SANTA CLARA (AP) — When Jimmy Garoppolo got thrown into the lineup as San Francisco’s quarterback just weeks after joining the 49ers, simply getting a play off in time was an accomplishment.
Garoppolo overcame that limited knowledge of coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense to put together an impressive 5-0 finish to the season as one of the NFL’s most productive quarterbacks down the stretch.
It will be a very different Garoppolo heading into Sunday’s season opener at Minnesota than he was in his first start in Chicago in December. He was given a $137.5 million contract in the offseason and has had months to learn the whys and hows of Shanahan’s complex offense.
“We were trying to avoid the delay of game in Chicago,” he said. “That was a big part of it. I think every week last year I progressively got more and more comfortable with winning obviously and learning new things every week. Every week I was hearing new things for the first time that I had never heard before. So, it was that comfort level that just keeps growing as you get more along with the offense and learn more.”
That comfort level is astronomically higher after getting more practice time with his receivers and offense.
Garoppolo also took advantage of the opportunity to spend more time away from the 49ers facility with his teammates, whether it was informal sessions or non-football bonding to build chemistry with players who were almost strangers when he played last year.
“Last year I was in a tough situation because I really didn’t have any extra time to go out and hang out with the guys,” he said. “I was trying to learn as quickly as possible. So, this offseason we’ve had a lot more time to do things together away from football and kind of get to know each other on a more personal level.”
How Garoppolo fares this year is one of the most intriguing questions in the NFL as he has shown great promise winning all seven of his career starts to earn the lucrative contract but still has very little track record.
What Garoppolo has done on the field has been impressive. He completed 67.4 percent of his passes last season, averaging 8.8 yards per attempt with seven TDs, five interceptions and a 96.2 rating.
Among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts last season, Garoppolo ranked first in yards per attempt, fourth in completion percentage. His 308.4 yards passing per game in his five starts also would have led the league had he played a full season.
Defenses now have had plenty of time to study Garoppolo in San Francisco’s system but Shanahan doesn’t see that being a major hindrance.
“You hear that all the time with quarterbacks,” he said. “You figure the scheme out and then you stop plays. Then, you put other stuff in to get other people open and you see if the quarterback is capable of doing other stuff. I think Jimmy’s capable of making any type of throw. I think he sees the field very well. It’s not like they’re going to learn how to stop him from running with the ball and then stop him from throwing it. Jimmy has a very talented arm.”
He knows how to play in the pocket. Hopefully we can continue to get guys here to separate, help get people open in zone and give him time to go through progressions and give him a running game not to put all the pressure on him.”
The 49ers running game took a big hit over the weekend when projected starter Jerick McKinnon went down with a season-ending right knee injury. He was one of San Francisco’s main additions in free agency and was being counted on to be a big threat as a runner and a receiver.
Now the 49ers will count on second-year back Matt Breida, who has 105 career carries, and veteran Alfred Morris, who was signed midway through training camp and has never caught more than 17 passes in his six seasons, instead of McKinnon.
“Since the day we signed him we’ve been game planning for Minnesota,” Shanahan said. “So, I’m not going to lie, it changes things pretty drastically.”
NOTES: Rookie Fred Warner is slated to start at MLB with Reuben Foster suspended the first two games. There is a question about who will line up next to him on the inside with Malcolm Smith limited with a hamstring injury. Brock Coyle got most of the work there in practice. ... Mike Person is in line to start at RG but Joshua Garnett still is in the mix.