Brock Purdy's challenge: Do what Colin Kaepernick and Jimmy Garoppolo couldn't

If there’s one fact we can all agree on regarding Brock Purdy, it’s this: After Super Bowl LVIII, we can retire the old “golly, Mr. Irrelevant became a star!” trope. Yes, it makes for an easy talking point at Super Bowl parties, and for a sweet little pregame feature, but come on. The guy’s proven he's a legitimate NFL quarterback, even if it took him longer than most to get drafted into the league.

On the other hand, that might be all we can agree on regarding Purdy. Did he save the 49ers, or was he unable to get them going at all? Is his game management more like a chess grandmaster, or like an underage driver behind the wheel of a Ferrari?

Purdy finished the game — a 25-22 49ers loss, as you probably heard — with a total of 255 yards passing on 23 of 38 attempts with a touchdown. He was mobile, if not particularly elusive, and for the most part did what the 49ers needed him to do: lay the groundwork for Christiam McCaffrey and the rest of the San Francisco offense. That was enough, this year, to get the 49ers to the Super Bowl. But will it ever be enough to get them over the top?

You could make the argument that the game's key sequence took place over the course of about 10 minutes in the third quarter, starting with the moment that Ji'Ayir Brown intercepted Patrick Mahomes on the Kansas City 44. At that moment, San Francisco was up 10-3, Kansas City had shown exactly nothing of note on offense, and the Chiefs were belly-up and easy prey. But on the ensuing three drives, San Francisco three-and-outed three times, held the ball for only a combined three minutes and 44 seconds, and managed a total net yardage of minus-2 yards.

Put another way: Even if you didn’t get up from the couch to refill your plate, you, sitting there eating wings on your couch during the third quarter, had two more yards of total offense than the 49ers did over that span. During that time, the Chiefs only managed a field goal, but simply by keeping the Niners off the scoreboard, Kansas City hung around enough to drag San Francisco back into the muck.

That offensive sputter hangs around the neck of a whole lot of people — coordinators, linemen, playmakers — but fundamentally, it starts with Purdy. If San Francisco is going to win these kinds of clutch games, he’ll have to be the one to make something out of nothing, the way Patrick Mahomes finally did in the game’s last few minutes. Managing a game gets you into the playoffs, but controlling it gets you the title.

The 49ers have appeared in the Super Bowl more times since the 2012 season than any team outside the Chiefs and Patriots, and they’ve done so with a series of quarterbacks that don’t exactly strike terror in the hearts of opposing fanbases. Colin Kaepernick, Jimmy Garoppolo and Purdy were all capable of impressive drives, games and (on occasion) seasons, but all three combined wouldn’t come close to touching Mahomes or Tom Brady.

The good news for San Francisco is that while Purdy may not (yet) be a season-long MVP-caliber player, he’s still on a rookie deal for the next few seasons, and that gives the 49ers time to determine whether he’s their long-term solution, and to build around him if he is. A good 15 to 20 teams in the league would take a Brock Purdy right this moment — hell, they all had their chance to, just two years ago — and that’s a testament to both his growth and the 49ers coaching staff’s foresight.

During the regular season, Purdy ranked fifth in the league in passing yardage, third in passing touchdowns, fourth in completion percentage and first in yards per attempt, with numbers that would have been world-wrecking even a single generation of quarterbacks ago. But in football — especially in the everybody-go-long era of today — numbers alone can’t close the deal. Purdy will need to add the extra facet to his game that Mahomes already possesses, the ability to rally his team beyond its own limitations and self-inflicted wounds.

There’s a scene in last year’s “John Wick 4” where the titular Mr. Wick must fight assassins — hordes of assassins, so many assassins — all the way up a Paris hillside for what feels like an entire hour. The odds seem impossible, and yet Wick keeps fighting, keeps climbing. And then — spoiler alert — right when he almost reaches the summit, he gets knocked all the way back down again, to start all over, and all the work he’d just done was nothing but painful experience.

That’s where Purdy and the 49ers are right now, all the way back down at the bottom of the hill, 0-0 going into the 2024 season. They won’t surprise anyone anymore, and no one’s going to underestimate little ol’ Mr. Irrelevant ever again. How Purdy manages this next phase of his career, and what he learned from facing the master, will be fascinating to watch.

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