PHILADELPHIA – "When you have two quarterbacks, you have none."
It's one of those longstanding NFL maxims – who knows who first uttered it? – that pithily suggests that if you don't have a star, or at least an established passer, under center, then your team is up a creek.
But the San Francisco 49ers turned the phrase on its head during the 2022 season, riding a trio of QBs to the NFC West title, which included a 12-game winning streak that extended into the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, the Niners proved during Sunday's 31-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game that, "When you have to use your fourth-string quarterback, you have no chance."
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San Francisco's season finally unraveled on its first offensive possession Sunday when Brock Purdy, "Mr. Irrelevant" as the final selection of the 2022 draft but vying to become the first rookie quarterback to guide his team into the Super Bowl, injured his throwing elbow while being sacked by linebacker Haason Reddick.
“My arm felt like it stretched out," Purdy said after the game. "It felt like a lot of shocks all over from my elbow, down to my wrist. Front and back. Just pain all over.”
A few practice throws and multiple trips to the medical tent seemed to effectively signal his day was over, though he was forced to return in the second half after QB4 Josh Johnson suffered a concussion. But by that point, San Francisco trailing 21-7 and Purdy unable to throw the ball more than a few yards, the Niners' season was effectively over.
"I had been throwing after the hit occurred on the sideline just to see where I was at," said Purdy, who will have an MRI once the 49ers return to California.
"Even in those throws, it was painful, so I couldn’t throw anything over 5-10 yards. That is why we just had some screens. That was our only option when I went back in.”
Said San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan: "We were really excited for today. We really wanted the opportunity to play that team and they played great. They did good things. But, you know, we wish we had a little better of an opportunity than we did today.”
Yet it's amazing the team made it this far – and Shanahan and general manager John Lynch deserve all the credit for resourcing and managing a position that devours the salary cap and depth chart for so many clubs. San Francisco was on the verge of becoming the first squad in six years to reach the Super Bowl while starting three quarterbacks in the regular season – and the circumstances for those Tom Brady-led 2016 New England Patriots, while weathering TB12's four-game "Deflategate" suspension, were far different than San Fran's.
Now the Niners prepare to embark on a fascinating offseason.
Trey Lance, obtained with the third overall pick of the 2021 draft – which the 49ers surrendered three first-round selections to obtain – was supposed to become the new face of the franchise ... before breaking his ankle in Week 2. Jimmy Garoppolo – Lynch resisted the urge to trade him during the 2022 offseason – made it through 10 starts before suffering a broken foot.
Then Purdy, the seventh-rounder who beat out veteran backup Nate Sudfeld and his $2 million contract to make the 53-man roster coming out of training camp, entered the picture and was a revelation while taking the team to another level thanks to his moxie and ability – winning all seven of his starts entering Sunday, when he became just the fifth rookie to start a conference championship game.
It sets up quite the dilemma for Lynch and Shanahan, who have guided the 49ers to three NFC title games and one Super Bowl during their six-year regime but have been unable to secure the franchise's sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Garoppolo seems likely to leave in free agency, which could theoretically leave Lance and Purdy – assuming his elbow injury doesn't require some kind of major surgery – to duke it out for the starting job in 2023. That's not a bad option given the expectations surrounding Lance – though he's only started five football games since 2020, his final season at North Dakota State, curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic – and Purdy's comfort with this offense and ability to execute it. And with both on rookie contracts, Lynch could continue to load up his roster with talent elsewhere.
The 49ers are also projected to have about $16 million in salary cap space, per OverTheCap, heading into free agency – a number that could grow by restructuring some contracts. Might they create enough room to lure Bay Area native Brady to sign? Or perhaps the Niners could pursue, via trade, another Northern California local, Aaron Rodgers – the four-time MVP they didn't draft No. 1 overall in 2005.
So what's the next move for a team that's been so close in recent years but, for various reasons, hasn't gotten the quarterback play its needed in the biggest moments?
Lynch and Shanahan will have to decide, "When you have two quarterbacks, do you have ... plenty?" Or do they remain one very prominent player away from ending a San Francisco championship drought that's close to entering its third decade?
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brock Purdy's injury unravels 49ers, who have QB questions to answer