Fear­less­ness of Garop­polo a wel­come, and risky, change

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - NFL - By Eric Branch Eric Branch is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: ebranch@sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @Eric_Branch

Two years ago, the 49ers’ sea­son-open­ing quar­ter­back was Blaine Gab­bert, who dis­played a dis­tinct lack of dar­ing. Case in point: On 4thand-6 in the fi­nal two min­utes of a seven-point loss to Dal­las in 2016, Gab­bert com­pleted a pass … that gained three yards.

Last year, the 49ers’ sea­sonopen­ing QB was Brian Hoyer, who was also far more gun­shy than gun­slinger. To wit: Hoyer had five third-down com­ple­tions in a loss to Seat­tle in 2017 … and just one net­ted a first down.

This brings us to Jimmy Garop­polo, who en­ters Sun­day’s home opener against the Lions with a grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion as a risk-taker.

In six starts with the 49ers, Garop­polo has made jaw­drop­ping plays while also throw­ing eight in­ter­cep­tions. That would trans­late to 21 picks over a 16-game sea­son, a to­tal that would have been the sec­ond most in the NFL in 2017.

Garop­polo, who is av­er­ag­ing 1.3 in­ter­cep­tions per start with the 49ers, is un­ques­tion­ably a vastly su­pe­rior QB to Gab­bert or Hoyer, de­spite those two com­bin­ing to throw just 16 in­ter­cep­tions in their 21 starts (0.7 per game) the past two sea­sons.

The up­shot is this: Top-level quar­ter­backs aren’t afraid to at­tempt dif­fi­cult throws, but that comes with a trade­off. Last week, Garop­polo threw a ca­reer-high three in­ter­cep­tions in a sea­son-open­ing loss at Min­nesota.

“There’s go­ing to be games where some­times it’s not per­fect,” left tackle Joe Sta­ley said. “But there’s go­ing to be games, too, where he’s go­ing to have five touch­downs and no in­ter­cep­tions and throws for a ton of yards.”

Garop­polo’s fear­less style was im­me­di­ately hailed last sea­son.

In his first start, a win over Chicago, he fired an are-youkid­ding, sidearm, off-his-back foot, 16-yard com­ple­tion into triple cov­er­age to wide re­ceiver Louis Mur­phy.

Said head coach Kyle Shana­han af­ter that game: “You never like to throw into triple cov­er­age, but some­times you have to over­come coach­ing and just make plays.”

But Garop­polo has now thrown six picks in his past three starts. On Wed­nes­day, Shana­han was asked about Garop­polo’s pen­chant for try­ing to make a play rather than

toss a ball out of bounds.

“I have mixed emo­tions about it,” Shana­han said. “Guys make plays. When you get happy with guys who are mak­ing plays you can’t sit there and get mad at them ev­ery time that they don’t. That will hand­cuff them and that’s speak­ing out of both sides of my mouth as a coach.

“So Jimmy has made a lot of plays when noth­ing has been there, and my whole thing with that stuff is just about not guess­ing.”

It’s fair to say Garop­polo needs to fine-tune his men­tal risk-re­ward an­a­lyzer.

Last week, his last in­ter­cep­tion — a deep over-the-mid­dle toss that was cor­ralled by safety Har­ri­son Smith — was an aw­ful throw to Trent Tay­lor, who had three de­fend­ers around him. With the 49ers trail­ing 24-16 at their own 11-yard line with 1:45 left, Garop­polo had to be ag­gres­sive, but his fi­nal throw never had a chance.

For­mer 49ers quar­ter­back Steve Young noted Garop­polo will learn to un­der­stand that “part of win­ning is los­ing on spe­cific plays.” Young’s point: Not ev­ery play can be sal­vaged.

“So he’s go­ing to have to learn when those times come be­cause there’s not al­ways a so­lu­tion,” Young said on KNBR. “… You don’t have to have an an­swer on ev­ery play.”

Garop­polo’s de­sire to make plays has all but elim­i­nated what be­came a QB sta­ple for the 49ers’ pre­vi­ous two sea­son-open­ing QBs: the third­down check-down pass.

In 2016, only 68 per­cent (21 of 31) of Gab­bert’s third-down com­ple­tions re­sulted in a first down. In 2017, only 54 per­cent (20 of 37) of Hoyer’s third­down com­ple­tions net­ted a first down.

In Garop­polo’s six starts with the 49ers, 86.1 per­cent (31 of 36) of his third-down com­ple­tions have re­sulted in a first down.

For Gab­bert and Hoyer, play­ing it safe was part of the rea­son they stopped play­ing: Both were benched be­fore Week 7 the past two sea­sons.

Garop­polo is in no dan­ger of be­ing de­moted, but he prob­a­bly has to dial back his will­ing­ness to flirt with dan­ger.

“I al­ways want a guy to see some­thing, re­act, let it rip and don’t hes­i­tate,” Shana­han said. “If you make a mis­take, just be able to un­der­stand why you did, be able to ar­tic­u­late it, and we’ll see it on the tape. And then we’ll learn why we don’t make that (throw) again.”

Bruce Kluck­hohn / As­so­ci­ated Press

Jimmy Garop­polo’s ag­gres­sive­ness hurt him and the 49ers last Sun­day, when he threw a ca­reer-high three in­ter­cep­tions.

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