Calling 49ers’ Brock Purdy a ‘system quarterback’ might not be the insult you think it is

Purdy might be just what the 49ers need to win the Super Bowl

LAS VEGAS — Brock Purdy heard fullback Kyle Juszczyk issuing the alert.

The San Francisco 49ers quarterback understood his teammate’s intention: Flip the formation, and send tight end Charlie Woerner in motion on the third-quarter play against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round.

But Purdy realized what Juszczyk didn’t: The play clock had nearly expired. With just two seconds remaining, proceeding with pre-snap motion risked a delay-of-game penalty.

So instead, Purdy screamed: “Stay there! Stay there!”

Then he shifted to a quick count, fielded the snap with no seconds to spare and delivered an immediate pitch to running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey leveraged his blocks to hit a seam upfield and explode for a 39-yard, go-ahead touchdown.

“You have to manage all of that within the shot clock,” Purdy told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday from the 49ers’ Super Bowl week hotel. “We have two [possible] plays a lot of the time, and then you got to say it to the huddle, you got to break it, you got to see what the defense is doing. You got to also know that you're on a shot clock with usually eight seconds.

“I'm diagnosing all those kinds of things and then, at the end of the day, delivering an accurate ball. So those are things that you do every single play that people on TV and around the world may not know.”

That lack of knowledge, perhaps, has contributed to the dismissive labels Purdy so often receives. A game manager riding the coattails of talented weapons? A system quarterback? Purdy thinks the latter, especially, might be more flattering than his critics intend.

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In fact, a system quarterback might just be the key to victory in this year’s Super Bowl.

“I laugh and sort of joke around with it, but more than anything, it’s sort of a compliment in terms of you get to go into a system, and you play within the system really well,” Purdy said. “It’s a rare job to be an NFL quarterback. People can say what they want, but at the end of the day, man, it comes down to winning.

“And if you can do your job in the system, I think you’re doing it well.”

Working for Shanahan a gift and a responsibility

Critics need not look hard to find reasons to doubt Purdy. Those seeking the prototypical, big-armed, athletic-framed quarterback need not wonder how the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Purdy fell to the seventh round.

His esteemed position as the final member of the 2022 draft class earns him the “Mr. Irrelevant” nickname that he’s in no hurry to shake. Even after his rise from third- to first-string quarterback as a rookie last season, Purdy’s setbacks weren’t over: He tore his UCL in last season’s NFC championship game, which the San Francisco 49ers ultimately lost. His health and availability for this season’s opener were in question through spring and summer.

It’s difficult to overstate how unlikely Purdy’s road to the sport's biggest stage actually was. But the endorsement of 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, considered one of the best (if not the best) offensive minds in the NFL, is enough to give Purdy job security. And Purdy has earned that.

How did a supposed game manager post this season’s league-best passer rating at 113.0? Purdy’s efficiency score was not deterred by his league-best 9.6 yards per attempt, his fourth-most passing yards per game (267.5) or his third-most passing touchdowns (31). In some ways, Purdy benefitted from Shanahan’s defense-bewildering schematic principles. In other ways, Purdy succeeded in spite of the immense amount of information that Shanahan requires his quarterbacks to process rapidly.

That mental processing is imperative to play for Shanahan, assistant quarterbacks coach Klay Kubiak told Yahoo Sports.

“Someone who can handle a lot mentally, but it does not slow them down,” he said. “They can handle a lot mentally, but they can go out and play aggressively and decisively. That's really what we ask all of our players to do.”

Therein lies the next paradox of Purdy’s play: 49ers head coaches and teammates define aggressiveness differently than those outside their building. By their definition, Purdy’s aggressiveness is one of his crowning traits.

Because aggressiveness, to the 49ers, doesn’t mean airing the ball out downfield (which, in fairness, Purdy has proven he can do). The 49ers are instead measuring mental aggressiveness: How decisively is Purdy executing, and how accurate are not only his passes but also his reads? How mentally tough is he as the pocket collapses? He might seem more conservative at times when he waits to throw. But he's withstanding a big hit in order to time his release precisely.

Purdy’s escapability, which quarterbacks coach Brian Griese said came across “in spades” on his Iowa State film, picks up where his processing leaves off.

“We’ve talked about winning the game with your mind but then also having a fallback that, if that’s not there, you can win it with your legs and your feet and athleticism,” Griese said Monday. “He had a unique skill set that was really cool for us to begin to work with and mold. … He just didn’t look like a prototypical quarterback, but to us, he had all of the intangibles that we value.”

Success in big moments gives 49ers confidence that Purdy is ready

Purdy diagnosed the coverage repeatedly Monday and Tuesday when asked about Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

The 49ers’ second-year seventh-rounder reminded inquiring media that he will not take the field at the same time as the six-time Pro Bowl, two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback leading the Chiefs offense. Purdy's job is squarely against the Chiefs defense, and he's rightfully more concerned with All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones than with Mahomes.

But the matchup of seventh- vs. first-round quarterback prospects still begs the question: Can a Mr. Irrelevant succeed on the biggest stage? How can the 49ers be sure, and how can they not worry?

Purdy’s coaches point to at least three defining moments that give them confidence. The QB's ability to thrive under pressure was on full display in a 2019 game between Iowa State and Oklahoma. Purdy’s Cyclones actually lost to Jalen Hurts and CeeDee Lamb’s Sooners that day, yet it was Purdy who completed touchdown passes to three different targets in the fourth quarter to rally Iowa State from a 42-28 deficit to 42-41. Although the potential game-winning two-point attempt ultimately failed, Purdy’s mettle was established after he tossed five touchdowns and rushed for a sixth.

Fast-forward to Purdy’s rookie year, when then-starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a season-ending foot injury in a Dec. 4 game. Purdy entered against a late-season Miami Dolphins defense with just nine career pass attempts of experience. He completed 25 of 37 attempts for 210 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in a 33-17 win.

“Miami is a very aggressive team that brought a lot of pressure, a lot of blitz, and it was probably the most difficult situation for a rookie quarterback to come into,” Griese said. “I was blown away by the fact that a) he didn’t completely melt, and b) he was able to handle that immense pressure and still get the ball where it was supposed to go.

“He made some throws in that game that told us: There’s no question this kid can play.”

The answers kept coming as Purdy’s understanding of the system built steadily atop his natural instincts and aggressiveness. By the time the 49ers faced a 7-6 deficit to the Packers at halftime of the divisional round last month, or a heftier 24-7 deficit to the Detroit Lions at halftime of the NFC championship, the 49ers simply stayed the course.

Brock Purdy has engineered two straight comeback wins in the playoffs to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Now he has a chance to etch his name in history. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Brock Purdy has engineered two straight comeback wins in the playoffs to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Now he has a chance to etch his name in history. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Purdy’s resumé and skill set are not that of Mahomes — but his knack for comebacks in big moments is steadily moving in the same direction.

“What we’ve asked of Brock these past two games, to go out there in the second half and lead a comeback, [is] something that you can't ask a lot of quarterbacks to do in the league,” center Jake Brendel said. “He was up for the task, and he did his job. He made sure that he put the ball in the right people's hands and gave us the opportunity to win.

“That's something that you really can't ask every single quarterback, especially a quarterback that isn't a first-round draft pick and doesn't have all the tangibles that come with that. Just every single week, he's improving his game, and he's proving to the world that he's here to stay.”

So while sportsbooks’ decision to bet against Mahomes and peg the Niners as 2-point favorites is risky, it doesn’t particularly surprise the 49ers. They believe Purdy can rise to the occasion just as he has the past two games. The 49ers believe he can process the kitchen sink of information that Shanahan will fling at him and somehow, some way, come out clean.

Purdy’s decision-making, the 49ers believe, is not the product of a system but the engine running the system. And that might just be enough to fuel the 49ers’ first Super Bowl title in 29 years — and lift Purdy into franchise history alongside Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young and Joe Montana.

“His understanding is growing, and he's getting more comfortable,” Griese said. “You pair that with his natural aggressiveness and playmaking, and now you have conviction.

“And when you have conviction, you can be on a stage like this and play well.”