Jimmy Garoppolo’s first NFL start came on the road, in prime time, without tight end Rob Gronkowski and a couple of offensive-line starters, and in the New England Patriots’ 2016 season opener.
His opponent that day came away impressed by one trait in particular.
“His poise,” Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said on a conference call with 49ers reporters Wednesday. “It was the opening game. A big, big game on Sunday night. His accuracy was really good in that game. But I was really impressed with his poise.”
Garoppolo finished 24 for 33 – a 72.7 percent completion rate – for 264 yards, one touchdown and led the Patriots on a game-winning field-goal drive in the fourth quarter. His stat line also included a three-yard reception when a pass was batted back to him and a tackle, which came after a quarterback fumble.
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That poise and leadership also struck Scot McCloughan who scouted Garoppolo at Eastern Illinois when McCloughan was with the Seattle Seahawks and Garoppolo was heading into his senior year. McCloughan, a former 49ers general manager who now runs his own scouting service, noted that the quarterback didn’t have a lot of talent around him and that he took over a two-win team in 2011.
By the end of the 2013 season, the Panthers were 12-2 and Garoppolo was smashing school passing records that had been set by Sean Payton and Tony Romo. His 53 touchdowns that year were the fourth-most in Football Championship Subdivision history.
“He found a way to win games,” McCloughan said. “For a quarterback, that’s so important. He made average teams better. He’s a quality guy, he’s really smart, he’s mature.”
Coach Kyle Shanahan noted Wednesday that Garoppolo has thrown only 94 passes in the regular season and that it’s impossible to say how he will handle the responsibility of being a full-time starting quarterback. But he said there was plenty of pressure on him last year when he filled in for Tom Brady on a Patriots team with Super Bowl aspirations and that he handled it smoothly.
“You try to watch how a guy carries himself,” Shanahan said. “Getting to know him a little bit throughout the college process when he was coming out, just watching how he carried himself in New England, on TV, in interviews, talking to people who have a lot of experience with him – I’ve been very impressed with that.”
McCloughan said he wasn’t sure if Garoppolo ever would be, in his words, special.
“He has a chance to be like (Matt) Hasselbeck – a long career, has success, goes to the playoffs,” he said. “He’ll never embarrass the organization. He’ll show up every day and do the right stuff every day.”
But he said the 49ers’ acquisition of Garoppolo was a “smart move” – especially for a second-round pick – and he congratulated the owner of his former team, Jed York, on Twitter after the trade was revealed on Monday.
“When it’s all said and done, he’ll make them better no matter what,” McCloughan said.
As far as his physical traits, McCloughan noted that Garoppolo wasn’t that tall – he measures a hair over 6-foot-2 – but that he had good muscle and heft and should be able to take a hit.
His quick release, however, is his best weapon for dealing with what promises to be a relentless pass rush in the second half of the 49ers’ season. The speed at which Garoppolo gets rid of the ball rivals that of Romo, who was renown for his quick trigger.
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“They’re going to love his release quickness and arm strength,” McCloughan said. “He throws a really tight spiral. Really tight. You get wind, you get rain, you get whatever – he’ll get it done.”
Arians and the Cardinals won’t face Garoppolo again on Sunday unless rookie C.J. Beathard gets injured. But Arizona’s coach figures he’ll be seeing the new 49ers quarterback plenty in the future.
“He’s going to be one of the top-flight guys, especially in that offense,” Arians said. “Kyle does a great job with that style of quarterback. I think that’s a really good system fit and he’s also a good leader.”