Jimmy Garoppolo, Kyle Shanahan, and the Marriage of Talent & Scheme
NFL trade deadline rarely means anything. In a typical season, one or two mid-tier players get moved. Nothing truly exciting happens. This year was an anomaly; a beautiful, chaotic rarity. Offensive tackle Duane Brown was traded to the Seattle Seahawks. Running back Jay Ajayi was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron was nearly traded to the Cleveland Browns, but faulty paperwork on one side or the other derailed the deal.
The most important deal happened a few days before the deadline, though. Sitting at 0-8, the San Francisco 49ers accepted their fate this season and started preparing for the future. They traded a second-round pick to New England for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The trade makes sense for both teams. Bill Belichick now has an extra top-50 pick at his disposal in exchange for a quarterback he was not likely to retain, given Tom Brady’s apparent health and longevity. On the other side, Kyle Shanahan now has a quarterback he has long admired, dating back to Shanahan’s days with the Cleveland Browns.
To be clear, Garoppolo will not save the 49ers’ season, but he fits perfectly into what Shanahan wants to accomplish moving forward. Let’s dig into how Garoppolo should look in Shanahan’s offense.
The Player: Jimmy G
It is foolish to assume certainty about the quality of Jimmy Garoppolo’s game. Through three and a half years in the NFL, Garoppolo has thrown fewer than 100 passes and started only two games. He has looked good in the small sample, but it is difficult to assure he can be that type of player all the time. Instead, cautious optimism is the best approach with Garoppolo, especially this season while San Francisco’s roster is still a mess. With that said, Garoppolo provides plenty to be hopeful about.
Part of Garoppolo’s appeal is his confidence. He is not afraid to attack a matchup he likes or to chuck it downfield. That is not to say he is reckless, but he is appropriately aggressive. Garoppolo forces defenses to respect the intermediate and deeper sections of the field.
Here is an example of Garoppolo attacking an advantageous matchup. To the bottom of the screen, wide receiver Chris Hogan is lined up 1-on-1 with cornerback Brandon Williams. Hogan, a known deep threat, should be able to beat a rookie cornerback vertically more times than not. Garoppolo trusted that to be the case, and it paid off.
Garoppolo drops back with his eyes directed down the middle of the field to hold the safety. He then cuts his drop short, turns to Hogan, and rips a strike to the wide open receiver for a touchdown. What makes this play so impressive is that Hogan is the “alert” player. The “alert” is often a lone vertical route opposite the play-side concept. A quarterback must assess the matchup and choose whether or not he wants to throw it there pre-snap. Garoppolo liked Hogan’s chances on this one and trusted his teammate to make a play. Such swagger and confidence is contagious.
Furthermore, that type of play requires a deep understanding and trust of the system. Garoppolo has the ability to maximize an offensive system in other ways, too. Bill Belichick’s schemes are obviously masterpieces, but Garoppolo often proved he could make plays within the system that previous backups to Tom Brady would not have made.
Garoppolo has impressive knowledge of progressions and how to make throwing his next progression easier. There are flashes of legitimate veteran savvy in Garoppolo’s limited film.
On this play, Garoppolo adjusts his throwing angle after moving off of his initial read. He opens to his left to confirm a blitz is coming. However, one of the presumed blitzers, Tyrann Mathieu, steps toward the quarterback at first before quickly dropping into a short zone around the left hash. Garoppolo realizes this takes away the short crosser moving from right to left. Without panic, he takes a few steps to his right to provide himself an open throwing lane to the other short crosser moving from left to right. That minor throwing platform adjustment may not seem like much, but it displays Garoppolo’s confidence in what he sees and how to accomplish his goal on a given play.
Garoppolo has also proven he can learn within a single game. No quarterback gets every read correct, but the best will not get the same read wrong twice in a row. Garoppolo proved he could do that in his first start versus the Arizona Cardinals in 2016.
Garoppolo is tasked with 3rd-and-3 on this play. To his right, there is a double-slant and flat combination out of a trips set. A slot-out and vertical combination occupies the back side. Garoppolo should notice the leverage advantage of the innermost receiver on the trips side. That player is responsible for running into the flat. The defender across from him is aligned about two yards inside, meaning the receiver should have plenty of room in the flat. Garoppolo spaces on the easy play and locks onto the slot player to the back side, ultimately resulting in an incompletion.
Later in the game, Garoppolo was faced with 3rd-and-5 in the same general situation as before. The Patriots call the same double-slant and flat combination to the trips side. This time, however, Garoppolo recognizes the advantage the flat receiver has. Once again, the Cardinals defender responsible for the innermost receiver is lined up too far inside to cover the flat. Garoppolo makes the easy throw this time and picks up a first down.
The difference between the two plays is the outside cornerback on the trips side. In the first play, the outside cornerback is playing off-coverage, allowing him to possibly see the flat and get there for the tackle. The outside cornerback is in press-man on the second play, so he would take himself out of the flat. Nevertheless, it would have been a difficult play for the outside cornerback to make the first time around. The throw and conversion was likely there.
Learning from mistakes is important for quarterbacks. It is promising for Garoppolo to have shown that ability, despite such limited playing time. Finding his groove and fully understanding how to correct mistakes in a new offense may take time, but at least Garoppolo has proven capable of doing so with enough time in a system.
What Garoppolo should provide right away is pocket presence. Between Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard, the 49ers have not seen comfort in the pocket from their quarterbacks this season. Part of the issue is a middling offensive line, but Hoyer and Beathard magnified that weakness rather than diminishing it. Garoppolo can help take pressure off of the offensive line because he’s capable of functioning in tight spaces.
Confidence, again, is the key component. A quarterback must trust himself to sift through the pocket and find the right play. He must also be willing to take a hit, rather than be so skittish that he ends up running into a sack anyway. The difference between Hoyer and Garoppolo in that regard is staggering.
Hoyer is presented with a wide open receiver early in the play. Garoppolo’s best immediate option is sandwiched between two zone defenders, forcing him to look elsewhere. Hoyer does not pull the trigger on the early throw, then his internal time bomb goes off, and he flounders into a sack. Garoppolo moves up in the pocket, resets his eyes to find his initial receiver, and makes a throw as he gets popped in the chest by a defender. Hoyer was presented with the easier play, yet it was Garoppolo who completed his throw.
Poise and a willingness to make tough plays separates Garoppolo from the two quarterbacks who preceded him in San Francisco. Garoppolo is also more capable of creating explosive plays. Though not a true dual-threat, Garoppolo can extend plays and has the arm to complete passes while off platform. The 49ers offense has lacked that element this season.
Jimmy Garoppolo has the best skill set of any 49ers quarterback this season. That is not a high bar to clear, but it counts for something. He has a lightning-quick release and the arm talent to match. He can place passes wherever he pleases at any level of the field. Additionally, Garoppolo can process the field well, both pre-snap and post-snap. Despite not seeing much live action, he also has the requisite poise to be a quality starting quarterback. Add Garoppolo’s confidence as the proverbial cherry-on-top, and it is fair to predict the 49ers have found a real quarterback.
The Scheme: Kyle Shanahandsome
Kyle Shanahan is the best and most ingenious offensive mind in football right now. That is not outlandish to proclaim, nor is it a slight to anyone else around the league. Shanahan is that brilliant. He helped orchestrate Matt Schaub’s only good stretch of play, as well as Robert Griffin’s historic rookie season. Most recently, Shanahan masterminded the 2016 Atlanta Falcons offense that rivaled St. Louis’ Greatest Show On Turf. It is a miracle he has made this 49ers offense look semi-functional.
Instrumental to Shanahan’s success is deceit. A majority of Shanahan’s formations, shifts, and route concepts look like something else until well into the play. Defenses are often caught guessing and slow-playing versus Shanahan’s offense. He does not make it easy to key in on his offense.
Shanahan has most noticeably made tweaks to his yankee concept. Yankee is typically a play-action framework in which one receiver runs a deep crosser, while a receiver on the other side of the formation runs a deep post. Shanahan runs the concept so much that defensive backs can expect it, though they often still cannot defend it. He forces defensive backs to second guess themselves.
The yellow lines highlight the path of a typical yankee concept. The receiver on the right is running the crosser and the receiver on the left is running the post. On this play, however, Shanahan turned the routes on their heads. Rather than run a crosser and a post, both of which break inside, the receivers stop and break to the boundaries. The defensive backs expect inward breaks and over-commit to that part of the field. With a good throw, the play should generate free yards to the outside.
Of course, Hoyer leaves this one just wide of Pierre Garcon, who got a hand on the pass, but was not able to haul it in. Garoppolo has better arm strength and touch than Hoyer, so he should be able to hit these types of throws.
An underrated aspect of this play is the pre-snap shift and fullback action. Shifting a player to a tight end position gives the illusion of a heavier blocking scheme. To that same tune, the fullback running into the line of scrimmage mimics a lead zone run. The linebackers bite down on what they believe is a run and leave space over the middle for yankee calls later in the game. Every level of the defense is forced to rethink how to play against this look the next time around. Shanahan is always setting up his next punch.
He also likes to attach routes to outside zone runs that attack behind or over the linebackers. The idea is that defenses will flow with the wide blocking scheme, thus creating a back side passing window. Many other offenses around the league do this, but Shanahan has made it a staple of his offense.
Shanahan will mix up the routes he is running with outside zone. In the first example, wide receiver Aldrick Robinson is lined up on the back side and runs a quick slant behind the run play. The window is there for a completion, but Beathard throws off balance and cannot connect. The second example features two routes: a back side post and a play side crosser moving opposite of the run. As the linebackers flow left, a window opens up for the crosser and Hoyer is able to hit the open man.
Talking about Shanahan’s passing offense would not be complete without highlighting his affinity for boot-action concepts. While those quick-drop outside zone fakes are nice, Shanahan has to keep defenses honest. That is where boot-action comes in. Rather than having the quarterback cut his drop off in the pocket, he flips his shoulders and moves opposite of the run fake.
With as well as Shanahan changes up his run looks, boot-actions concepts thrive in his offense because defenses tend to fast-flow to the ball. This sort of action opens up easy throws in the flat via shallow crossers, flat routes, and pivot routes. Mobile quarterbacks with good short-area placement maximize these concepts.
What ties all of these concepts to Garoppolo is how they attack all three levels of the field. Shanahan’s yankee concept and other hard play-action fakes will give Garoppolo opportunities down the field and over the middle. Quick throws and boot-action off outside zone runs will give Garoppolo open throws in the short and intermediate areas. Garoppolo’s mobility, touch, and decisiveness are the perfect combination of skills for such schemes.
Shanahan’s offense will also trust Garoppolo to read the entire field when in shotgun. More times than not, Shanahan calls a quick game concept on one side and a more aggressive combination on the other side when in the ‘gun. He gives the quarterback multiple looks and the option to be aggressive or take the easy yards. Considering Garoppolo had similar responsibilities in New England, taking to Shanahan’s shotgun passing offense should not be too strenuous.
Realistic Expectations for Jimmy Garoppolo
The 49ers offense is not equipped to produce right now. Even if Garoppolo steps in and performs well immediately, he simply doesn’t have enough good pass catchers. Many of Hoyer and Beathard’s best passes (though few in number) have been wasted due to drops. There is no reason to expect that to dramatically change under Garoppolo, even though he should make some passes easier to catch.
Garoppolo may not even play until after the 49ers’ Week 11 bye, if not later. It would be best to give him those two weeks to absorb everything he can, similar to what Minnesota did when they traded for Sam Bradford a year ago. San Francisco is out of the playoff hunt, with or without Garoppolo. There is no reason to rush him along.
Expect the 49ers to commit to Garoppolo as the future, not as the present. As stated before, Shanahan has long admired Garoppolo and his style of play. Shanahan should be able to maintain a great scheme around his new quarterback. This feels like a project the 49ers are prepared to move ahead with at full steam.
How good Jimmy Garoppolo can be is still a mystery. The tape he has put together thus far suggests he has enough tools to work with. Pair those tools with the single most brilliant offensive mind in football, and it’s easy to get excited about what San Francisco has in the works.