SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On a three-step drop, in about two-and-a-half seconds, the ball was launched. Brock Purdy saw what he wanted before the snap, knew where he was going, and went there. Not an ounce of fear. No concern about his ability to execute. He just ripped it down the left sideline. The ball traveled 41 yards in the air, impeccably placed over leaping Tampa Bay cornerback Jamel Dean, and into the hands of Brandon Aiyuk.
And after Aiyuk scooted the remaining 43 yards for the 76-yard touchdown, and the signature moment of the 49ers’ 27-14 win over the Buccaneers, Purdy let out a yell.
Three weeks ago, it appeared as if Purdy had finally been exposed. But he’s come out of the bye week and led the 49ers to consecutive wins. In those two games, he’s combined for 629 yards and six touchdowns, completing 78.4 percent of his passes while the 49ers’ offense put up 61 points. Just like that, the doubts about him are gone. The struggles may return, but the question of whether he can handle what’s coming has been answered.
“Every week,” Christian McCaffrey said, “there’s always stuff where we say, ‘Wow. That was incredible.’ But at some point, that’s just who he is. … The doubters have been silenced.”
Under center, he might resemble Frodo Baggins in a helmet. Off the field, he might have the swag of a suburban youth pastor. But it would be wise to not let any of that distract from the inner football savage of Purdy. It was Week 14 of the 2022 season when he made his first NFL start, against Tampa Bay, officially beginning the Purdy Era. He threw for 185 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-7 blowout of the Buccaneers. Against Tom Brady, no less. A barely drafted, no-name quarterback.
Not even a year later, Purdy faced Tampa Bay again and has built up such a reputation that Baker Mayfield, the former No. 1 pick, was clearly the inferior quarterback in the matchup. Purdy stamped the full-circle moment with a perfect passer rating.
“I don’t even know what that is,” Purdy said. It’s the perfect stat to illustrate how he’s the perfect quarterback in the perfect system, surrounded by the perfect complement of talent, with the perfect disposition to handle all of this, and perfectly capable of being even more.
Brock Purdy is first QB with a perfect passer rating (25+ attempts) in a game played in the Bay Area since Nick Foles did it vs #Raiders in 2013. @Jerrymcd and I were lucky enough to cover both of them https://t.co/r1QZav2et8
— Josh Dubow (@JoshDubowAP) November 20, 2023
The imperfections are there, for sure. Coach Kyle Shanahan implored, dared, Purdy to avoid an intentional grounding this week after getting at least one in three straight. He’s still a work in progress. But it’s been 16 weeks, 15 starts, since Purdy was given the keys to the 49ers kingdom. Every step of the way, he’s answered whatever doubts surfaced about his readiness, his ability, his potential.
Sunday was another arm day.
The 49ers’ offense can put a cap on itself. Shanahan’s emphasis on the run game, and the timing nature of the passing game, tends to limit the riskiness of downfield throws. The 49ers don’t have a burner who can get open deep in a blink, and the strength of their offense is yards after the catch, so there isn’t much incentive to push the ball downfield. And their last quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, couldn’t consistently throw it deep and seemed to stop trying. Before long, it just felt like the 49ers’ offense wasn’t capable. It can make them predictable.
But in Sunday’s deciding play, the 49ers, who came in with the eighth-highest percentage of runs on first down (36.6 percent), went with a go route this time. Five yards off the line of scrimmage, Aiyuk, who began in the slot to Purdy’s left, had a step on Dean. The Buccaneers seemed wholly unprepared for what was about to happen. The single-high safety was way out of position. Dean seemed stunned Aiyuk wasn’t running another crossing route or something. Dean looked back for the ball and saw he was cooked. His leaping attempt was desperation.
— 𝙏𝙝𝙚𝙎𝙁𝙉𝙞𝙣𝙚𝙧𝙨 (@TheSFNiners) November 19, 2023
The deep ball was such a break from the norm, and Aiyuk was so far ahead of any other 49er, he had too much time to even think about the celebration. He eventually settled on the Smeeze, a popular dance in the Bay.
“That was the longest touchdown of my career,” Aiyuk said with a smile after he racked up 156 yards receiving on Sunday. “I didn’t know what to do.”
In the resounding win over Jacksonville last Sunday, the win that reset their equilibrium, Purdy was 6-for-6 on throws of at least 20 yards, three of them touchdowns. One was arguably his throw of the year, when he hung in the pocket and lofted a dime down the right sidelines (34 yards in the air) to George Kittle for a 66-yard touchdown connection. According to Pro Football Focus, Purdy came into Sunday’s game 20-for-30 passing for 568 yards and six touchdowns on throws of 20 yards or more.
Make that seven touchdowns.
With seven games remaining, Aiyuk is well on his way to another 1,000-yard season. He’s on pace for career highs in reception yards per game (84.4), yards per reception (17.8) and yards per target (12.3).
In addition to Aiyuk, Kittle has been one of the beneficiaries of Purdy’s magic. Kittle had 24 touchdowns over the 76 games of his carer before Purdy. In the 16 games with Purdy, he has 12 touchdown receptions, including Sunday’s 3-yard score.
“It’s a combination of bullying and just being open more,” Kittle said, breaking into a smile before breaking down his connection with Purdy. “I think we just have a lot of opportunity because of the way that Brock takes care of the football and the way that he is able to extend plays with his feet. He just does a great job keeping his eyes up. I feel like we’re just staying on the field for a long time, being able to take those long drives. When you’re on the field for eight to 10 plays and then you’re down in the red zone, the defense is a little bit tired and they might mess up a coverage.”
As was the case last year against Tampa Bay, Purdy will again follow a win over the Buccaneers with a short-week trip to Seattle. After that, he’s at Philadelphia. The 49ers’ usual house of horrors in the Northwest, and a return to the site where Purdy got hurt and the 49ers’ Super Bowl chances disappeared last season. These next two weeks figure to be stiff tests for Purdy. Another chance for questions to arise. For doubts to surface.
But we’ve seen enough to know that even if he struggles in those daunting environments, those struggles won’t be the end of him. We’ve seen enough to know he won’t be shook in the moment. Beneath the boyish look and humble aura, Purdy’s got some seriously big energy. And it’s perfect for this team.
The 49ers are built for late-season runs, and they’re showing it again
(Photo: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)