The 49ers’ expectations for Jimmy Garoppolo as he replaces injured Trey Lance

The 49ers’ expectations for Jimmy Garoppolo as he replaces injured Trey Lance

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The 49ers have grown accustomed to an unwanted occurrence. In four of six seasons under coach Kyle Shanahan, they’ve had to replace the top quarterback on their depth chart due to injury.

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk has been with the team since 2017, so he’s had a firsthand look at all of the changes.

“Normally when your quarterback goes down,” Juszczyk said after Sunday’s win over Seattle, “it’s someone who you’re not used to in the huddle.”

The brutal ankle injury to QB Trey Lance during that game, though, resulted in a markedly different dynamic. It didn’t draw someone like Nick Mullens — an undrafted unknown in 2018 — off the practice squad to make his first career start. Nor did it mean that a raw rookie like Lance — who filled in at quarterback last season — would be called on to build instant rapport with the 49ers’ starters.

Nope, instead Jimmy Garoppolo — who’d started 51 games for the 49ers, including a Super Bowl and two NFC Championship Games — trotted in.

“It took some of the shock away,” Juszczyk said. “It felt way more natural (than with another backup QB) with Jimmy in there.”

It also makes our appraisal of the 49ers’ 2022 much more straightforward, even despite the massive shakeup at the most important position. We have a sizable collection of data on Garoppolo and therefore a good idea of what to expect from him, at least on the aggregate.

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The calculus under Lance was much more complicated because he hasn’t finished two consecutive games within a season since 2019 at North Dakota State. The 49ers gambled that sheer inexperience would lend itself to rapid improvement for Lance and that the 22-year-old would work into significantly greater efficiency as this season progressed.

It was an intriguing plan, largely due to the risk it entailed. The 49ers, clearly armed with a strong roster, were betting that they could further raise the performance ceiling of their team come playoff time by developing Lance — and they were willing to risk more short-term volatility for that potential reward.

Just how far did they have to go?

Charting of quarterbacks’ expected points added (EPA) per play and completion percentage over expectation (CPOE), available on analyst Ben Baldwin’s websiteprovides at least a rudimentary snapshot.

Over his relatively small sample of just 173 dropbacks at the NFL level, Lance hasn’t been accurate and the 49ers’ offense hasn’t been particularly efficient — hence the QB’s spot in the bottom left quadrant above. But almost all of Lance’s game action came during his 2021 rookie campaign — during which a broken finger caused major mechanical issues — and the 2022 season opener played under a deluge in Chicago.

In short, Lance’s sample is woefully incomplete for proper evaluation purposes. His ankle injury happened on the 49ers’ 15th offensive play against Seattle. It’s absolutely worth noting that the offense had gotten off to a promising start under the young quarterback up until that point, averaging over 9 yards per play.

At the very least, we can visualize the progress that the 49ers were hoping to see from Lance in 2022 by looking at the graph above. They wanted steady development to move Lance’s dot from the bottom left quadrant toward Garoppolo’s dot, which can be found in the top right quadrant. (Garoppolo’s sample is comprised of 544 snaps from the past two seasons.)

Garoppolo’s dot actually stays in essentially the same place if we zoom out to his entire tenure of 1,596 dropbacks with the 49ers, which started in 2017.

So throughout all the ups, downs, injuries and drama of the past five-plus seasons, Garoppolo’s level of play seems to have aggregated into a consistently good spot.

Now, is the graph saying that Garoppolo has been on par with Aaron Rodgers in terms of quarterback effectiveness, or more accurate than someone like Tom Brady?

No. Those would be incorrect interpretations of the graph — even though Garoppolo has edged out both of those future Hall of Famers in EPA and CPOE, respectively, over the data set.

Both axes — especially the vertical one, which represents EPA — are team and scheme reliant. The data simply indicates that, within the context of Shanahan’s 49ers offense and its specific personnel, Garoppolo has delivered a respectable level of efficiency.

That context is mandatory if we’re to properly handicap expectations for the 49ers’ offense as a whole moving forward.

Garoppolo, in fact, has ranked No. 3 in EPA/play among qualifying quarterbacks since 2017, behind only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes II and retired New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. This means Garoppolo and the 49ers have certainly found teamwide ways to field an efficient offense when he’s been healthy.

Staying healthy, of course, has presented a major challenge for Garoppolo, and that sets up the situation the 49ers have returned to. While Lance rehabs for the next several months, the 49ers’ developmental tightrope act is on hiatus. They’ve come back to the simpler, familiar territory of hoping that Garoppolo remains healthy so he can run point on an efficient attack.

Any contender needs a complementary mix of offensive, defensive and special teams contributions to succeed, but the formula’s specifics differ from team to team. The trajectory of Lance’s development was a relatively unknown variable in Shanahan’s equation for 2022.

This 49ers formula has suddenly re-crystallized with Garoppolo under center.

“I thought Jimmy looked great, and it looked like Niners football,” Juszczyk said. “Man, we’ve been doing this thing for five years and Jimmy’s been around for a long time.”

The 49ers ran 45 times for 189 yards against the Seahawks. Garoppolo was generally crisp with his throws, especially considering the wet conditions. Run and pass developed a symbiotic relationship, and the 49ers controlled the ball for over 38 minutes of game time. Garoppolo and his crew executed the formula in a way that Shanahan will want repeated over this 2022 season.

Sunday’s performance even raised a possibility beyond that. At his locker, Garoppolo seemed thrilled that he was able to open his outing with aggressive throws downfield, including a very accurate one to the deep sideline that receiver Brandon Aiyuk couldn’t quite corral.

Perhaps this pronounced downfield push happened because the 49ers were still operating off the game plan that’d been designed for Lance, whose deep game is more refined than his short attack at this point. But when Garoppolo took the lectern for his news conference, his words suggested that a more aggressive style might be in the cards for his future game plans, too.

Consider that Garoppolo averaged 8.9 air yards per attempt after he initially joined the 49ers in 2017, a figure that ranked 12th of qualifying quarterbacks that season. But since returning from his 2018 ACL tear, Garoppolo’s figure has plummeted nearly two full yards to 7.0 air yards per attempt. That ranks 29th — or last — of qualifying QBs in that three-season span.

So, just how happy was Garoppolo to have opportunities to air out the football in Sunday’s return to the lineup?

“Ecstatic,” he said. “Yeah, it just felt good. We were talking earlier, it kind of felt like 2017, where you just go out throwing, make plays. That’s what I like to do. It’s different than what we usually do around here, but sometimes you need to do that.”

Garoppolo doesn’t mention 2017 in interviews all too often. But on Sunday, he was clearly intentional in his acknowledgment of that season, which featured easily the most efficient stretch of his career. He’d entered the 49ers’ lineup against Seattle in the rain at Levi’s Stadium that year, replacing injured quarterback C.J. Beathard, before ripping off a month of excellent play.

Perhaps there’s some symmetry at play now, five years later. Garoppolo again entered the 49ers’ lineup against Seattle, in the rain at Levi’s. He looked fresh and aggressive, and he was pointedly excited about it afterward.

The rest of this story is unwritten, but the style with which Garoppolo attacks it now that he’s come full circle certainly sets up another compelling chapter.

(Photo: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

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