Well, it’s time to put a bow on it. The 2017 season has been a special one for the Los Angeles Rams. It’s somewhat fitting they’ll close it out with a lightly-staffed game against the San Francisco 49ers as Head Coach Sean McVay has confirmed many of the Rams’ key starters will be watching this one in anticipation of the playoffs.
So to get a better understanding of the closeout, I linked up with David Fucillo from Niners Nation, the SB Nation community for 49ers fans.
So we have to start with the obvious. How good is QB Jimmy Garoppolo? Is the turnaround this month completely because of Jimmy G, or did he catalyze something else throughout the team?
Well, we don’t call him GOAToppolo for nothing! OK, we don’t actually call him that, in part because the t-shirt I tried to make with that received a cease and desist order from the NFLPA. The players’ union is saving his GOAT status for their own licensing purposes. That’s reasonable.
How good is Jimmy Garoppolo? He’s as great as you can possibly expect of a quarterback through six career starts. In his first four starts with the 49ers, he has surpassed Kurt Warner’s record for most passing yards in his first four games with a team. He owns most 49ers records for debut starter thus far. Joe Montana and Steve Young are the standard-bearers for 49ers quarterbacks, but they took some time to get going. Garoppolo has skipped that whole taking his time process in two months with the 49ers.
It’s hard not to view the turnaround over the past month as being due entirely to his arrival. We saw the groundwork laid the first three months, but given that the 49ers won four games over a season and a half, winning four straight under Garoppolo is clearly a thing. The 49ers did split their two games under C.J. Beathard prior to Garoppolo’s debut, but this is clearly a different team. The offense is looking better, albeit with a lot of the same red zone issues. The improved offense has in turn helped the defense get on track.
The fact that the offense was doing much of anything prior to Garoppolo is credit Kyle Shanahan deserves. His play-calling truly is unique and creative. Bringing in Garoppolo appears to be giving him the kind of quarterback he needs to take things to another level.
Obviously, an 0-9 start is never going to earn a ton of praise. But the losses from Week 2 through Week 6 came via a combined 13 points. Were you guys really all that far off or did this roster just need time to grow and the arrival of Jimmy G catapulted you guys into a different class of performance?
Those close losses were indicative of a team with some talent that was trying hard, but still clearly had a lot of holes. All five of those losses featured a handful of plays that could have swung the win for the 49ers. Luck is described as when preparation meets opportunity. Some play results are a coin flip, but good times make their own luck. The 49ers were clearly not good enough to get the breaks to fall their way.
Garoppolo has moved them into a new level of play that gets some of these things falling their way, but I do think this team growing together is a big deal. For example, over the past month, the defense has deal with far fewer injuries than during the first two and a half months. The lineup was in constant flux, and while some key contributors are on IR, having the same group working together over multiple weeks, even with lesser talent, is a plus. The defense has holes remaining and plenty of room for growth, but we’re seeing the group come together.
But I would also credit Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch with the culture they are building in Santa Clara. An 0-9 start makes it easy for players to give up or start just looking out for themselves and their own futures. Shanahan has these guys buying into the program. The Garoppolo trade added some enthusiasm, and his move into the starting lineup has created the most optimistic 5-10 team you’ll ever see. And yet, even before Garoppolo’s arrival, players were still fighting and were still buying into what Shanahan was buying. They might not have been happy about losing, but there really wasn’t much in the way of in-fighting. I think that helped this recent surge because the team was already in position to grow as they learned how to win.
What are the major issues on defense? If you were attacking the 49ers defense, how would you do it?
The 49ers have two major weaknesses the Rams should work to exploit. The most notable is cornerback Dontae Johnson. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon will give up some big plays, but is developing into a really solid starter. The veteran Johnson, however, is wildly inconsistent. This past week against Jacksonville, he had a pick-six, and then followed it up with pass interference and defensive holding penalties. He giveth, and he taketh away. I have no doubt Sean McVay will dial up plays to attack Johnson on the regular.
The other notable weakness is covering running backs in the passing game. Screens and swing passes are a kryptonite for this defense. It looks like Todd Gurley won’t play, but I still expect a busy day for the Rams running backs both on the ground and through the air. The 49ers run defense is quite solid, and I really wish we could see Gurley face off against rookie linebacker Reuben Foster. I think Foster vs. Gurley is a matchup we’re going to be talking about for years to come, not just in the NFC West, but in the NFL as a whole. Foster did not play in their first game, and it appears we’ll have to wait for this matchup to materialize next year.
I imagine the Rams running backs will get a steady diet if he plays, but the 49ers pass rush is inconsistent enough that it makes sense to go to the passing game. Short passes can beat a good pass rush, and the 49ers are inconsistent enough in getting to the quarterback that I expect the Rams to work that to their advantage.
Regardless of how this game goes, yall are headed into the offseason riding high. You've got a young, offensively-minded coach with a talented QB and late results to build off of. What needs to happen this offseason? What are your biggest roster needs? What are the core contractual decisions?
This offseason is make or break for the 49ers. They could have as much as $116 million in salary cap space, and they will have a top ten (or 11) draft pick and four picks in the first three rounds. Considering the momentum they have heading into the offseason, this team can make a huge leap with the right investments in March and April. They don’t have many notable free agents outside of Carlos Hyde, so there is plenty of room for some maneuvering.
On the offensive side of the ball, the 49ers need to add interior offensive line help. Joe Staley and Trent Brown are their book-end tackles for the time being, but they have a lot of questions at center (Daniel Kilgore is a free agent) and guard (Laken Tomlinson and Brandon Fusco both are inconsistent at best). They have guard Joshua Garnett coming back from a season on IR, but they need to add another clear starter in the offseason.
Their skill positions around the quarterback have some questions as well. Carlos Hyde is a free agent, and his potential return will depend on what the market dictates for his price. They will get wide receiver Pierre Garçon back from a neck injury, and they have seen Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor, and Kendrick Bourne all emerge. However, at some point they need to add a guy who can be a clear No. 1. I’ve seen a lot of mentions of Allen Robinson in free agency.
On the defensive side of the ball, edge rusher and cornerback are their two biggest needs. They have a couple intriguing pass rushers, but nobody young that consistently gets to the quarterback. Elvis Dumervil is a solid piece, but they need more than that for next year. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has secured a starting spot next year, but they need to either spend a high draft pick on a cornerback, or sign someone like Trumaine Johnson in free agency. If they can add a big time edge rusher and a big time cornerback, this defense will make big strides.
Jimmy Garoppolo looks like some dude who was on Road Rules like 15 years ago and finagled a C-level celebrity lifestyle out of it. That's not a question and I don't even know what that even means, but if I have to start talking shit about Jimmy G for the next several years I need to warm up now.
I read somewhere a while back that Garoppolo and his brothers and friends are like Gronkowski-lite. He’s definitely a bro. And I will say, no family brings as many rock solid jaws to the picture. I’m pretty sure they get it from their mom.
Thanks to Fooch for the time!