The craziest thing about Brock Purdy’s improbable rise? The praise is deserved
The San Francisco 49ers quarterback is surrounded by superstar talent and a mastermind coach. But he looks like exactly the right player for his team
Everything about Brock Purdy’s rise is implausible.
By now you know his biography: four good years at Iowa State, an excellent college player. The last player selected in the draft, Mr Irrelevant, he was expected to back up Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo at the San Francisco 49ers. He was pushed into the lineup after injuries to Lance and Garoppolo. The Niners’ title hopes were on the brink. But rather than founder, the Niners are better with Purdy at the helm as they prepare to face the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday for a place in the NFC championship game.
In his seven games since taking over from Garoppolo, Purdy has thrown 16 touchdown passes, run for a couple more, and thrown just three interceptions. The Niners have outscored their opponents 239-120 with Purdy playing the role of conductor. Confident, poised, accurate, and called Brock, there’s nothing not to like about him.
Before Purdy entered the lineup, the Niners had a top-10 offense by EPA per play. With Purdy, they’ve vaulted into the top three.
Some young guys grow in increments. Some arrived fully formed. There are precious few holes in Purdy’s game. In his seven outings, he has made only a handful of false steps. Plenty of quarterbacks have decent starts to their careers before things come crashing down – they’re helped by the scheme or a great receiver or opposing defenses lacking knowledge of their skills. But Purdiamania looks, and feels, different. It feels real.
Purdy’s playoff debut was his finest performance to date. Not because he was dominant from start to finish against the Seattle Seahawks, but because he struggled early, dug himself out of a hole, and helped deliver a second-half pasting.
Sure, he has landed in the ideal ecosystem. Kyle Shanahan’s offense is a beautiful football machine, a cheat code. And Purdy is surrounded by absurd talent. On any given play, San Francisco can line up the most dangerous offensive quintet in the league: Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Ayiuk, and Kyle Juszczyk.
Individually, they’re excellent. Together, they’re unstoppable. The Kittle, McCaffrey, Ayiuk, Samuel, and Juszczyk axis offers a degree of formational flexibility unmatched by any starting group in the league. They can hammer teams with the run. They can spread it out. They can scheme players open or play one-on-one matchup football, with Kittle or McCaffrey or Ayiuk or Samuel dunking on any fool daring to enter their area code. And they pair the finest collection of skill talent with one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and in left tackle Trent Williams, the best individual lineman at the most valuable spot.
There is no predicting what will exit the Niners huddle – or where the players will line up. It’s an offense that sows confusion, that inspires paranoia in opposing defenses. You can almost capture in real-time opponents going full Sam Neill, tilting their sunglasses to the sky in shock and fear and awe, like they’ve just seen something from the Jurassic period pop out of the huddle.
Even if you can figure out what’s going on, teams don’t have the talent to match up athletically with superstars at five different positions. Concentrate all that talent in one position, say, receiver, and defenses have some go-to adjustments. But putting a star running back – who also functions as one of the best slot receivers in the league – with a star tight end, wide receiver, hybrid receiver/back, and do-everything tight end/fullback alters the geometry of the field.
It is a lethal cocktail. Motions, shifts, and pre-snap movement, the bedrock of the Shanahan offense, cause confusion. Any of the Niners’ top playmakers can align anywhere on the field. The possibilities are, legitimately, endless. Amid matchup chaos, defenses are left chasing ghosts.
On Saturday, there were only two pass attempts with a Seattle defender in ‘tight coverage’, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Meaning: Purdy threw only two – TWO! – passes with a defender within a yard of a receiver. There’s ‘open’ and then there’s whatever that is.
With that combination of playmakers and play-caller, any quarterback can keep the offense chugging along. Hit the layups, rack up 20-odd points a game, and get out of the way as the league’s top defense takes over.
But Purdy isn’t just keeping it moving. Garoppolo mothballed some of Shanahan’s most intricate designs; Purdy amplifies them. Both can execute the base offense, but Purdy offers off-schedule magic that can buy extra beats and is impossible to defend.
It is that instinct – that willingness to flee the pocket and bail on the concept – that has proved to be the only flaw in his game. It’s an instinct that both raises the ceiling of the San Francisco offense but one that could also wind up getting the quarterback into trouble.
Savvy defenses – and they don’t come any savvier than the Dallas Cowboys’ and their coordinator Dan Quinn – can lay traps to force Purdy out of the pocket. Improvising can work against a lackluster Seattle pass-rush. Against the Cowboys’ fearsome front, featuring Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence? Good luck.
If Purdy is able to deliver against the Cowboys on Sunday, the Niners will roll into the NFC title game with the best offense and best defense in the league. And that will open up thorny questions about the future. No one with the Niners will fess up to this today, but they know the truth: Purdy has played infinitely better than Lance.
This version of Purdy – the one who gets the ball to all the right spots at all the right times and then can conjure some magic with his legs if things break down – can pilot a title run and anchor a franchise.
Do the Niners enter next season with Purdy as the starter and Lance as his backup? Do they trade Lance? Do they trade Garoppolo and Lance? Do they keep one as an insurance policy? What if they deal both and Purdy’s early-career exploits wind up being a fluke? Does any of that matter if there’s a Lombardi on the mantlepiece?
Purdy has lobbed a hand grenade into the Niners’ carefully choreographed plan. There are still too many unknowns with Lance, who the Niners traded up to select in the 2021 draft. In limited playing time, he’s looked scattershot at best and in over his head at worst. Purdy is the reverse: a rookie who plays with an assurance, bordering on nonchalance. He knows that he belongs.
We haven’t seen anything like this before. Kurt Warner was bagging groceries before he went on to lead the Greatest Show On Turf. Tom Brady was an overlooked college star who went on to be the Greatest To Ever Do It. Both landed in ideal spots to help them mature and develop as overlooked prospects. Neither, however, was the reason for winning games in their rookie year. Purdy is not the main reason for San Francisco’s success, but he is a reason – this is not a team trying to coach around or hide its quarterback but rather embracing his skills and calling plays aggressively to magnify what he does best.
A group is not about having the people best qualified to discharge a certain role. It resides in how well these people make up the collective. Ringo Starr might not have been the best drummer in the Beatles, but he was certainly the best drummer for the Beatles. Lance’s physical gifts may be the most talented quarterback on the Niners’ roster, but Purdy is the best quarterback for the Niners.
From the last pick in the draft, Purdy is now the hinge player who will decide the postseason. With him playing at this level, the Niners have the potential to run through all in front of them. Any dip versus the Cowboys on Sunday, and their season will come crashing down. Let’s take a step back to understand just how bananas that is.