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Former Super Bowl champs praise under-the-radar Jimmy Garoppolo

San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo averaged the third-fewest passing attempts per game this season out of the 12 quarterbacks in the playoffs. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo averaged the third-fewest passing attempts per game this season out of the 12 quarterbacks in the playoffs. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

MIAMI, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- The San Francisco 49ers' passing game might be the team's least mentioned strength, but former champions Kurt Warner, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders say the Jimmy Garoppolo-led attack is quite capable of turning the tide in Sunday's Super Bowl LIV.

"He's here. [Garoppolo] is one of the best quarterbacks in the game," Sanders said. "I think winning, percentage-wise, he's at the top of the game. I love everything he brings to the table, and I love what they [the 49ers] have placed around him."

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Critics attack Garoppolo's game because he only threw an average of 13.5 passes in two games this postseason, including eight attempts in the NFC Championship.

Garoppolo threw the third-fewest passes per game this season out of the 12 starting playoff quarterbacks, behind only Ryan Tannehill and Lamar Jackson. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes -- Garoppolo's Super Bowl counterpart -- threw the fourth-most passes per game.

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"He [Garoppolo] has tremendous accuracy," said Warner, who won NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP in 1999, his first season as a starter. "He can get the ball out extremely quick. He has shown the ability to make big plays at big moments, which to me is one of the defining traits of playing quarterback."

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Few passes enough

Garoppolo completed six of the eight passes he attempted in the 49ers' win against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game, helping his team advance to Sunday's game at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.

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He threw three of those passes -- all completions -- on the 49ers' first scoring drive, but didn't throw a pass on any of the 49ers' other touchdown drives. Three of his throws resulted in first downs.

"There is always pressure," Warner said. "That could be alleviated if they only have to throw eight times again, but if you throw eight times, you may need every one one of those eight throws to be big plays or third down conversions or whatever it is needed to dictate the outcome of the game."

Garoppolo has proven he can make the right plays to win games. He has won in more than 82 percent of his starts, the best mark for an active player and the best in NFL history for a quarterback with at least 25 career starts.

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San Francisco led the NFC in rushing this season. It averaged the most rushing yards per game throughout the playoffs, using multiple running backs to pick up first downs, control the clock and set a physical tone against their opponents.

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The 49ers mirror that toughness on the defensive line, with pass rushers hunting opposing quarterbacks and forcing turnovers.

The Chiefs might opt to stack the box -- or put extra defenders around the line of scrimmage -- to stop the 49ers' running game. This strategy would put the game more in Garoppolo's hands and force him to throw more than he has in the past.

"He has had a great year and he has done some great things since he became a starter, but there are always milestones that you have to hit, and this [Super Bowl] is a milestone," Warner said of Garoppolo.

"He threw eight passes to get here, so of course everyone is going to go well, 'they kinda got here without him,' even though it took a lot all year long. Now can they win it with him? Can he go out and show us?"

Wide receivers developing

Garoppolo's wide receivers and tight end George Kittle have enough speed and talent to put pressure on the Chiefs' defensive backs. The Chiefs were just above average in defending the pass in 2019, allowing 221.4 yards per game and 21 touchdowns. Deshaun Watson and Ryan Tannehill each threw two touchdown passes against the Chiefs this postseason, but just one of those passes went to a wide receiver.

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The 49ers tied for 10th in receiving scores in 2019. Kittle led the San Francisco pass catchers with 1,053 yards. Emmanuel Sanders is the most experienced player of the wide receivers group, as the 49ers lean on rookie Deebo Samuel and three-year veteran Kendrick Bourne.

"I'm not saying they are underrated, but they are still developing," said Irvin, a three-time Super Bowl champion. "Getting Emmanuel Sanders in Week 8, you look at Garoppolo's numbers and see how they started hitting that rise. You look at Deebo Samuel, especially since Week 10, after about two good weeks with Emmanuel Sanders, they've taken off."

Garoppolo had just one game with more than two touchdowns from Week 1 through Week 8. He had three such games from Week 9 through Week 17. Samuel had three games with at least 100 yards during that stretch, while Sanders went over 100 yards twice.

"They are young and continuing to develop," Irvin said of the 49ers wide receivers. "The primary base right now is running the football. But they are not like Tennessee. Tennessee runs the football and struggles when they have to pass the ball.

"San Francisco runs the football, but they can throw the football. That's a huge difference."

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