HOUSTON — Two starts into the Jimmy Garoppolo era, there has been plenty to like and a lot to love if you’re a fan of the San Francisco 49ers.
Garoppolo’s ability to stand in the pocket and deliver accurate passes at all levels of the defense has been encouraging. His penchant for escaping pressure and creating positive gains when things break down has been expected. Even intangible things, such as creating a rapport with his teammates in a short period of time, have drawn praise in the locker room.
All of those are good reasons for the Niners to feel more than ever that Garoppolo is their quarterback of the present and the future. It’s something else Garoppolo did once again in Sunday’s 26-16 win against the Houston Texans that should have the Niners and their faithful beaming about what could be in 2018 and beyond. At 3-10, the 49ers now have their first two-game win streak under coach Kyle Shanahan and their first back-to-back victories since 2014.
What you need to know in the NFL
• 2017 schedule, results
For the second week in a row, Garoppolo took many of the tools mentioned above and elevated his team to a victory. Even without full knowledge of Shanahan’s playbook, Garoppolo isn’t merely a game manager, asked solely to take care of the ball and leave the game in the hands of his defense.
No, for two straight weeks, the Niners have asked Garoppolo to be the focal point of the offense and lead his team to a win. Both times, he has delivered.
When he did it last week against Chicago, it was enough to have general manager John Lynch singing his praises in an interview with the Sporting News. OK, but what would Garoppolo have in store for an encore after that win in Chicago? He actually played better.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s 627 passing yards are the most by a Niners quarterback in his first two starts since 1970. Tim Warner/Getty Images
Garoppolo finished Sunday’s victory 20-of-33 passing for a career-high 334 yards with a touchdown and an interception for a rating of 92.2. With the win, Garoppolo has now won his first four career starts, one of four active quarterbacks to do so. He’s also just the third 49ers signal-caller since the merger to win each of his first two road starts, joining Elvis Grbac and Jim Plunkett. His 627 passing yards are the most by a Niners quarterback in his first two starts since 1970.
Those numbers topped what Garoppolo did last week, and he again helped some of his not-so-well-known teammates have career days.
“I think we’ve been playing a lot better, just all around,” tight end Garrett Celek said. “Jimmy is playing great. Jimmy is playing awesome. I think everybody on this team has progressed the past couple of games and you can just see it. We’re all playing better.”
After going 14-of-14 for 191 yards when targeting receivers Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor last week, Garoppolo helped fullback Kyle Juszczyk and Celek to big-time performances on Sunday.
Juszczyk finished with three catches for a career-high 64 yards. Celek finished with two catches for 67 yards and a touchdown, including a 61-yard grab that was the longest of his career. Although Garoppolo and Goodwin weren’t quite as simpatico as they were a week ago, they managed to link up six times for 106 yards, the third 100-yard game of Goodwin’s career.
No slight to a supporting cast that isn’t loaded with household names — especially without injured wideout Pierre Garcon — but Garoppolo isn’t exactly working with All-Pro talent such as Julio Jones, Le’Veon Bell and Rob Gronkowski. He’s working with the likes of free-agent addition Goodwin, a fifth-round draft pick in Taylor and an undrafted tight end in Celek. All of them have played better in the past two weeks than at any point previously.
“I think they’ve done better as the year has gone, they’ve done great these last two weeks and I think when you’ve got a guy like Jimmy who has been making some impressive throws, he’s been doing it on the practice field and he’s carried it to the game,” Shanahan said. “I think guys always know they’ve got a chance and they’ve lived up to it.”
That production all came on a day when Garoppolo found himself under fire far more than he did against Chicago. With right tackle Trent Brown inactive because of a shoulder injury, the Niners plugged in veteran Zane Beadles, who had his hands full all day with Texans pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney. Garoppolo was hit nine times, including two sacks. Although the 49ers’ defense mostly kept Houston in check, receiver DeAndre Hopkins had a huge day, finishing with 11 catches for 151 yards and two touchdowns, though he coughed up a key fumble in the fourth quarter.
Still, with the help of another impeccable performance by kicker Robbie Gould (4-for-4 on field goals) and another dash of Garoppolo magic, the 49ers were able to walk away with a win for the second consecutive game.
“Jimmy is already a leader of this offense,” Juszczyk said. “I think he’s definitely elevated people’s play. He’s given people chances to make plays. You see Marquise went over 100 today, you see Celek’s had some big games, that helps our running game and Carlos (Hyde) and (Matt) Breida get to eat. Adding Jimmy to this offense is a difference maker, for sure.”
It wasn’t pretty, and it came against another struggling opponent. Tougher tests await Garoppolo & Co. But there’s no doubt the 49ers are better off at quarterback than they’ve been in a long time, and because of it, they’re also a better team.