49ers, Dolphins expose each other’s QBs

SANTA CLARA – What was some people hoped would be a Super Bowl preview ended up being a revealing moment about 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa.

San Francisco and Miami walked away with severe questions about whether either is capable to getting them to such lofty heights. In the case of Garoppolo, his time with the 49ers is almost certainly over after getting hurt for at least the fifth time in the past seven seasons.

As for the faultiness Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, that was exposed in a deep way, although there were reasonable explanations. Operating without either of his two starting offensive tack particularly against good defenses, Tagovailoa’s lack of improvisational skills and awareness when circumstances change were exposed.

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 04: Jaelan Phillips #15 of the Miami Dolphins and Jerome Baker #55 of the Miami Dolphins sack Jimmy Garoppolo #10 of the San Francisco 49ers during the first quarter at Levi’s Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

In Garoppolo’s case, his ability to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory is worthy of debate. However, his inability to stay healthy is beyond question. He just can’t stay upright. For the fifth time in seven years, Garoppolo suffered an injury that either forced him out of a game or forced him to miss significant practice time.

Garoppolo was knocked out for the season for the second time in his five full seasons with the 49ers because of a broken foot. He was sandwiched by linebackers Jerome Baker and Jaelan Phillips on san Francisco’s opening drive of the game.

Quarterback Has Been Prone To Injury

Since being traded to the 49ers in the middle of the 2017 season, Garoppolo has suffered a torn ACL and missed 13 games in 2018, missed 10 games with an ankle injury in 2020 and now will miss the rest of this season. On top of that, he missed time in 2016 as a backup to Tom Brady when they were in New England.

That history was one of the big reasons why 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan made the trade to ultimately get quarterback Trey Lance in the 2021 draft. It’s also why, suddenly, a guy who was expected to be one of the top free agents of the 2023 offseason is looking like he’ll be lucky to get a make-good contract.

To say that Garoppolo is injury-prone is like saying that Kanye West has lost his mind. Some things are too obvious for words.

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 04: Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass during the first quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Tua’s Timing Has Been Off – Except On Home Run Plays

As for Tagovailoa, his issue is more subtle, but was nonetheless on full display in the second quarter. It came on a play most people probably didn’t notice.

On a third-and-1 play, the 49ers should have been caught with 12 men on the field. The 49ers had too many men in the huddle on defense and realized the situation late in the play clock as they loaded for a short-yardage play. As the Dolphins came to the line, a 49ers defensive lineman sprinted off the field.

If this were a quick-thinking quarterback, the ball would have been snapped, the 49ers would have been called for too many men on the field and the drive would have continued one way or another. Instead, Tagovailoa lined up to call the play at the line, went through his cadence, and the Dolphins took an 8-yard sack, settling for a field goal.

The fact that Tagovailoa didn’t recognize it quickly enough is emblematic of how his biggest issue and the way that defenses attack him. The Dolphins have the kind of receiving corps that can put up points in a hurry and possible carry it a long way.

The opening play of the game was a 75-yard touchdown to Trent Sherfield. It was Tagovailoa at his best as he dropped to throw quickly in rhythm and then let Sherfield use his speed. When you have Sherfield as the No. 3 option at wide receiver behind Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, you can be very scary.

The problem is that teams like the 49ers can take receivers away or make quarterbacks like Tagovailoa hesitate. When Tagovailoa hesitates or rethinks a play, he becomes far less effective. That showed up in the first half on several throws that were off-target (Tagovailoa was only 8 of 18 in the first half despite coming into the game completing nearly 70 percent of his passes) or led to two sacks.

In the third quarter, the situation got worse as Tagovailoa threw two interceptions (he came into the game with three on the season). The downside for the 49ers is that they were only able to cash in those turnovers for two field goals and didn’t get control of the game.

The game was sealed when Tagovailoa was sacked and stripped in the fourth quarter, the fumble being returned for a touchdown. It was the ugly end of a game in which Tagovailoa helped the Dolphins score 17 points, but also helped set up 13 points for the 49ers.

Written by Jason Cole

Jason Cole has covered or written about pro football since 1992. He is one of 49 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has served as a selector since 2013. Cole has worked for publications such as Bleacher Report, Yahoo! Sports, The Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and started his career with the Peninsula Times-Tribune in Palo Alto. Cole’s five-year investigation of Reggie Bush and the University of Southern California resulted in Bush becoming the only player to ever relinquish his Heisman Trophy and USC losing its 2004 national championship.

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