SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The sequence, to Jimmy Garoppolo, was nothing special, even if the result was spectacular. With three minutes left in the third quarter of a game that the Green Bay Packers were suddenly threatening to turn competitive, the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback walked to the line of scrimmage, surveyed the defense and checked into a "can" option that coach Kyle Shanahan had built into the call. After taking a snap from under center, Garoppolo executed an exquisite play fake to running back Raheem Mostert and rolled to his left, seemingly locked in on receiver Richie James Jr., who had swept into the left flat after motioning across the formation. Then, suddenly, Garoppolo stopped, set his feet and delivered a pinpoint pass to tight end George Kittle, who had completely duped Packers cornerback Kevin King while running a corner post from left to right.
The upshot was a 61-yard touchdown that gave the 49ers a 22-point lead and ended any suspense in a Sunday Night Football game featuring two of the NFC's top teams coming in -- though the Niners' 37-8 victory in front of 71,500 fans at Levi's Stadium left the indelible impression that the gap between San Francisco and Green Bay is massive. One key distinction: While the 49ers' menacing front seven swallowed up Aaron Rodgers, limiting the Pack's future first-ballot Hall of Famer to 104 passing yards while sacking him five times and harassing him on many of his 33 attempts, Garoppolo sliced up the Packers' secondary like a knife through, well, spreadable cheese.
After Jimmy G completed 14 of 20 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns without an interception -- or, realistically, a mistake of any consequence -- a case could be made that given the setting and significance, this was his most impressive game of the season.
When I tried making that case to Garoppolo as we stood at his locker long after the game, he laughed and acted as though he'd just been congratulated for tidying up his cubicle.
"Nah, it was just another one," he said of his performance. "It wasn't anything crazy. My teammates made it pretty easy."
As for the dagger of a touchdown pass to Kittle, which followed a sublime 14-yard completion to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (also off of play action, while rolling to his right) that began the pivotal two-play scoring drive? Well, Garoppolo made the TD throw seem laughably routine.
"Did you see that route?" Garoppolo asked. "He ran the corner post and was wide open -- all I had to do was put it up there. It was filthy."
Perhaps, but in playing a strikingly clean game against the Packers (8-3), Garoppolo reinforced his credentials as the quarterback of his conference's top dog. Only the AFC-leading New England Patriots, the team which selected Garoppolo out of Eastern Illinois in the second round of the 2014 draft and traded him to San Francisco midway through the 2017 season, has a record that matches that of the 49ers (10-1), who aced the first stage of a three-week gauntlet that includes the 8-2 Ravens (next Sunday in Baltimore) and the 9-2 Saints (the following Sunday in New Orleans).
Contrary to some depictions, Garoppolo isn't merely a superfluous game manager who soaks up the glory while a strong rushing attack, Shanahan's brilliant game-planning and play-calling, and a dominant defense do the heavy lifting.
"They're hard on the quarterback," 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said of Garoppolo, who missed most of the 2018 season after suffering a severe knee injury in Week 3. "It's his, what, 11th game coming off a torn ACL? For most people, they get the benefit of the doubt, but not him. When we run for 250 (yards), people say, 'He didn't throw enough.' When he puts up big numbers, people say, 'Yeah, but they weren't playing anybody good.' He can't win for losing."
Jimmy G, however, can win in the most important manifestation of the term: He's 16-3 as San Francisco's starter, including the five-game winning streak that ended the 2017 season, a stretch which many of the fired-up 49er Faithful spent chanting "MVP" and calling him "Jimmy Jesus."
The following February, the Niners gave Garoppolo a five-year, $137.5 million contract extension, but the fairy tale soon ended. A slow start in 2018, followed by the torn ACL, created some trepidation as San Francisco set out to rebound from a 4-12 finish that put a ton of pressure on Shanahan heading into his third season.
It didn't help that Garoppolo had a choppy summer, struggling in the preseason and throwing five interceptions on consecutive plays during one infamous training camp practice, quite possibly setting an unofficial NFL record for futility. There were plenty of skeptics as the season approached, and the doubts continued when Garoppolo had an uneven September.
And yes, I feel compelled to admit that I was one of those responsible for fueling the narrative, though I certainly spoke to well-placed sources who informed my reporting.
As Garoppolo prepared to leave the stadium Sunday night, I asked him about the five-interception nightmare, and how he processed it at the time.
"People look for anything to blow up," Garoppolo said, kindly refraining from pointing at me as he spoke. "But you see what our defense is doing out there against other offenses, including a pretty great one tonight. They make it hard on quarterbacks."
The truth is that even as the Niners won nine of their first 10 games leading into Sunday night's triumph, Garoppolo made his share of maddening mistakes. Before facing the Packers, he had thrown 10 interceptions (along with 18 touchdown passes, not a highly impressive ratio), but the way he responded to those picks sparked a more significant statistic.
Before we share that number, consider the context: Shanahan, for all his next-level strategic acumen, is admittedly hard on quarterbacks. He runs a complicated scheme and has exceedingly high standards for his starter's grasp of that system -- and he also has a bit of a temper.
"Jimmy's 100 percent got the right temperament for us," Sherman said, " 'cause he's calm and he's poised, and that's what you need from your leader."
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, acquired in an October trade with the Denver Broncos, agreed, telling me, "Jimmy's a baller, man. He's not a guy with an ego, and he's a great teammate. In the big moments, he just stays true to himself, and it shows. I've never seen him rattled, even when Kyle freaks out."
OK, now here's the money stat, unearthed last week by Josh Dubow of the Associated Press: On 10 drives this season that immediately followed his interceptions, Garoppolo has completed 32 of 35 passes for 378 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
That's pretty unflappable, especially considering that he plays for a coach who's not afraid to let him know he screwed up.
"I'd rather be coached that way than have someone BS me," Garoppolo said as we stood at his locker.
When I asked if he took any of Shanahan's feedback personally, Garoppolo responded: "No. It's football. It's f------ intense out there."
On a hyped-up Sunday night during which Rodgers, a former Cal star, had a wholly frustrating return to the Bay Area (even as his alma mater regained The Axe in an epic Big Game victory over Stanford the previous day), Garoppolo got to make some eye-popping throws on the big stage, some of which he'd later downplay.
After the quarterback emphatically refused to take any credit for his touchdown pass to Kittle, I tried to get him to concede that he'd displayed an aptitude for throwing on the run on several key plays. Finally, Garoppolo flashed a guilty smile.
"Throwing on the run -- I got it from Rodgers, man," he said. "I love watching that guy."
On this night, Rodgers had done plenty of running; mostly, while attempting to escape from the Niners' relentless pass rush, not always in successful fashion.
"I've experienced that," Garoppolo said. "Trust me, I know what he was feeling."