Through the first two weeks of the 2021 season, the San Francisco 49ers are 2-0. They've got to be happy with that, especially considering the injuries they've dealt with among their running back corps.
In looking at the Niners' overall offensive numbers, one wouldn't necessarily come away thinking there's anything wrong with how they've played so far. San Francisco ranks 18th in yards, 13th in first downs and eighth in points. The team's 6.1 yards per play average ranks 12th in the NFL, as does its rate of scoring a touchdown or field goal on 45% of drives -- and that's despite the seventh-worst average starting field position in the league thus far.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's stat line looks solid as well. He's completed 70.9% of his passes at an average of 9.1 yards per attempt, with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. All of that is good for a 111.4 passer rating, which, along with his having taken only one sack, has made him one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks to date.
But after a glance at some of the underlying numbers, as well as a deeper dive into his film, it's fair to wonder what it is that Garoppolo is bringing to the offense at the moment. Ahead of the team's first true test of the year (they played the Lions in Week 1 and an Eagles team that lost Brandon Graham and Brandon Brooks to injuries in Week 2), it's time to start pondering whether the 49ers would be better served by ripping the Band-Aid off and kickstarting the Trey Lance era sooner rather than later.
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Packers at 49ers
The idea the 49ers have sold is that they have an elite offense whenever Garoppolo is healthy and under center. They ranked seventh in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA when he started all 16 games in 2019 and check in eighth so far this year. But it sure doesn't seem like Garoppolo is the one leading them to those results. And if the Niners felt he was, they surely wouldn't be designing an offense that asks so little of him.
Case in point: 30.9% of Garoppolo's passes this season have been thrown to receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage, per Tru Media. That's the second-highest rate in the league, behind only Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. Meanwhile, only 5.5% of his attempts have traveled 20 or more yards in the air, the league's fourth-lowest rate. As such, Garoppolo is averaging just 5.1 air yards per attempt, the third-lowest mark among 33 qualified quarterbacks. His pass attempts have, on average, targeted pass-catchers 4.2 yards short of the sticks, also the third-lowest mark in the league. And he's thrown into tight windows on just 9.1% of his passes, fourth-lowest among the same group of players.
None of those are indicators of a team that trusts its quarterback to be the driving force of the offense. There's also the theory that, while Garoppolo does have a sky-high completion rate, he's actually leaving some plays on the field. His 70.9 completion percentage actually falls 2.8 percentage points short of his league-high 73.7 percent expected completion percentage, according to NFL.com's Next Gen Stats. That negative-2.8 mark is eighth-worst among the aforementioned 33 qualified quarterbacks thus far.
Jimmy G has indeed made some good throws, but it's also clear that his overall numbers are being propped up by one play that accounts for nearly 16% of his passing yardage and one of his two scores -- a play on which he didn't make a particularly good throw and was aided by a defensive back tripping over the receivers feet, with that receiver being run-after-catch maven Deebo Samuel.
Garoppolo does remain extremely effective at the actual play-action part of play-action passing, which is key to San Francisco's offense. The 49ers have had Garoppolo execute a run fake on 25 of his 59 dropbacks thus far this season, according to Tru Media. That rate of 42.4% far exceeds the league average of just 26.5%. He's 15 of 22 for 189 yards on these throws this season, and the lone sack he's taken came on a play where the Lions blitzed a cornerback right into the bootleg action San Francisco had called, giving him no chance to avoid it.
Some of his play-action misses have been pretty egregious, though, and he's had a surprising amount of trouble completing what should be layup throws on straight dropbacks. If Garoppolo is on the field to keep the chains moving by being accurate, avoiding mistakes and taking everything the defense gives him, he's got some work to do on those fronts.
If the 49ers hadn't aggressively moved up the draft board for the player they obviously view as their quarterback of the future, running out this style of offense with Garoppolo at the helm wouldn't seem so strange. But it's clear this is not the offense they actually want to be running; if it was, they wouldn't have traded two future first-round picks to go get a quarterback with such a dynamic skill set. The Niners identified Lance as a player who could take their team to the next level by adding something they don't currently have, whether that be his electric rushing talent or the ability to make big plays downfield in the passing game with more regularity.
Garoppolo is a fine quarterback, and his ability to play point guard and distribute the ball to a variety of dynamic playmakers was nearly enough to get the team a Super Bowl victory two years ago, but we've seen throughout his career that he doesn't bring either of those aforementioned elements to the table. If the 49ers were getting more out of him than merely what opportunities Kyle Shanahan schemes open for him, then delaying the transition to their future would make a bit more sense. But that's not the case. The sooner San Francisco gets on with it and begins developing the elevated version of this scheme, the better.
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