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Coach knows best: Here's why the 49ers' Garoppolo is the best choice to beat the Cowboys

Sacramento Bee logo Sacramento Bee 1/14/2022 Chris Biderman, The Sacramento Bee

Jan. 14—Kyle Shanahan proved me wrong.

I made the case for starting rookie Trey Lance over Jimmy Garoppolo in the do-or-die game against the Rams. I thought Garoppolo couldn't be trusted with a torn ligament and avulsion fracture in his thumb after throwing two costly interceptions two weeks prior in Tennessee. Lance played well enough in his start against Houston — and his big arm and athleticism made him dangerous in a game the 49ers absolutely had to win — making him the better option than the compromised incumbent.

Then Garoppolo finally had his signature moment with San Francisco. It was a performance his critics, like myself, didn't think he was capable of. He led the 49ers on a game-tying drive with 1:27 left, needing to 88 yards with no timeouts. The season was on the line and Garoppolo came through, helping San Francisco overcome a 17-point deficit to cap the most memorable regular season game of Shanahan's tenure.

According to Next Gen Stats, the 49ers had a 0.4% probability to win after they punted just inside the two-minute warning. Their win was less likely than the Patriots' comeback against the Falcons in February of 2017, when they were down 28-3 midway through the third quarter.

Garoppolo is no Joe Montana, but he did a fine impression in the biggest moment of the season. Lose and it would have ended. Win and make the playoffs, where anything can happen in a wide open NFC.

Now Garoppolo is the rightful starter for Sunday's wild card game against the Dallas Cowboys, giving him another chance to prove Shanahan made the right choice by sticking with the veteran all along.

Sticking with Jimmy G

Really, it was never a difficult decision in Shanahan's mind, despite the noise back when the 49ers lost four in a row and began the season 3-5.

On Wednesday, I asked Shanahan what the Garoppolo skeptics got wrong, now that he had the benefit of hindsight which had fueled my case for Lance back when it appeared the 49ers were on the cusp of collapsing in October.

"I think it's human nature, I guess," Shanahan said, deciding not to dunk on his critics despite getting tossed the lob. "And I think it's when you trade up and everyone's real excited and you get a quarterback with the third pick of the draft, I think everyone's waiting to see."

It took courage and belief for Shanahan to stick with Garoppolo, who had four interceptions and two lost fumbles over a three-game stretch from weeks 3 to 7, which included a calf injury suffered against the Seahawks that led to Lance making his starting debut Week 5 against the Cardinals. That's when the 49ers lost four straight.

"I think as soon as you have a bad record and things don't look right," Shanahan said, "regardless of whether you have a backup on the bench that everyone wants to see, or whether you don't, when you're 3-5 and you've lost four in a row, whether you're the coordinators, the head coach or the quarterback, that's just how it is. And when you have a rookie sitting there on the bench, it's what's expected."

Which is a reminder of the culture Shanahan has instilled since he took over in 2017 and was such a prominent part of their run to the Super Bowl two years later.

Culture can be a meaningless buzzword used by athletes and coaches to tell lies. Bad teams with players and coaches who hate going to work can say publicly they believe in the culture in the building — but ultimately the proof lies in the product on the field. Culture can't be faked.

Quarterback controversy? Not with 49ers

This season was rife with challenges and potential pitfalls for the 49ers and Shanahan. The quarterback situation looked like it could have been dramatic, controversial and perhaps season defining. Instead, Shanahan stood pat while Garoppolo maintained the starting job and was nothing but a good teammate to Lance along the way.

The proof came Sunday, when the 49ers showed their resolve by coming back in a game that could have been a catastrophic blowout. They took the Rams' best punch in the first half when they fell behind 17-0, and then threw haymakers of their own in the second, with everyone in white, red and gold pulling in the same direction.

"We really don't splinter in here," Shanahan said. "Guys aren't going to just get caught up in that stuff and come and force anything like that. And it allows you to make the right decisions."

That's why the 49ers culture matters. They banded together at the biggest moment of the season and beat the Rams with physicality in the third quarter and Garoppolo's arm in the fourth and overtime. Shanahan dialed up the right plays against the right looks, getting Jauan Jennings open for Deebo Samuel to throw a game-tying touchdown pass, and then Jennings wide open for a walk-in touchdown to tie it again late.

The defense held its own. The pass rush was too much for the Rams to stop. Arik Armstead had his best game as a 49er. Nick Bosa was a problem — and Arden Key and Samson Ebukam continued to shine in defensive line coach Kris Kocurek's attacking formations.

49ers vs. Cowboys

All of which makes the 49ers dangerous against the Cowboys. If Garoppolo can limit his mistakes and ride the wave of momentum that started in that second half, Shanahan's team might be able to outmuscle the Cowboys and pull off an upset. And that could extend Garoppolo's tenure with San Francisco at least one more week.

Garoppolo acknowledged Wednesday this season has been tough on him mentally after Shanahan and the front office made one of the biggest moves in franchise history to land his replacement. Perhaps that lit a fire in Garoppolo that burned through the Rams defense and led to the most dramatic win of his time with the 49ers. Perhaps that continues Sunday in Dallas.

Garoppolo is one of the most important players in the locker room. That manifested at SoFi Stadium on Sunday. The Cowboys game or the remaining playoff weekends could be Garoppolo's lost with San Francisco, a fact that isn't lost on him. He's been juggling the emotional side of it.

"It's a fine line. You kind of toe it every day, really. At least I do," Garoppolo said. "There is a lot of emotion that goes into this game, but when those moments, those big moments happen at the end of the game, you really have to kind of just stay cool down the middle. And I think our team does a good job of that as a whole. ... I love this team, love the players, love everything about it. It's a good group to be around, fun group. And we want to keep this thing going for as long as we can now."

Sunday's game could be a classic. 49ers-Cowboys, one of the best rivalries in American sports in the '90s that could be rekindled if the drama comes close to matching what happened against the Rams. The Garoppolo subplot adds another layer after he proved he was the right guy for this team and this season.


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