Football

Dieter Kurtenbach: Jimmy Garoppolo’s nightmare practice highlights a big concern for 49ers

Training camp is supposed to be a time where teams find answers.

But heading into the most important stretch of their preseason – two joint practices with the Broncos in Colorado on Friday and Saturday and then an exhibition game against them at Mile High Stadium on Monday – there are still an awful lot of questions surrounding these 49ers.

Questions about health, depth, scheme, and spending. So much – too much, perhaps – about these Niners seems to be in flux. It's simply impossible to know what to make of this team with the regular season fast approaching.

And the biggest question surrounding the 49ers might just be their starting quarterback.

Jimmy Garoppolo's training camp has been inauspicious – up-and-down at best – and his Wednesday practice was, without a doubt, his worst performance of the preseason. At one point, he threw five straight interceptions.

"Obviously he struggled," Niners coach Kyle Shanahan deadpanned.

And while Shanahan tried to spin the nightmarish performance off as a learning experience for Garoppolo, five straight interceptions is unspinnable.

Yes, it's only training camp – panic at your own peril. And, it should also be noted that Garoppolo has a reputation for being a less-than-outstanding practice player.

But the truth is that we still don't really know if Garoppolo is an outstanding in-game player – the kind who can lift the 49ers to their first playoff appearance since 2013. And his poor practice Wednesday put his play in the spotlight as the team travels west.

There won't be real games in Colorado, but Garoppolo will be going up against a defense that's not comprised of his teammates for the first time since he tore his ACL in Kansas City last September. These inter-squad practices are valuable evaluation opportunities for coaches and observers alike, and Garoppolo might be the Niner the most to prove over the weekend.

With former Niners' defensive coordinator Vic Fangio at the helm, the Broncos are expected to have one of the best defenses in the NFL this year. If Garoppolo practices well and performs in his limited preseason snaps against that defense, the stink from Wednesday's practice and the inconsistent, uninspiring performances he's posted so far in training camp will wash away. But if he continues to show a penchant for throwing the ball to the other team, it might be enough to further temper the once-feverish optimism that surrounded this Niners team heading into the 2019 season.

The 27-year-old quarterback has a chokehold on the starting quarterback job and carries the big-money contract that often accompanies such a status, but he's, at best, still a mystery. He's thrown fewer passes in his NFL career than second-year Dolphins quarterback Josh Rosen – whom the Cardinals tacitly deemed a bust and traded away after one season.

In eight starts under Kyle Shanahan, Garoppolo has completed 64% of his throws, scored 12 total touchdowns (11 passing, one rushing) and posted eight interceptions and five fumbles (none lost). His touchdown and interceptable pass rates are the same – 4.1 percent. The latter is on par with now-Rams quarterback Blake Bortles, whose name is literally a punchline in a sitcom.

Garoppolo's backup – or, rather, one of the guys vying to be his backup – put up similar numbers in his eight starts under Shanahan: Nick Mullens completed 64% of his passes, racked up 13 touchdowns through the air, and was intercepted 10 times with two fumbles (none lost) last year. He had a 4.7 touchdown percentage and an interceptable pass rate (per PreSnapReads) of 2.9 percent.

I'm not saying that there should be a quarterback controversy in Santa Clara – Garoppolo is clearly the superior talent to the undrafted free agent out of Southern Miss.

But I am saying that talent isn't everything and Garoppolo needs to start proving that the organization's faith in him is justified.

That faith was forged in the quarterback's magical five-game run at the end of the 2017 season. That was a long time ago. Three unspectacular games couldn't – and shouldn't – have shaken that faith last year. But the faith is yet to be validated – even in an empty way – so far in a camp where the "defense has been ahead of the offense" for a few weeks and especially on Wednesday.

The 49ers' offense is currently dealing with injuries and inexperience, but the pieces should be in place for Garoppolo to not just be an adequate quarterback, but one of the best in the NFL this season. He'll have an elite offensive coordinator, an elite tight end, a bevy of versatile offensive weapons, and one of the best tackle pairings in the NFL in Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey.

With that around, it's not ridiculous to think that Garoppolo could throw for more than 4,000 yards and win Comeback Player of the Year, restoring the Niners' respectability in the process.

But if that's the path Garoppolo is going to take this season, it'd be nice if he'd hint at it ahead of time.

And Colorado seems like a nice place to start, no?

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