Monday 4th September marked one year since the start of what has fast become one of the greatest stories in modern NFL history, as an injury to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, something with which the San Francisco 49ers were frustratingly familiar, in the first quarter of a Week 13 game against the Miami Dolphins catapulted the final pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Brock Purdy, into the limelight.
The anniversary of that inflection point for Purdy and a perennial Super Bowl contender came a day after he came through the most imposing test of his still fledgling NFL career.
Purdy’s remarkable rise last year saw him lead the 49ers to victory over the Dolphins and then win his first seven starts across the regular season and playoffs. Following a significant interruption, he has taken his play to another level in his first full season as the starting quarterback, leading the NFL in almost every statistical category.
That ascent has been accompanied by near incessant noise and debate about Purdy, the merits of his play and how much of it is the product of head coach Kyle Shananan’s system, and where he belongs in the NFL quarterback hierarchy. The noise was particularly loud last week as Purdy and the 49ers returned to the scene of that aforementioned interruption, with San Francisco going on the road to face the Philadelphia Eagles in a rematch of January’s NFC Championship Game.
In an already infamous moment in franchise history, the 49ers saw their hopes of winning last season’s Super Bowl go up in smoke as Purdy suffered a torn elbow ligament on San Francisco’s opening offensive drive following a hit from Eagles pass rusher Haason Reddick. The 49ers finished a 31-7 loss without a healthy quarterback. Several of Purdy’s more prominent teammates wasted no time in articulating their view that the 49ers would have prevailed had he not suffered that devastating blow, much to the annoyance of many on the Philadelphia side.
As such, last Sunday’s rematch was something of a referendum on those bold statements and an acid test for Purdy, challenged with blocking out the emotions of his return to the scene of his worst moment in the pros and leading the 49ers to victory against a 10-1 Eagles team in an extremely hostile away environment.
By the time Sunday’s one-sided contest drew to a close, Purdy was bouncing down the tunnel, having thrown for 314 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions in a 42-19 rout of the Eagles that moved the 49ers within one game of Philadelphia in the race for the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Test passed. Now, after avoiding a letdown against the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers sit top of their conference after Philadelphia’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
For Purdy, his success was in part a product of his ability to successfully block out the noise, even if he did allow some thoughts of what had gone before to creep in.
“It was sort of in my mind, I got hurt here,” he told his post-game press conference. “That was this year, late in January, but was it going to be the revenge game or anything like that? No.
“For me, it was Week 13. We’re going into a new year. It’s a hostile environment. We needed this game. We need this game and obviously we have some really important games coming up too, so that’s where I was at with that. I didn’t want to get distracted by, ‘I’ve got to go back and show everybody what could’ve happened or what could’ve been.’ Got a new team. This is 2023 and that’s where my mind was at.”
Purdy’s performance against the Eagles saw a campaign predominantly defined by a series of highpoints reach a new zenith, as he used his defining traits of anticipatory throwing and poise well beyond his NFL experience to dissect a Philadelphia defense that has looked increasingly vulnerable in 2023 despite its considerable pass-rush threat. When the Eagles attempted to ramp up that threat by blitzing with extra pass rushers, Purdy went 10 for 10 for 213 yards, three touchdowns and seven first downs.
Yet early on it did appear as if Purdy and the 49ers would be overwhelmed by the Eagles and the cacophonous din at Lincoln Financial Field. San Francisco went three and out on each of the 49ers’ first two drives, ending the first quarter with minus six yards. However, the key aspect of that quarter was that it did not spiral out of control. The offense did not turn the ball over deep in its own territory and the defense, despite allowing the Eagles to surge into the red zone on each of their opening drives, only gave up two field goals. Being down 6-0 after 15 minutes was a win for the 49ers, who hammered home the point by scoring touchdowns on six straight drives thereafter.
For Shanahan, the most impressive facet of Purdy’s display was what he didn’t do during that trying start to the game when the 49ers appeared to be swimming against the tide.
“I just think Brock did what he does always every week,” Shanahan said in his post-game press conference. “He just plays the game. He tries to play it the right way and one of the best things he did when we were down, was he didn’t try to make too much stuff up and try to overcompensate when you are down. He just kept with the plan and kept doing his job and did a [heck] of a job with it.”
Shanahan’s sentiments were echoed by his players, with right guard Spencer Burford crediting Purdy’s poise in those difficult early moments to the amount of football he has played in his career having quarterbacked Iowa State in 47 games collegiately before heading to the pros.
“Brock has played a lot of football, he understands the ins and outs of the game, he understands that you can’t get too fluttered early on, just being who he is, the type of competitor that he is, we got whatever we needed to get situated in that time of the game,” Burford said. “We knew that we was going to have to lean on him regardless of what was going on early on and of course Brock does what he does week in and week out and he showed up and showed out.”
Added star running back Christian McCaffrey: “Extremely impressed [with the early-game composure], obviously he’s such a great quarterback, the statistics show it but the stuff he does outside the Xs and Os. We’re just happy he’s our quarterback.”
While the 49ers are thrilled with Purdy, who can use his legs to extend plays and make things happen outside the structure of the offense, one of the few remaining criticisms of his game is an alleged lack of an ability to create for himself on plays where he has to hold the ball longer than he would like when in the pocket. But an awareness that those difficult opening drives were no time for him to go into creation mode helped San Francisco survive a furious early onslaught from their biggest rival in the NFC.
Sometimes it’s the plays you don’t make, and Purdy’s cool temperament and correct assessment of the situation kept him and the 49ers in a position in which they could succeed and ensure the focus at the end of the game was on the litany of spectacular plays they did pull off across the final three quarters. The plays Purdy made, albeit with significant help from his star-studded offensive cast as Deebo Samuel exploded for three touchdowns and Christian McCaffrey, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle all thrived, saw him finish the game with a passer rating of 148.8.
It also marked his fourth game this campaign in which he has thrown at least three touchdown passes and recorded a passer rating of 140 or higher. The only other two players with at least four such games in the same season are Tom Brady (2007) and Aaron Rodgers (2011). Both quarterbacks won the MVP in those seasons.
An afterthought in the 2022 draft passed over by every NFL team until the 49ers provided a joyous end to his tortuous draft weekend experience, it cannot be overstated how remarkable it is that Purdy now finds himself in a position where, with five games to go until the end of the regular season, he is the betting favourite to win the MVP. It is a question that is worthy of extensive analysis and discussion. How does a quarterback passed over until the final pick of the draft ascend to a level where he could win MVP fewer than 30 games into his career?
Shanahan deserves tremendous credit for his arguably unmatched ability to put his quarterbacks in a position to succeed, while Purdy’s proficiency for delivering with anticipation, the speed with which he processes information from the defense and his aptitude for producing explosive plays at a much greater rate than his predecessor are all massive factors.
But perhaps the simplest answer is that the decisive trait behind Purdy’s unprecedented ascension is his enduring calm – an innate understanding of how to block out the noise and retain composure even in situations where it would be easy to allow it to desert him.
The MVP chatter will increase the more the 49ers keep winning down the stretch, making it all the more important that, as the Niners push for an elusive sixth Super Bowl title, he pays no attention to the talk and maintains that crucial quiet mind. His track record indicates Purdy won’t find that difficult.