Again, we see it: Jimmy Garoppolo can only take the 49ers so far

After Sunday night's thriller, the 49ers have to start asking themselves hard questions about their good-not-great starting quarterback. (Especially with Trey Lance on ice.)

This was the other quarterback’s golden opportunity to prove he belonged. On primetime, against the reigning MVP, Jimmy Garoppolo had the ball with 7 minutes and 18 seconds to go.

He couldn’t ask for a better redemption story.

The last time most of America saw the San Francisco 49ers starter play a game with this much on the line, he was overthrowing Emmanuel Sanders in the Super Bowl.

Forever good. Rarely great. That’s been the story of his career and that’s why Kyle Shanahan parted with three first-rounders for the right to draft North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.

What a chance to shut us all up once and for all. A field goal tied the game. A touchdown won it. And, first, NBC’s Cris Collinsworth strangely assured everyone at home that the longer Lance stays right there on the sideline the better. A pair of gift-wrapped Packers penalties moved the ball across midfield and with 6-foot-4, 314-pound Kenny Clark in his face, what did the savvy vet do? Garoppolo turtled to his left and attempted a desperate, sad spike of a throwaway backwards. Which was a fumble.

Miraculously, the 49ers avoided an Aaron Rodgers killshot to force a field goal.

Garoppolo got the ball back — now down six points — with one more chance to prove he is, in fact, the answer.

And this drive was also the 49ers’ plight in a nutshell. As both Rodgers and Davante Adams appeared utterly distraught on the sideline — speechless that they even gave San Fran this chance — a trio of 49ers teammates supplied herculean efforts.

  • On third and 10, George Kittle rammed his way through the defense for 39 yards.

  • On another third and 10, Deebo Samuel hauled in a 13-yarder in traffic.

  • And on what you may have assumed to be the game-winner, fullback Kyle Juszczyk ran a circle route over the middle, hauled it in and bowled over a defender at the goal line.

It was a joyous moment for a quarterback under so much heat. Garoppolo caught the lens of the on-field camera, shouted “Let’s go!” and San Francisco took a 28-27 lead. Of course, astute observers who knew this game was far from over likely noticed that Garoppolo snapped the ball with 12 seconds — twelve! — still on the play clock. It was another egregious error. The Packers were out of timeouts. The 49ers still had all of their timeouts. There was zero need to hurry anything because the Packers were completely helpless. Unless the Packers instructed all 11 players on defense to play dead and let the 49ers score, this game would be completely decided by Garoppolo and the 49ers.

We all know what happened next.

At his own 25-yard line, Rodgers had 37 seconds (instead of only 25) and calmly hit Davante Adams for a pair of completions to tee up Mason Crosby’s 51-yarder.

Packers 30, 49ers 28.

On the Packers’ side, there was pure joy. This night had to feel like a therapeutic release of emotion for all parties involved. For six months, this team had no clue if their quarterback wanted to play football, yet they were steadfast. An offseason of drama to Mark Murphy, Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur was worth one more shot at a ring. Readers here know how I felt about that decision. The opportunity at a reset — gobbling up an unlimited supply of picks and players from Denver or Vegas or even these Niners — would’ve been a smart long-term play. Still, I do get the logic. Super Bowl runs are rare and you can make the case that only five or six teams in the league have a realistic shot at winning it all.

So Green Bay ran it back and the talent disparity at quarterback this night was 100 percent the difference.

Exactly as it was the difference in the 49ers’ Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs.

Exactly as it will always be the difference with Garoppolo.

Let’s hope Kyle Shanahan sipped some Nyquil and was able to at least snare a couple hours of sleep Sunday night.

This game highlighted the most maddening quarterback conundrum in the league. All of the Garoppolos in the world will always give the Rodgerses of the world that sliver of opportunity. If San Francisco would’ve won, of course, the country spends all week crowning “Jimmy G” as cold-blooded. It’s not as if Garoppolo was terrible. He threw for 257 yards and two scores but that’s the frustration. The sooner the 49ers can get Lance ready to play, the sooner they’ll win a Super Bowl.

No wonder Shanahan tried to acquire Rodgers himself last offseason. Regardless of what either coach says, that had to fuel coldest of cold handshakes you’ll ever see between supposed friends after a game. NFL Network even reported this offseason that there was a rift in this friendship over Shanahan’s pursuit of the MVP. And when LaFleur told him Rodgers was not for sale? Shanahan didn’t stop. He moved up for Lance. The arm. The size. The elusiveness. Lance allows Shanahan to open up pages of his playbook that did not exist before.

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Is he a project? Absolutely. Should the 49ers be scared? No. All other rookie QBs may be struggling but, c’mon. Those rosters in Chicago and New York are junkyards compared to the 49ers’ five-star theme park.

Lance will be in a position to instantly succeed here.

Possibly, Shanahan is trying to follow Andy Reid’s model in Kansas City. Reid sat his supernatural talent at QB, Patrick Mahomes, all season behind Alex Smith in 2017. Smith, too, is a QB who could only take a team so far. I thought former 49ers team writer Joe Fann put it perfectly last night: 80 percent of Shanahan is likely sick of Garoppolo and 20 percent doesn’t trust Lance is ready.

That 80 percent will only tug at the head coach more and more as this 17-game season grinds on, too.

Long before those fateful seven minutes, this was a herky-jerky night for Garoppolo. Even his completions were quite a challenge. Take his 16-yarder to Mohamed Sanu. If he actually hits the wide-open vet on the money, Sanu’s gone for another 20 or 30 yards. Instead, he threw extremely low, Sanu bailed him out and a replay nearly overturned the catch.

He threw a deep interception into double coverage.

He’s zero threat to run the zone read in an offense that’d enter an entirely new dimension with a quarterback capable of doing so.

Any pressure in the pocket and he’s likely to cave. The Packers had 11 quarterback hits in all but a lot of that had to do with Garoppolo’s inability to move. Lance isn’t going to read the field as well as Garoppolo but he’d certainly evade many of those hits.

Garoppolo is the classic case of a quarterback who deserves to start in the NFL but has an obvious ceiling and this… this… this is still difficult to watch:

The key now for Shanahan is knowing precisely when to embrace Lance. I’d rip the Band-Aid off now. It’s not as if you’re risking a turnover machine. Unlike Matt Nagy in Chicago, Shanahan will keep Lance playing ahead of sticks in the right plays at the right time. It’s OK to incubate him for a few weeks, too. He can still piece together wins, just as Russell Wilson did early in his career.

Know this, too: Shootouts are coming. The Los Angeles Rams scored at will against the defending champions. Sean McVay’s gamble on Matthew Stafford is paying off — everything is so rhythmic, so easy in L.A. right now. The Arizona Cardinals are 3-0. It wasn’t pretty against the Jaguars, but Kyler Murray will entice Garoppolo into a 38-35 game. And even though the Seattle Seahawks are now 1-2, they’ve got Wilson in his prime.

Rolling with Lance allows the 49ers to play a different type of game, one in which San Francisco runs 40 times and throws it 20 times. They can force these other three teams to play on their terms.

The sooner Lance is the starter, the sooner San Francisco can get behind a new offense.

Better clock management wouldn’t hurt, either.

“Well, you're always conscious of (the clock)," Garoppolo said afterward. “In that situation, there's a lot of different things going on. But yeah, game clock, you're always trying to get it as low as you can. It's just tough when you've got a guy like Aaron on the other side. You leave him any amount of time, you never know what can happen. I mean, the dude did it in 36, 37 seconds. You've got to tip your hat to him sometimes.”

Agreed. You should.

The Packers are flying high now. Be on the lookout for Tuesday’s podcast with Bob McGinn for a full breakdown. With a string of winnable games ahead, that Week 1 beatdown against the Saints will feel like a distant memory. (If it doesn’t already.)

As for the 49ers, the fun theatrics shouldn’t fool them.

All this game did was move San Francisco closer to the Trey Lance Era.

And that’s a good thing.

Chargers make a statement

Every so often, we get to hear what a star player really believes. A hot mic catches a quarterback without a handler around to mitigate the damage.  

At the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship in Lake Tahoe last July, a fan yelled out for Patrick Mahomes to watch out for Justin Herbert this season… and even the NFL’s most marketable entity couldn’t help himself.

“I’ll see it when I believe it,” said Mahomes.

With that, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback continued to strut toward his next shot as only he can. No one who has watched the transcendent quarterback’s rise could really argue with him because it’s this precise aura — this inevitability — that overwhelms the competition. (Even when he flubs the idiom.)

After Sunday, it’s time to believe.

Herbert is a star, too.

The Los Angeles Chargers stunned the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, 30-24, and the reason was a coach, a quarterback and a team that is not scared. Coach Brandon Staley refused to settle for a field goal when the game was deadlocked at 24-24, a pass interference kept the drive alive and Herbert then hit the towering Mike Williams on a pair of lobs to put the Chargers up six with 32 seconds left.

Unlike Rodgers, KC’s Mahomes needed to go the full length of the field. His Hail Mary heave fell short.

Herbert finished 26 of 38 for 281 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, turned the ball over four times.

Afterward, Staley said he knew he needed to be aggressive against Mahomes and the Chiefs. Anything less than that and you’re toast. These are the “Golden State Warriors” on a football field, he said. This offense loaded with Curry-like, Klay-like, Durant-like playmakers does not relent so you cannot relent. Staley also knows he has a special quarterback of his own in the 23-year-old Herbert.

Man, these battles in the AFC West are going to be fun.

No Huddle

  • The Real Josh Allen stood up in Orchard Park Sunday. What a relief this had to be internally for anyone in the organization worried Allen’s old habits were creeping back into his game. He finished 32 of 48 for 358 yards with four touchdowns, no picks and another late score on the ground. After that fifth TD, Allen spun the ball, headbutted some teammates and this sure felt like 2020 all over again. In two weeks, Buffalo gets a rematch with the Chiefs.

  • The Bears threw Justin Fields into the wolves and… it was not pretty. Their offense generated one net passing yard. Fields completed only six passes, was sacked nine times and hit 15 times. It’s a sad state of affairs in Chicago. Fields may be bursting with talent — arguably no QB was better in college, he deserves this opportunity — but the infrastructure for success does not exist here. Who stays and who goes this January?

  • OK, the Ravens should’ve been flagged for delay of game on their game-winning drive. OK, Justin Tucker’s NFL-record, 66-yard kick was incredible. But let’s not forget what even made this all possible. With his back foot planted as his own eight-yard line, on fourth and 19, quarterback Lamar Jackson found Sammy Watkins for 36 yards. Again, Jackson made the throw he absolutely needed to.

  • If Mac Jones is putting the ball in the air 51 times, the Patriots are going to lose. (They did.) If Ben Roethlisberger is putting the ball in the air 58 times, the Steelers are also going to lose. (They did.) I’m all for teams experimenting with different ways to win and if there are two coaches capable of pulling this off, it’s Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin. But Sunday was a sobering reminder for both longtime contenders that they’ll need defense — a ton of defense — to somehow win in today’s pass-heavy game.

  • This is why the Titans offense is so tough to beat in 2021. Julio Jones finishes with three receptions, Derrick Henry averages only four yards per carry, AJ Brown injures his hamstring, pass-catching tight end Anthony Firkser (knee) misses a second straight game and they still mustered enough offense to knock off the Colts, 25-16.

  • Hear that? The clock is ticking on GM Dave Gettleman in New York. The running back he drafted No. 2 overall (Saquon Barkley) averaged 3.2 yards per carry. Daniel Jones was average. Linebacker Blake Martinez tore his ACL. And the Giants lost at home to the lowly Atlanta Falcons. It’s gotten so bad here that co-owner John Mara was even booed by fans at the halftime ceremony for Eli Manning. While coach Joe Judge had his team fighting in a similar hole one year ago, New York’s upcoming schedule is brutal: Saints, Cowboys, Rams, Panthers, Chiefs, Raiders, Buccaneers. Woof. Good luck to all.

Stay tuned

And, finally, a Go Long programming.

Beyond psyched to share some major news with you all on Tuesday AM. Our goal here is to bring you as close to the game as possible. I think you’ll love what we have cooking. (Especially those subscribers here in Western New York.)

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