo is this easy to shake up, then the 49ers should be shook about it.
Before we engage in the traditional NFL pastime of jumping to wild conclusions after one game and declaring Garoppolo a franchise-killing nine-figure bust, we should perform a dollars-and-cents investigation into just why Garoppolo looked so scared at the end of that Vikings loss.
Jerick McKinnon, signed as a free agent in the offseason and slated for a featured role as a rusher and receiver, tore his ACL in early September, leaving the 49ers without one of their primary offensive weapons.
The 49ers signed Alfred Morris off the veteran scrap heap as a replacement. Morris rushed for just 38 yards Sunday and fumbled at the goal line. Matt Breida, a 2017 undrafted free agent, split carries with Morris and pitched in 46 yards. The two backs combined for one catch for five yards (by Breida) in a Kyle Shanahan offense that’s designed around using running backs as receivers.
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Morris’ base salary this year is $790,000, and Breida’s is $555,000. Don’t worry about keeping track of the numbers; we’ll run a tab, but that isn’t exactly a playoff-caliber backfield.
Receiver Marquise Goodwin, Garoppolo’s best deep threat and one of the NFL’s fastest players, suffered a quad injury at the start of the Vikings game. That forced rookie Dante Pettis into the lineup. Pettis caught Garoppolo’s lone touchdown pass, but Goodwin’s loss had a trickle-down effect on the 49ers receiving corps, exacerbated by a minor early-game injury that appeared to slow down 32-year-old possession receiver Pierre Garcon.
Second-year tight end George Kittle became Garoppolo’s top offensive weapon by default. Kittle caught five passes for 90 yards, mostly on early-game rollout plays. Kittle also proved to be a step too slow to haul in a Garoppolo bomb in the third quarter; a skittish Garoppolo threw a pick-six on the very next play. Kittle also couldn’t quite duplicate “The Catch” when a Garoppolo pass in the back of the end zone zipped through his hands.
Kittle’s base salary this season is $555,000. Pettis’ is $480,000, though his rookie bonus pushes that figure upward. Again, not talent at premium prices.
Starting right guard Mike Person left the game with a foot injury in the second quarter. Replacement Josh Garnett lasted just a few series before he was knocked out of the game as well. The 49ers moved rookie Mike McGlinchey from right tackle to right guard and inserted journeyman Garry Gilliam at right tackle.
And that’s when Garoppolo’s flinching and kiss-your-own-butt body language appeared Sunday—after he began relying on an out-of-position rookie and a dude who washed out of the Seahawks offensive line for pass protection against one of the NFL’s best defenses.
McGlinchey’s base salary is $480,000 this year, though, like Pettis, he’s still spending a sizeable rookie bonus from the spring. Gilliam earns a hefty $1,750,000 as an offensive line insurance policy. Person and Garnett make even less.
Tally it up, and Garoppolo’s top two running backs, his top target, his lone deep threat and the two linemen protecting his right flank earn about $4.6 million this season, six guys combining for one-sixth of what Garoppolo is guaranteed this year.
The numbers change if you factor the rookie bonuses in, and Garoppolo is supported by well-paid veterans at some other positions. But no matter how you calculate it, Garoppolo was counting on rookies and budget-friendly veterans Sunday, and it showed with every fumble, not-quite-catch and pass pressure.
Garoppolo was a premium-priced quarterback with a discount supporting cast Sunday. Playing him against the Vikings during an injury rash was like driving a new hot rod through rush-hour city traffic without car insurance. No wonder he looked a little nervous.
There’s not much the 49ers could do about losing a running back in early September or a receiver and two guards mid-game. But the 49ers could have done a little more than they did this offseason to make sure there was depth behind McKinnon or another experienced option at wide receiver. Even at full strength, Garoppolo’s supporting cast wasn’t all that strong, a fact that was easy to overlook as we hyped up Garoppolo as Tom Brady 2.0.
Despite the runaway expectations, the 49ers never planned to be in win-now mode this year. Garoppolo’s contract is built to give them more maneuverability in 2019 and 2020 than this year, when they are essentially eating a big down payment for his services while eating some dead money for past mistakes. They’re going a little cheap this year so they won’t have to next year.
Saving a little money for a future surge is usually a wise move. But put a young quarterback into too many bad situations and he will develop bad habits that lead to bad results. Add $137.5 million in ballast to the equation and you can sink the whole franchise.
The 49ers need to scour the waiver wire for help. They need to hope the Goodwin and guard injuries aren’t serious. They need to be realistic about what Garoppolo can really do with this personnel, which looks nothing like what Kyle Shanahan and Matt Ryan had to work with in Atlanta.
Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press
There’s no reason to panic, and no one is outright panicking: not even Garoppolo in the fourth quarter with three Vikings crashing through the right side of the line. But writing Sunday off as just a Week 1 blip would be a mistake. The imbalances between Garoppolo’s salary, inexperience, expectations and supporting cast could result in more sacks, mistakes, duck-and-cover drills and losses that snowball into a real problem.
Too many games like Sunday’s will ruin Garoppolo. The 49ers need to support their quarterback and protect their investment before things get any scarier.