Right or wrong, quarterbacks have become the focal point of football teams at the highest level of the sport. And at the highest level of the highest level is the Super Bowl, where an annual champion is crowned — and an annual runnerup to a place in history is cemented.
Stakes notwithstanding, the Super Bowl remains at its core a single game of football. And like any game of football the outcome often turns on a small handful of moments.
In each of the past two Super Bowls, a moment has arisen in which the losing quarterback had a chance to make, for lack of a better term, a Championship Throw.
Last year, it was Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who failed to spot a wide-open Brandin Cooks when the NFC Champions ran in the second half a play that had sprung Cooks free in the first half. Surely a topic for locker-room talk during the extended halftime spectacle, Goff flat-out failed to execute when the opportunity came to turn a 3-0 deficit into a 7-3 lead with the game on the line, with the same play being used again.
He saw Cooks too late, and then Goff delivered the ball just enough off target to give Patriots defensive back Jason McCourty an opportunity to close on the throw and break up the touchdown. There’s no guarantee the Rams would have won the game if Goff had made the throw, but that’s the kind of throw that makes a quarterback into a champion.
On Sunday, a similar opportunity arose for 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Down 24-20 with time scarce, Garoppolo drove the 49ers from their own 15 to the Kansas City 49. On third down and 10 with exactly 100 seconds left in the NFL’s 100th season, coach Kyle Shanahan dialed up a deep pass to receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who streaked past the defense and was open for what could have been a walk-in touchdown.
Sanders wasn’t wide open like Cooks, but Sanders was open. Garoppolo saw him, Garoppolo threw the ball fully cognizant of the consequences of the play, and Garoppolo missed Sanders.
How many other quarterbacks would have made that throw? The list isn’t long, but more than a few would have pulled it off. Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers definitely would have delivered. Others likely would have as well, from Deshaun Watson to Ben Roethlisberger to Lamar Jackson to Ryan Tannehill (based on how he played in 2019) to Dak Prescott to Carson Wentz to Matthew Stafford to Matt Ryan. Even Kirk Cousins, despite all the criticism he has absorbed for failing to deliver in big spots, would have had a very good chance to make the throw — especially since he made a throw like that with the season on the line in the wild-card game at New Orleans.
Garoppolo didn’t. Setting aside stats and records and analytics and everything else, the ability to deliver with a Lombardi on the line becomes the ultimate litmus test for a Super Bowl quarterback. Opportunity knocked loud and hard and clear, and Garoppolo didn’t answer.
In a game that many like to make more complex than it is (so that fans will then turn to them for answers when the questions get a little complicated), this one is simple: The brass ring is within reach. Do you grab it?
Goff didn’t grab it last year. Garoppolo didn’t grab it this year. While hardly an epitaph for the career of either quarterback, it’s a gigantic pass/fail data point. What did you do when victory or defeat in the biggest game of all rode on one moment?
Neither quarterback may ever face another situation like that, no matter how long they play. Both could eventually win championships without ever having to deliver in such an obvious, binary, up-or-down spot. Still, for the same reasons that the NFL title can’t ever be taken away from the 2019 Chiefs and the 2018 Patriots, the failures by Goff and Garoppolo become an indelible aspect of their permanent records.
What that means for the 49ers and Garoppolo will be determined based on a much broader array of factors, and the contractual structure devised by the 49ers gives them ample opportunity to make the same kind of dispassionate assessment of their quarterback situation in the same way that coaches and front offices make dispassionate decisions based on every other position on the team. (More on that will come in a separate post.)
If Garoppolo had connected with Sanders, there would be no decision to make — in the same way that teams with the players who can make that throw have no decision to make as to the most important job on the team. In San Francisco, the F that gets applied to Garoppoli for that one specific play could resonate into 2020 and beyond, based how Shanahan and G.M. John Lynch process that broad array of factors flowing from the simple question of whether, on a team loaded with great players, a better option possibly exists when it comes to the player who is responsible for making real-time decisions and dropping real-time dimes when it matters the most.