by Jordy McElroy
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan knew what he had in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and by halftime of Super Bowl LIV, the rest of world did as well.
Shrouded by a stellar rushing attack and the league’s most feared defense, the clandestine playoff run of Garoppolo was undone by the Kansas City Chiefs on the one stage where the darkest secrets come to light. Two interceptions, multiple missed reads and panic under pressure—the 49ers’ $137.5 million quarterback couldn’t swim in deep water.
The jig was up.
Shanahan has been raked through the coals in the aftermath of the Super Bowl loss with many pointing to his conservative play-calling before halftime. The 49ers had a timeout to burn that would have given Garoppolo well over a minute to go to work on another potential scoring drive to break the 10-10 tie. Yet, instead of reaching into his gargantuan bag of offensive tricks, Shanahan opted to run out the clock and safely head back to the locker room.
If Shanahan had Patrick Mahomes as his quarterback, he wouldn’t have made that decision. If he had Matt Ryan behind center again, he would have kept his foot on the gas and tried to knock the Chiefs out of the fight. But he had neither one of those players.
The red cape was wrapped solely around Garoppolo in that moment of time, and deep down, the offensive wizard coach couldn’t trust him to save the day. Shanahan’s concerns would later be realized in the worst fourth-quarter performance by a quarterback in any Super Bowl.
Garoppolo went 2-of-10 passing with less than 10 minutes left in the game for a fourth-quarter quarterback rating of 2.8, which was the lowest in NFL history.
No one wants to hear about what Garoppolo did in the regular season against the New Orleans Saints. The 49ers went out on a limb and signed him to a historic deal because they expected him to help them win a Super Bowl. There is no escaping strident criticism for underperforming with that sort of contract at the most important position on the field.
No one wants to hear about him only having 26 starts, either. It isn’t like he’s a 23-year-old rookie. He has been in the league for six years with an opportunity to sit behind legendary New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, while simultaneously being coached up by Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, before falling into the lap of Shanahan. Few quarterbacks in the league are ever that fortunate.
Years of the best coaching can lead to opportunities in big moments, but it’s ultimately up to the player to make the right read.
Even after the 49ers blew a 10-point lead and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes put the team on the ropes, Garoppolo had a chance to deliver the throw that would forever etch his name in the history books.
As he dropped back to pass out of the gun, speedy receiver Emmanuel Sanders was running on pistons, splitting double coverage in a final desperate attempt to catch and score the game-winning touchdown.
It would have been Garoppolo’s Brady moment.
The difference of Super Bowl LIV was without question the quarterback play. No one expected Garoppolo to go out and actually out-duel Mahomes in an offensive shootout, but there was some hope he’d be more efficient when working in the confines of Shanahan’s offense.
A lack of trust is the one key element that can make or break the working relationship between a coach and quarterback.
Shanahan spent more time behind the scenes with Garoppolo than anyone else, and after countless practices and a full season, he still refused to put the biggest game of the year in the hands of his young quarterback—a roundabout way of admitting the richest man in the room for the 49ers was also the weakest link.