Brock Purdy’s epic comeback etches his name in 49ers lore as Detroit’s hero Jared Goff is left wondering what could have been

Brock Purdy waited for the better part of three days to hear his name called dead last in the 2022 NFL Draft. It earned him the less-than-complimentary designation of ’Mr. Irrelevant’ – given to the last player taken in each year’s draft.

The names on that list are often forgotten. On Sunday, he joined a new one that will redefine his legacy: Joe Montana, Steve Young, Colin Kaepernick, Jimmy Garoppolo, Brock Purdy – the quarterbacks who have led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl.

Purdy defeated the Detroit Lions and their quarterback Jared Goff in a battle of two field generals who could not have had more different starts to their careers but seemed to walk a similar path to get to the NFC Championship Game.

Goff – a Bay Area native who grew up about 70 miles from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara – had taken his own long road to one of the sport’s biggest stages, bringing the traditionally moribund Lions to one of their best seasons in team history, becoming a folk hero in the Motor City in the process.

As recently as two years ago, no one would have bet that Purdy and Goff would be leading their teams out for a chance to play for the Super Bowl. Few people outside of the Bay Area and Ames, Iowa – home of Purdy’s alma mater, Iowa State University – would have even known who he was.

Now, he’s a 49ers legend in the making. Purdy not only carried his team to the Super Bowl but did so in historic style after leading one of the biggest comebacks in NFC Championship game history by overcoming a 17-point halftime deficit to top the Detroit Lions 34-31 and send his team to Las Vegas to play the Kansas City Chiefs.

Purdy’s stat line doesn’t jump off the box score – 20-of-31 pass attempts for 267 yards with a touchdown and an interception and five rushes for 48 yards.

But it was the timing around those plays – particularly the scrambles that broke the Lions’ defense in the midst of the second-half surge – that made Purdy the third-youngest quarterback to ever lead his team to the Super Bowl.

“Honestly, it’s just a testament to God and where he’s taken me in life. I’ve never been the biggest, the fastest, the strongest or any of that,” Purdy said after the game.

“I feel like I’ve always had to fight for what I get and work for what I get. But God’s always given me an opportunity whether that’s in high school, college or obviously the NFL. Getting drafted last … all you need is an opportunity and watch and see what he does. I put my faith and trust in him, and he’s gotten me where I’m at.”

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy celebrates with the trophy after their win against the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship on Sunday. - David J. Phillip/AP
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy celebrates with the trophy after their win against the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship on Sunday. - David J. Phillip/AP

No longer ‘Irrelevant’

The 24-year-old Purdy is one of those rare stories that football occasionally conjures up, allowing a relative unknown to perform under the biggest and brightest spotlights.

Following in the rich tradition of Kurt Warner and Warren Moon, Purdy has quickly risen from relative obscurity. Unlike Warner and Moon, Purdy was drafted even if it was the final pick to become the starting quarterback for one of the league’s signature franchises.

The Iowa State product was forced into action in the 2022 season for the 49ers after starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and back up Trey Lance were both injured earlier in the season. He took the ball and ran with it, going 5-0 as the starting quarterback before being injured in last year’s NFC Championship Game.

“They’ve believed in me since I’ve stepped in since last year,” Purdy said of his teammates before Sunday’s game. “And throughout the year, I feel like I’ve grown, and we’ve all grown together, so definitely blessed to have these guys in the locker room with me and they’ve definitely had my back through the good and the bad.”

Purdy’s performance left the 49ers with a difficult choice: Three quarterbacks had led them to success in 2022, but there was only room for one starter. The 49ers front office eventually decided to bet on Purdy.

Garoppolo was allowed to sign with the Las Vegas Raiders in the offseason, Lance was traded to the Dallas Cowboys, and Purdy entered training camp as the undisputed starter, eventually leading the 49ers to a division championship, the top seed in the NFC and now a Super Bowl berth.

His teammates are full believers heading into the showdown with the Chiefs.

“He’s got nerves of steel, so I’m not worried about his age. He’s definitely mature beyond his years and I know he’ll be ready,” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said.

“I don’t have enough good things to say about Brock,” running back Christian McCaffrey said after the game.

“All he’s done since he’s been here is play at an elite level and everything starts with him. We’re lucky he’s our quarterback. He takes a lot of heat for absolutely no reason, all he’s done is been a great leader, been a great player.”

Even now, a full season as the starter and two NFC Championship Games under his belt, Purdy flies under the radar: his biography on the 49ers’ website remains blank, unlike the teams’ other big names.

That will likely change.

Purdy runs against Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone during the second half of the NFC Championship. - Mark J. Terrill/AP
Purdy runs against Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone during the second half of the NFC Championship. - Mark J. Terrill/AP

Back from the brink

Picked first overall in the 2016 draft, Goff was expected to be the cornerstone of the Los Angeles Rams for years to come. And for a time, it looked like that plan was on track.

In his third year, he led the Rams to the Super Bowl where they lost to the New England Patriots in one of the most offensively challenged Super Bowls in history (the game ended 13-3). Even though Goff fell short at the final hurdle, it seemed likely that the Rams were just getting started.

But the ground was slowly shifting under Goff’s feet and his place as the Rams’ quarterback of the future grew less and less certain with each passing game in the ensuing seasons.

After the 2020 season, the Rams decided Goff wasn’t enough and they pulled the trigger on a deal sending him to Detroit for Lions legend Matthew Stafford, who – after 12 seasons in Motown – wanted to go somewhere he could win a Super Bowl.

And he did: the next year. Goff and the Lions, meanwhile, went winless for the first 13 weeks of the season, eventually finishing 3-13-1 in head coach Dan Campbell’s first season. Stafford found immediate success and Goff found himself on a losing team in a city used to them.

Facing skepticism after that first season, it wasn’t clear to Lions fans heading into the 2022 season if Goff was going to be around long. A supercharged offense seemed to quiet some of those questions, but a 1-6 start to the season made Lions fans feel as if nothing had truly changed.

But in November 2022, the wins started piling up. The offense stayed prolific and, in very non-Lions fashion, started making the plays needed to win tough games. It started a wave of momentum that built into the greatest Lions season that most fans have ever experienced.

Goff wasn’t good enough for the Rams’ front office. But as Campbell told him in the locker room after he led the Lions to their first playoff victory in 32 years: Jared Goff became good enough for Detroit, as evidenced by the chorus of “Ja-red Goff!” chants echoing through sporting events in Michigan over the past several weeks.

Goff throwing the ball during the third quarter against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship. - Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Goff throwing the ball during the third quarter against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship. - Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

An epic meeting

Those dual paths ran together for 60 minutes in a balmy Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, where it was 70 degrees and sunny at kickoff.

Purdy played like the second-year quarterback that he is, taking chances – some that worked, some that didn’t. In the first half, he looked a little overmatched by the more veteran Goff, who methodically helped the Lions sprint out to a big lead.

But one of the benefits of being an inexperienced player is that sometimes you don’t know when you’re supposed to be scared. Purdy opened the second half and kept taking the chances that didn’t go his way in the first two quarters. And the breaks started to go in his favor.

“When I’m down 17 at half, I’m honestly thinking, ‘Alright God, you’ve taken me here, win or lose, I’m going to glorify you,’” Purdy said. “And that’s my peace, that’s the joy, that’s the steadfastness – that’s where I get it from … I leaned into that, sure enough, we were able to come back.”

In perhaps the most spectacular play of the game – a 51-yard pass to Brandon Aiyuk that bounced off a Detroit defensive back’s facemask and into Aiyuk’s hands – was thrown into tight coverage that could have just as easily been an interception. Instead, it led to the third quarter TD that brought the 49ers within a touchdown late in the third quarter.

It was a calculated risk, Purdy said.

“In that moment, I’m looking at it like we need a play. I’m not going to be stupid and just throw the ball up but, you know, (Aiyuk) is one-on-one, so I’m going to take that (opportunity),” Purdy said, “especially in this kind of game where we need that kind of play. People can say what they want, but I was giving my guy a shot.”

In the end, it was Purdy who made the plays that won the game, surprising the Lions defense with his mobility as he scrambled for critical first downs during an incredible second half comeback. It all amounted to an epic run of 27 straight points that completely switched the game’s momentum and sent his team to the Super Bowl.

Juszczyk said those plays showed a side of Purdy that might surprise opponents.

“He’s a slept-on athlete,” Juszczyk said.

Goff, meanwhile, made a few spectacular throws, a few dangerous ones and many safe ones to his playmakers. In the end, it was a few dropped passes that seemed to seal the Lions’ fate as Goff simply couldn’t get the Detroit offense moving in the second half to break the 49ers surging momentum.

“We knew they were gonna make a run in the second half,” Lions head coach Dan Campbell said after the game. “We knew we had to weather the storm. We weren’t surprised. We just couldn’t counter back.”

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