MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- After a season full of doubt from the outside, support from the inside and a whole lot of winning, Jimmy Garoppolo's moment had arrived.
The chance to silence those who dismissed the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback as little more than a game manager at best and a modern-day Trent Dilfer at worst. Based on how the season had gone, of course neither was actually true, but if ever there was a time to cement his standing in the quarterback pecking order, this was it.
Trailing the Kansas City Chiefs 24-20 with 2:44 to go and a full arsenal of timeouts at his disposal, Garoppolo led the Niners to Kansas City's 49 with just under two minutes to go.
Garoppolo's next two passes were incomplete, setting up third-and-10 with 1:40 to go. At the snap, Garoppolo dropped back with his eyes focused downfield as the safeties allowed leverage down the deep middle. Kendrick Bourne appeared to be open for a first down underneath on a crossing route, but Emmanuel Sanders had a step running a deep post between the hashes. Garoppolo went for the home run.
As the ball hung in the air -- seemingly forever, though not for long enough -- it carried a new Garoppolo narrative with it. If it fell softly into Sanders' hands, he would have scored and the Niners would have needed to stop the Chiefs one more time for Super Bowl immortality.
Instead, Garoppolo's pass landed harmlessly, about 2 yards beyond Sanders.
"Emmanuel did a good job just getting by the safeties," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "It looked like [Garoppolo] just missed him."
Garoppolo would take a sack on the next play, giving the ball and the game to the Chiefs, who would score again to win 31-20.
Of course, that sequence alone wasn't the sole reason the Niners lost. When you have a 10-point lead with less than eight minutes to go and cough it up, there's blame to be shared by everyone. The defense couldn't get a stop when it needed it most. The offense struggled to move the ball and protect Garoppolo. Even the special teams struggled to get yardage on kickoff returns, often leaving the offense to start deep in its own territory.
But the microscope always comes back on the quarterback, especially one who has been as hotly debated as Garoppolo.
For most of the night, Garoppolo had been sharp in his first Super Bowl start. He threw a bad interception in the second quarter. As he often had all season, he bounced back, leading a touchdown drive on the ensuing possession. After the interception, Garoppolo completed 12 of his next 13 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown.
As the game entered the fourth quarter, the Chiefs adjusted. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dialed up the pressure. The Chiefs blitzed Garoppolo on 18 of his 33 dropbacks, the highest blitz rate by a Kansas City defense in a game since Week 10 of the 2011 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Through three quarters, the 49ers' offensive line had done the job, allowing three pressures on Garoppolo's first 20 dropbacks. In the final quarter, the Chiefs pressured Garoppolo on eight of his 13 dropbacks. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey said some of the looks from Kansas City caught the Niners in the wrong protections. Garoppolo went 2-of-9 with two interceptions when under duress, including 0-for-6 with a pick in the fourth quarter.
For most of the season, Garoppolo had been at his best in big moments, posting a total QBR of 82.1 when trailing in the fourth quarter, third-best in the NFL. He'd engineered four game-winning drives. Garoppolo's 5.6 QBR in the fourth quarter Sunday night was tied for the lowest QBR for any quarterback in any quarter this postseason (minimum of 10 attempts).
Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark, who finished with a sack and two quarterback hits, didn't hold back about Garoppolo in an on-field postgame interview with Fox Sports.
"You paying the guy $140 million, $130 million, whatever he's getting paid," Clark said. "He's gotta throw the ball. Obviously, he didn't do that. They threw for about 200 yards on checkdowns; that ain't enough to win a game against us."
Garoppolo would later throw another interception on a desperation heave, bringing his first Super Bowl stat line to 20-of-31 for 219 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 69.2.
The ups and downs of Garoppolo's performance were a microcosm of his season. Coming back from a torn left ACL, he took some time to get going in the first half of the season but delivered some big wins late in the year when the defense struggled and the run game wasn't firing on all cylinders.
In the end, Garoppolo figures to remain one of the more polarizing quarterbacks in the league. Patrick Mahomes earned the game's MVP award for his late-game performance. Garoppolo will take heat for his. The team with the better quarterback won.
After the game, Shanahan said he thought Garoppolo did "some real good things" and that his quarterback played "all right." His teammates did what they've done all year, sticking up for him and saying they'd be happy to go into any game with him on their side.
Next season, Garoppolo will be another year removed from the torn ACL. He'll also have another year in Shanahan's system under his belt and, presumably, more and healthier weapons to work with. There should be no shortage of motivation to return to the Super Bowl and finish the job.
"It has been wild," Garoppolo said. "First full season as a starter coming back from the ACL, it is a lot of things wrapped into one. There are some positives, but at the end of the day, it is about wins and losses."
Much like their quarterback, the 49ers took a lot of steps forward in 2019. They tallied plenty of victories but fell short of the one that matters most. If they're fortunate enough to be in position to take that final step again, they'll need Garoppolo to seize the next moment that comes on the game's biggest stage.