In the buildup to Super Bowl LIV, all eyes are on Patrick Mahomes, the 24-year-old superstar quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs. Mahomes is just one game away from adding a Super Bowl ring to his rapidly growing collection of impressive statistics and electrifying highlights over his first two seasons as a starter.
Standing in Mahomes’ way is the NFC’s best defense as the San Francisco 49ers have regained their early-season dominance on that side of the ball. It is only fair that this matchup gets top billing in the biggest game of the year, but there is another side to this game that is really flying under the radar.
San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is also used to being eyeballed as he has been nicknamed “Jimmy GQ” in the past, including by his own team’s press release for the Super Bowl. Whether or not you find him handsome, this should not undermine the fact that Garoppolo is also having a historic start to his playing career. It’s just not as obvious as Mahomes’ brilliance because Garoppolo spent more than three seasons in New England as Tom Brady’s backup before he was traded to the 49ers in 2017. He won his first five starts there after taking over a team that started 1-10. The 49ers responded in kind by making him (briefly) the highest-paid player in NFL history, only to see Garoppolo tear his ACL three games into the 2018 season.
Now in his first full season as a starter, Garoppolo has led the 49ers to a 15-3 record and a Super Bowl appearance. However, due to his lack of involvement in the offense this postseason, some would have you believe he is trying to bus driver his way to this ring a la Trent Dilfer on the 2000 Ravens. Since throwing an interception in the second quarter of the divisional round against Minnesota, Garoppolo has attempted 14 passes, taken one sack, kneeled down five times, and handed the ball off a whopping 68 times.
That’s eyebrow-raising stuff in this pass-happy era of football, especially in comparison to Mahomes who has thrown eight touchdown passes this postseason while also leading his team in rushing in each game. Garoppolo attempted eight passes in the entire NFC Championship Game. However, the last two games should not overshadow a career by Garoppolo that has been impressive when he puts the ball in the air.
Passing yards per attempt (YPA) is one of the best statistical indicators of quarterback success in NFL history. Including the playoffs, Garoppolo (8.28) ranks third since 1950 in passing YPA, trailing only Patrick Mahomes (8.54) and Otto Graham (8.48) among passers with a minimum 500 passes.
Not surprisingly, Garoppolo (23-5, .821) has the highest winning percentage as a starter since 1950 among quarterbacks with at least 25 starts (including playoffs). Otto Graham (61-16-1, .788) and Patrick Mahomes (27-8, .771) rank second and third, so it’s the same trio of quarterbacks leading in both statistics. Graham never missed an NFL Championship Game for the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s. So far, Mahomes and Garoppolo have reached at least a conference championship game in the three full seasons as starters between them.
This is not to say Garoppolo and Mahomes are two of the three best quarterbacks ever, but early success like this is usually a strong indicator of future career success. In the Super Bowl era, Garoppolo is one of four quarterbacks to win at least 21 of his first 26 regular-season starts, joining a likely Hall of Fame trio in Ben Roethlisberger (22-4), Roger Staubach (21-5) and Dan Marino (21-5). All of those quarterbacks reached the Super Bowl in their first or second full season as a starter.
For the 49ers to beat the Chiefs, Garoppolo will have to play more like the quarterback he was in the regular season than what he has shown in the playoffs so far. The 49ers are strong enough offensively to outscore the Chiefs in a shootout just as they did in Week 14 when Garoppolo led the team to a 48-46 victory against Drew Brees and the Saints in New Orleans. Garoppolo led the 49ers to 62 drives that reached the red zone this season, trailing only Baltimore (64), an offense led by MVP favorite Lamar Jackson. When offenses passed the ball on third down this season, Garoppolo helped the 49ers to the highest conversion rate (45.5%) in the league.
During their eight-game winning streak, the Chiefs have trailed in the second half for just 16 seconds. If the Super Bowl is close late, Garoppolo has shined in those opportunities. He is 7-4 (.636) when he has the ball in the fourth quarter or overtime in a game that is tied or trailing by one score. That’s the best record among active quarterbacks and is the inverse of the record for Mahomes (4-7) in those situations. However, for Kansas City the defense has been a bigger issue than the quarterback in those games as Mahomes often never saw the ball last.
When these quarterbacks met in Week 3 of the 2018 season, Garoppolo tore his ACL late in the game, a 38-27 win by Kansas City. It remains the only start in his career where Garoppolo lost by more than eight points. Mahomes has never lost an NFL start by more than seven points.
This Super Bowl has the potential to be an instant classic. It also may go down in retrospect as one of the best quarterback matchups in Super Bowl history based on the way both of their careers have started.
Scott Kacsmar is an NFL writer, analyst, and football historian. You can find him on Twitter.