SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Before the San Francisco 49ers got the ball back at their 25-yard line with one timeout, 1 minute, 7 seconds left and a one-point deficit to overcome, there was nothing to be found on their sideline except an overwhelming sense of calm.
To a man, every Niner on that sideline had faith that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo would deliver his team its first three-game winning streak since 2014.
"At this point, we shouldn’t be surprised," guard Brandon Fusco said. "We should kind of expect it now. He’s a special player and we have a good group of guys. We’re just learning how to win and I think we’re only going to get better."
Considering Garoppolo is a grizzled 10-year veteran with a litany of comeback wins under his belt, it should definitely be expected. What's that you say? Garoppolo was making only his fifth NFL start and third as a Niner on Sunday?
Even in the wildest dreams of coach Kyle Shanahan, general manager John Lynch and the vast majority of the 49ers' locker room, they couldn't have pictured what took place in Sunday's 25-23 win against the Tennessee Titans or what happened in the two weeks before that. Heck, they probably never even imagined they'd be able to acquire Garoppolo from New England for a second-round pick, a draft choice that looks like no more than a pittance for what the Niners got in return.
But here we are, three games into the Garoppolo era and the 49ers have three wins with Garoppolo already firmly in command in the huddle and in the locker room. It speaks to just how far the Niners have come in such a short period of time that in just Garoppolo's third start, a veteran such as Fusco has such unrelenting belief in his quarterback that it should be expected for him to go out and win a game in difficult circumstances against a legit playoff contender.
“With a guy like Jimmy, he asserted himself as a leader the first week that he was here," tight end George Kittle said. "That’s just the type of guy that he is. He’s a guy that you want to follow. He puts himself up there. Jimmy breaks us down before we get on the field every single day. ... It’s really awesome to see that, and it’s easy to follow him. You want to play well for him."
Before every 49ers drive, Garoppolo makes it a point to speak to his teammates. He usually offers some sort of message relevant to that particular moment in the game. Sometimes, it's something as simple as "keep it up." Such was the message from Garoppolo in the closing moments of Sunday's win as he went up to each offensive player and told them to "stay locked in" even as the Titans drove for a go-ahead field goal.
When the Niners' offense took the field, Garoppolo made Fusco look like a prophet, quickly steering the Niners down the field. On first down, Garoppolo hit receiver Trent Taylor for 7 yards. He followed with a 24-yard strike to Kittle and a 14-yard throw to wideout Marquise Goodwin. Three plays, 34 seconds and 45 yards later, the Niners were suddenly at Tennessee's 30, well within kicker Robbie Gould's range for a game-winning field goal.
That quickly, the 49ers went from hurrying up to milking the clock to set up Gould's game-winner. It was a stunning turn of events against a Titans defense that has allowed the sixth-fewest yards per play in the NFL.
"[Garoppolo] is very calm, collected and focused," left tackle Joe Staley said. "Not to say that wasn’t here before, but it definitely has a different aura around him."
Earlier this season, the Niners set an NFL record that they didn't want any part of, becoming the first team in the Super Bowl era to lose five straight games by three points or less. The difference in those games usually came down to a play or two that went the other direction. A lack of difference-makers repeatedly left the Niners on the short end of that stick.
For as much talk as there was from the Niners about learning how to win -- and there's validity to that as well -- the easiest way to swing games their direction was to get someone who could make those one or two plays on their behalf. In Garoppolo, they found him.
“He’s very composed," Shanahan said. "Doesn’t seem too high or too low. I think for the quarterback position, there’s a lot of thinking involved. You’ve got to stay poised under pressure. You’ve got a lot of guys coming after you too, so you need the grit to hang in there and everything, but there’s a lot of thinking that’s involved and sometimes you get a little too amped up and your brain doesn’t work quite as well. He does a great job of balancing both.”
Against the Titans on Sunday, Garoppolo finished 31-of-43 for a career-high 381 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 106.8 and a 90.3 QBR. In the fourth quarter, he was 11-of-14 for 180 yards for a passer rating of 119 and one of those incompletions was a spike.
Impressive numbers, to be sure, but maybe Fusco was onto something when he said it should be expected. In his four games as a Niner, Garoppolo in the fourth quarter is 23-of-29 for 305 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions for a passer rating of 122.
Those numbers alone are enough to have the Niners and their fans excited about what Garoppolo could mean for the long-term future of the franchise. If that's not enough, however, consider that Garoppolo believes there's still plenty of room for improvement.
"I set pretty high expectations for myself and I hold myself to a pretty high standard," Garoppolo said. "It’s a work in progress. We still have two games left in this season. We’ve got a really good team coming in here next week. So, we have to keep preparing. Going out to practice, having good practices. I think that’s playing a huge role in this. We go out Wednesday through Friday and we really put in the time. It’s starting to pay off.”
In more ways than one, it already has.