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Brock Purdy debate: Does 49ers QB need to defeat Chiefs in Super Bowl 58 to finally shed game-manager label?

As the 262nd and final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, aka “Mr. Irrelevant,” it was unlikely Brock Purdy’s was ever going to complete a pass in the NFL. 

The San Francisco 49ers quarterback entered the league as a third-string quarterback behind both the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft Trey Lance and longtime starter Jimmy Garoppolo. Now both Lance (Dallas Cowboys) and Garoppolo (Las Vegas Raiders) are on other teams. Purdy has become the first out of 48 Mr. Irrelevants — since the terms was first coined in 1976 — to simply complete a pass, start a game at quarterback (in the regular season or playoffs) and make a Pro Bowl. No other Mr. Irrelevant had ever done any of those things. In just his second NFL season, Purdy is the third-lowest drafted quarterback to ever start a Super Bowl with only Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme ahead of him as undrafted players to start in the Big Game. 

All of those parts about Purdy’s story are objective truth. Now, when the dialogue around his pecking order among the league’s best quarterbacks begins, given his team’s success and offensive ecosystem — one of the league’s best play-callers in head coach Kyle Shanahan, 2023 First Team All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, Pro Bowl wide receiver Deebo Samuel, 2023 First Team All-Pro tight end George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and 2023 First Team All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams — that conversation gets subjective in a hurry.

Purdy’s surface-level resume is that of a top quarterback: he led the NFL in passing yards per attempt while being on the precipice of joining Roger Staubach (1971), Joe Montana (1981), Kurt Warner (1999) and Tom Brady (2001) as the only quarterbacks to win the Super Bowl in their first season as a full-time starter. But Shanahan and that aforementioned supporting cast are electric.  

NFL leaders/co-leaders this season on 49ers

Player Stat They Led or Co-Led the NFL In

Brock Purdy

Pass yards/attempt (9.6) and passer rating (113.0)

Christian McCaffrey

Rush yards (1,459) and scrimmage TD (21)

Deebo Samuel 

YAC/rec among WR (8.8)

Brandon Aiyuk

Pct of catches to go for a first down or a TD (81.3%)

George Kittle

Yads/catch among TE (15.7)

Because of those factors, Purdy has been labeled the dictionary definition of a football game manager. A trailer, not a tractor. Along for the ride instead driving the bus. More of a product of his offensive ecosystem than his individual talent uplifting the offense. The game-manager label carries a negative connotation in today’s quarterback discussions. Fellow NFL quarterbacks are torn about Purdy’s game-manager status. The league’s MVP from the 2015 season, former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, emphatically declares Purdy is a game manager. 

“I’ve never said Brock Purdy is trash,” Newton said on his “4thand1show” podcast on Wednesday. “What I did say is Brock Purdy is a game manager. That’s not hate. That’s what I feel to be facts. But I still reserve the right to say this: to be labeled a game-changer, Brock Purdy has to be the best player on the offensive side of the ball. That’s not the case. Christian McCaffrey is. I ain’t recanting shit. If you want to be honest and you add in the [49ers’] defensive talent, plus the offensive talent, Brock Purdy is the 10th-best player on the 49ers. Ok cool. Did he have a great game [in the NFC Championship against the Lions]? Yes. Has he been playing out of his mind? Yes. Is he a quarterback that’s hot? Yes, but he’s still the 10th-best player on his team.”

Prior to San Francisco’s 34-31 NFC title game win over the Lions on Sunday, another quarterback selected first overall like Newton — former 49er Alex Smith — refused to allow for Purdy to be given the game-manager label. It’s one he accepts for himself as a quarterback who benefitted from playing with the NFL’s third-leading rusher in NFL history, running back Frank Gore, for eight years from 2005-2012.

“I can tell you as the unofficial president of the Game Managers Club, he’s [Purdy] not allowed in,” Smith said Sunday on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown

Purdy acknowledges his natural abilities don’t measure up with the typical elite quarterback, but the 49ers keep winning anyways as their quarterback does just enough. He has game-winning drives in each of San Francisco’s playoff wins this season, becoming the fifth passer to do so in both the divisional round and conference championship in the same postseason. That club includes Purdy, Matthew Stafford (2021), Joe Burrow (2021), Eli Manning (2007) and Stan Humphries (1994). 

“I think it’s a testament to God, where he’s taken me in life,” Purdy said postgame on Sunday. “I’ve never been the biggest, fastest, strongest, any of that. I feel like I’ve always had to sort of fight for what I get, work for what I get. … Obviously my job is to distribute the ball to guys who are open, and then if something isn’t there, especially in this kind of game, you have to find a way. I feel like all my life I have scrambled here and there, but since I’ve been here, I haven’t done it a whole lot. Obviously tonight [running for 49 yards on Sunday against the Detroit Lions], I was trying keep the chains moving and the ball moving forward. Give our team some momentum and juice. I had to do it, so I did it.”

“I thought it was the difference between winning and losing,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said postgame when asked about Purdy’s scrambling. “He made some big plays with his legs, getting out of the pocket, moving the chains on some first downs, some explosives. He competed his ass off today. Wasn’t easy for any of us. He kept grinding. He was unbelievable there in the second half.” 

To McCaffrey, the likely 2023 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, Purdy is an elite quarterback. 

“I don’t have enough good things to say about Brock,” McCaffrey said postgame. “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 and a great player.”

Purdy has been exactly what the 49ers have needed at quarterback, but is that simply a high-level game manager who can efficiently press all the right buttons Shanahan tells him to press at just the right time? Or is he a truly great quarterback regardless of his supporting cast? Let’s take a look at the case for both sides to determine if he needs to prevail against reigning NFL and Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas to decide that or if he’s already done enough to shed that game-manager label for good. 

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The case for Purdy not being a game manager

Besides McCaffrey vouching for him, there are plenty of metrics those in the pro-Purdy-is-elite camp can point to. He is the all-time leader in passing yards per attempt (9.2, minimum 500 career pass attempts). His 9.6 yards per pass attempt this season is the highest in a single season in NFL history with a minimum of 350 pass attempts.

No one has a higher passing yards per attempt against the blitz this season (10.5), and Purdy’s 15 touchdown passes against the blitz are tied for the most in the NFL with the league’s overall passing touchdowns leader, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. With Purdy at the controls, San Francisco has conquered all of the six other NFC teams to make the playoffs this year, making him the first quarterback to sweep the entire playoff field from his own conference in a season since Joe Montana in 1984, including playoff games. 

The 49ers’ single-season passing yards record now belongs not to Hall of Famers like Montana or Steve Young, but to Purdy thanks to his 4,280 in 2023, which he threw in 16 games played. Thanks to also throwing 31 touchdowns in the regular season, he is in a five-man club of quarterbacks with 30 or more passing touchdowns and 4,000 or more passing yards in their first season as a full-time starting quarterback. That group includes Warner (1999), Mahomes (2018), Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert (2020) and Green Bay Packers QB Jordan Love (2023). 

The case for Purdy being a game manager

Many attribute Purdy’s sparkling stats to his supporting cast, and there is empirical evidence for those claims. He led the NFL in yards after catch per completion this year (6.6). The second-year quarterback also averaged an NFL-high 8.8 yards per pass attempts on screens this season. Both of those metrics are what they are in large part to McCaffrey, Samuel, Aiyuk and Kittle being on the receiving end of his throws.   

Purdy’s turnover-worthy throw rate, which is the amount of interceptions and dropped interceptions a quarterback throws divided by his total pass attempts, is 3.5% in 2023, including the postseason, which ranks 24th out of 32 qualified quarterbacks. That’s the ninth-highest such figure in the NFL this season. 

When under pressure and the pocket isn’t just right, Purdy’s efficiency plummets. He has thrown seven interceptions when pressured this season, including the postseason, which is tied for the fifth-most in the NFL. Purdy has yet to throw a touchdown under pressure this postseason, and he has tossed an interception when the pocket begins to collapse around across the last two games. 

In another big spot, prime time on Christmas Night against the AFC’s top seed and now AFC runner-up Baltimore Ravens, Purdy melted like the Wicked Witch of the West when water is thrown on her, throwing a career-high four interceptions. That game wasn’t that long ago either. It was the penultimate regular-season game Purdy played in back in Week 16. He sat out Week 18 with the 49ers already having clinched the one seed in Week 17. 

Many attribute the ability for a quarterback to lead his team back from a deficit with their backs against the wall as a sign their guy is elite. In the regular season, Purdy was unable to find much success in that area, throwing just two touchdowns to a whopping six interceptions when tied or trailing after halftime. He’s tremendously improved in that area this postseason, helping lead two second-half comebacks against the Packers and Lions, including a 17-point, second-half comeback against Detroit — the largest halftime deficit overcome in conference championship game history. 

Brock Purdy when tied or trailing in second half this season

  • Reg Season: 1-4, 57% comp pct, 2-6 TD-INT
  • Postseason: 2-0, 66% comp pct, 1-0 TD-INT

However, his individual performance in both of his wins doesn’t look quite as spectacular on closer examination. Until the 49ers’ final drive of the night following a Packers missed field goal, Purdy was off target and daring Green Bay to intercept him. Packers safety Darnell Savage dropped a likely pick six on Purdy’s second throw of the game. He did get his act together on the ninth and final drive, completing six of his seven passes for 47 yards while scrambling for 11 more yards. 

Brock Purdy by drives
NFC divisional round vs. Packers

First Eight Drives 49ers’ Final Drive

Comp/Att

17/32

6/7

Pass Yards

205

47

Pass Yards/Att

6.4

6.7

TD-INT

1-0

0-0

Passer Rating

83.5

94.6

Rush Yards

4

11

His first-half performance in the NFC Championship generated a 39.0 passer rating, and his one interception directly led to a Lions touchdown on their ensuing possession, which put the 49ers in a 14-0 hole. A 39.6 passer rating is what a quarterback would get if he only threw the ball into the ground for incompletions. Purdy was worse than that in the game’s first 30 minutes of action on Sunday. He did bounce back with a stellar second half. 

Brock Purdy by half 
NFC Championship vs. Lions   

First Half Second Half

Comp/Att

7/15

16/21

Pass Yards

93

174

Pass Yards/Att

6.2

10.9

TD-INT

0-1

1-0

Passer Rating

39.0

132.8

Rush Yards

-1

49

His longest completion of the night appeared to be divine intervention, furthering the narrative that Purdy just happens to be so darn lucky and blessed. His throw deep down the middle of the field hit Lions cornerback Kindle Vildor in the helmet and then the hands, turning what appears to be an interception into a 51-yard catch by Brandon Aiyuk on the ricochet. Purdy was then able to hit Aiyuk for a short touchdown three plays later to trim the gap to seven. 

“To have an explosive play like that was huge in that moment. We needed it to get down the field pretty quick,” Purdy said. “We were still down the two touchdowns. … In our offense you can expect your receiver to get on top and trust them. The corner did a good job of actually staying on top, and B.A. did a good job of tracking the ball all the way and making a huge play for us. That was clutch on his part.”

“I saw the replay,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said postgame. “And I was like, ‘Just how we wanted it to look. Off the guy’s facemask right to B.A.’ Dang. Brock’s good at football isn’t he?”  

Kittle is correct. Purdy is good at football, but how good is he really? 

The verdict    

Purdy doesn’t have a rocket launcher arm like Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Jordan Love or a healthy Aaron Rodgers. Nor does he possess the athletic gifts Lamar Jackson or Jalen Hurts have. His accuracy can disappear for extended stretches. Watch enough tape of Purdy, and you’ll swear you counted seemingly four or five passes in a game that should’ve been turnovers but weren’t.

His statistics and team success helped make him one of the league’s five MVP finalists, but he’s also made a number of plays that make you question the validity of his contention for the award. 

The only surefire way for Purdy to quell all doubts about his game manger status is to have his arm be the central reason for the 49ers’ offensive success in a Super Bowl victory given how polarizing the debate surrounding him has become, to no fault of his own. That’s pretty unlikely considering McCaffrey has run for 90 or more yards and multiple touchdowns in both of San Francisco’s playoff games. However, given his ability to lock in for stretches, like the second half against the Lions, it can’t be ruled out.

Anything short of that specific outcome, and this conversation will continue all offseason long. Buckle up. 

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