SANTA CLARA — These 49ers were built to be a team that runs the ball, has a catch-and-run passing game, and plays elite defense.
That’s the kind of squad Brock Purdy, the NFL’s cheapest starting quarterback, was meant to helm.
But now the 49ers can’t run the ball, they can’t defend, either, and without Deebo Samuel, their passing game has lost its yards-after-catch prowess — the middle of the field isn’t open.
This team looks normal the last three weeks, which has put the burden of winning on the quarterback’s shoulders.
It’s not a burden he’s ready to carry. It’s not a burden he is supposed to carry.
Purdy brought the 49ers close in all three games, but three consecutive losses aren’t debatable.
Yes, Purdy was, as head coach Kyle Shanahan said, “one of the reasons we were in the game” on Sunday. Purdy’s good was downright great. He makes the kind of big throws that no 49ers quarterback under Shanahan has attempted, much less completed: deep outs to the sideline, linebacker buzzers, improvisational flips.
But amid the good, the Niners’ quarterback peppered in some bad, too.
The Niners, unfortunately, need their quarterback to be perfect these days. Purdy hasn’t been that, throwing five interceptions in the last three games.
Again, this is how the vast majority of NFL teams live. There are only a few transcendent quarterbacks in the league these days — guys who can carry a team to a win.
The list might include one player: Patrick Mahomes.
Be a bit less exclusive, and we’re adding Josh Allen and maybe Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts. That’s if we’re being nice. Joe Burrow could be on the list when he’s healthy.
That’s five quarterbacks under the most generous terms.
After that, there’s a big middle class filled with guys like Purdy: Tua Tagovailoa, Jared Goff, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Herbert, Kirk Cousins, Geno Smith, and the rare appearance of vintage Russell Wilson.
These quarterbacks are unquestionably good and can look great on any given day. Guys like this have even won MVP (Matt Ryan 2016). But they won’t put a team on their back and singlehandedly take them to victory week in, week out.
At 23 years old, Purdy is not that guy. Maybe he will become one down the line. Maybe not. That’s to worry about after the 2025 season, when his rookie contract expires.
Structurally, the Niners didn’t think they’d need a transcendent quarterback. No, this Niners team was supposed to be the 2013 Seattle Seahawks — talented beyond belief because they had a cheap, effective, second-year game-managing quarterback with a bit of magic to him.
But right now, that talent is on par with the rest of the league on offense and all that defensive talent has been muted by poor coordination.
And so the games rest on the shoulders of a quarterback who was taken with the last pick in the draft and who makes less per season than Denver Broncos coach Sean Payton makes per game.
If the Niners thought they needed a quarterback to be their first, their last, their everything, they would have traded for Cousins or Aaron Rodgers this past offseason. They wouldn’t have pinned their hopes on Purdy.
But for what they thought they needed — competency-plus — Purdy is perfect.
That’s not what the 49ers need at this moment, though. Not with Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams sidelined with injuries. If this formula sticks for the 49ers, Purdy might win a few games for them down the stretch, but San Francisco won’t be a Super Bowl contender.
If this defense bounces back and Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams return, however, the Niners could be world-beaters again.
They have a pretty good quarterback, after all.
If only pretty good was enough the last few weeks.
The NFL trade deadline is Tuesday, and I don’t expect the Niners to make any significant moves.
Yes, San Francisco has more salary cap space than any other team in the league, but their biggest need — offensive line, specifically the interior — is something close to a dead zone for trade talks.
The bad teams don’t want to part with even mediocre linemen because they’re still trying to evaluate their quarterbacks.
The good teams don’t have redundancies on the offensive line, so no one is hanging around.
Only two teams in no man’s land make any sense to call:
Outside of Minnesota guard Ezra Cleveland and former Niner guard Dan Brunskill (now with the Titans), the pickings are slim.
And the prices for both players will not be proportional to their impact. It’s a seller’s market.
Plus, I’m not sure either would immediately be given a starting job on this team, although they’re better players than what the Niners are starting every week at guard.
Here’s a more prominent name to watch in trade talks: Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson.
Johnson has been one of the better corners in the NFL this season despite playing in a bad Bears defense. He would be an immediate upgrade over Deommodore Lenoir (or even Charvarius Ward).
His cost makes me skeptical about the Niners moving for him.
While Johnson is set to be a free agent after this season, I’m hearing there are so many teams circling him that the Bears can likely recoup more than the second-round pick they used to take him in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The Niners have plenty of draft picks for next season — 12, to be specific. After a couple of seasons of putting the draft on the back burner, the sentiment in Santa Clara is that this upcoming draft is an important one for the team.
I don’t think general manager John Lynch wants to jeopardize early picks to land Johnson.
Having watched the Niners’ defense the last few weeks, I hope he reconsiders.