Let’s face it. This is a tough time to be a 49er Faithful. Even with a new coach, a new general manager, and some very promising new faces on the roster, we’re at the bottom of the standings, and the talk of offseason acquisitions and draft picks for 2018 has already begun in many quarters. If you’re like me, you try to take the good news about the Niners wherever you can get it these days.
And that’s where we come to Pierre Garçon. Granted, he hasn’t broken any records since he came to Santa Clara, but the guy is a bright spot in what is turning out to be a heartbreaking season. Let’s take a look at his strengths and weaknesses, and how he’s done as a newcomer to the Red and Gold.
First, a little background is necessary. Garçon played college football at Norwich University and Mount Union College, and joined the NFL as a 6th round draft pick in 2008 as a Colt. He had become the second receiver on the depth chart by the start of the 2009 season, and was the starter for most of the following 2 years in Indianapolis.
Garçon signed a five-year contract with the Redskins on 3/12/12, and was put under the tutelage of a young offensive coordinator named Kyle Shanahan. He played with the Redskins for five years, during which time he broke the Redskins’ all-time franchise record for receptions in a single season. The best season of his career came in 2013, with Shanahan as the OC; Garçon finished that season with 1,346 yards on 113 catches and five touchdowns. Then, this spring, Garçon made his way west to reunite with Shanahan and sign with the 49ers for 5 years.
Good stuff: Garçon has appeared in all seven games so far this season, and has never caught fewer than three passes per game. In fact, he’s on track to have his second-best season ever; he’ll have hauled in 85 catches by January at the rate he’s going. His availability for quarterback passes proves that he is a tremendously talented route runner, and the fact that he knows what Shanahan is going for in his offensive schemes can only help; remember, Shanahan is also the 49ers’ offensive coordinator.
Garçon is an acrobat — witness the catch he made against the Rams that showed off his ballet skills along the sidelines — and he can run after he catches, which he proved against the Panthers, getting 44 yards on five receptions after Brian Hoyer connected with him. While other receivers and tight ends on the team have struggled to hold onto the ball, Garçon has consistently been there for Hoyer and for C.J. Beathard. And if you want one more key statistic, try this: he is only the 66th player in NFL history with 600 receptions, and he’s ranked seventh among active players for catches. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Sammy Watkins.
Not so good stuff: Garçon is 31 years old, which is getting up there in the NFL, and his contract is probably only bankable for the first three years. He’s never had more than six touchdowns in a single season, and with this one almost half over, he has yet to catch a TD pass. The presence of Trent Taylor as a slot receiver, and as someone who can catch both passes and punts, may yet cause Garçon some sweating.
And then there’s his supporting cast. As great as Garçon clearly is, he can’t carry the whole team, and he certainly can’t catch passes that aren’t thrown his way. Hoyer has been benched, which may mitigate some of the bad passing, but Beathard and Garçon don’t have much playing time together and have yet to develop reliable timing and chemistry. My tendency, if I were Beathard, would be to lean more heavily on George Kittle, not because Kittle is any more of a “wunderkind” than anyone else, but because Kittle and Beathard played together at Iowa and know each other extremely well.
What this means is that Garçon, who is used to playing for teams that are more generally talented than the 49ers are right now, and who has a fiery personality on the field, is apt to become frustrated as the season wears on and the wins don’t come. Any good athlete will tell you that frustrated competitors are apt to lose focus and play beneath their means.
Steve Young, whom I have always respected and liked as an athlete and a human being, knows this frustration better than any living 49er. He stood on the sidelines all those years, waiting for Joe Montana to retire or move along, and then when he finally got to be the starting quarterback, he started piling up NFL records a mile high. None of those numbers mattered to the fan base in San Francisco; they wanted Super Bowl wins.
When you get down to it, Garçon’s frustration is no different than Young’s was. He wants to be on a winning team. And while he isn’t likely to be leaving the 49ers before his contract is up, he won’t want to endure years of a team that simply doesn’t know how to win. Victories give confidence, and confidence dispels frustration. As someone much wiser than your humble narrator once said, nothing succeeds like success. (It’s on page 75 of The Proper Care and Feeding of Wide Receivers by Walsh & Siefert.)
Bottom Line: When the history of this wretched season is written, there will be plenty of blame to go around for the disappointing results, whether those results were predictable or not. But however bad the blame game gets, none of it should land on the shoulders of Pierre Garçon. He will be the leader of that offense next year, and he will have earned that role.
Kirk Cousins, meet the man who kicked the door down for your future home. (It ain’t your head coach, old man. It’s your wide receiver.)
Photo by Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group