Brock Purdy lacks the “magic” necessary to be quarterback of the 49ers.
That’s been one of the criticisms about a second-year player who has been pretty hard to criticize until recently when the 49ers lost three straight games, during which Purdy threw his first five interceptions of the season.
Purdy was back to his old self in a 34-3 road win over Jacksonville on Sunday, doing the things he does best — distribute the ball to a number of dangerous targets, avoid turnovers, be a leader.
But there was more to it than just being a selfless game manager who happened to complete 19 of 26 passes for 296 yards, three touchdown and no interceptions. Purdy’s opposite number in every way is Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft the year before Purdy was the last pick at No. 262.
The best quarterback on the field Sunday was Purdy, as the 49ers harassed Lawrence into a 17-of-29, 185-yard performance with two interceptions. It didn’t take long to determine the guy with the magic touch was the 6-foot-1, 220-pound touch passer out of Iowa State as opposed to the prototype elite talent from Clemson.
Because even when Purdy was wrong, he was right.
It happened on the 49ers’ opening drive after the defense had quickly forced a three-and-out that seemed to give the offense a spark.
After just three plays, a 6-yard run Christian McCaffrey, a 9-yard pass from Purdy to McCaffrey and a 29-yard completion to George Kittle, the 49ers had first-and-goal at the 13-yard line.
Purdy had open space to his left and scrambled, and common sense said he should keep scrambling, get what he could and bring up second down. Instead, Purdy committed a quarterback’s cardinal sin when he looked back to his left and threw late across the middle.
“It’s one of the biggest no-nos,” Kittle said. “Except when it works.”
It’s usually a recipe for disaster. Jacksonville corner Tyson Campbell was there. So was safety Andre Cisco. Yet the ball went over Kittle’s head and into the hands of Brandon Aiyuk for a 13-yard touchdown. If that’s not magic, I’m not sure what is.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) November 12, 2023
Instead of another deflating interception, the 49ers had a 7-0 lead on a six-play, 54-yard touchdown drive.
“That was like one of the worst decisions he’s made since he’s been here, and it took me a while to get over it,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “But I thanked him for the touchdown.”
Purdy, who has spent the early part of his career thinking safety first while at the same time being willing to take a calculated risk, realized afterward he’d gotten away with one.
“The smart decision was probably to continue to run and get as many yards as I can instead of putting the ball up like I did,” Purdy said. “I saw B.A. in the back of the end zone, George as well. I just put it up toward the back and B.A. came down with it. I’m not necessarily proud of that play, honestly.”
For the rest of the game, Purdy played it smart and kept making plays. He threw two more touchdown passes, a 66-yard strike to Kittle to open the second half and finally a 22-yard scoring toss to Kyle Juszczyk. The throw to Kittle came on a blind throw with a defender in his face. There wasn’t another head-scratching throw, only the kind of efficient and mature play that’s made Shanahan a Brock believer.
If Purdy’s play over the last three games had Shanahan worried, the head coach hid it well.
“I think he’s been playing the same way all this time,” Shanahan said. “You don’t feel it from him at all. I know he’s had some turnovers here and there in those losses, but you ask anyone who has watched all those games, he was one of the best players on the field.”
George cashes in at The Bank! @gkittle46
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) November 12, 2023
As running back Christian McCaffrey put it: “Brock played awesome, he did what he does well – he played beyond the X’s and O’s and he played great.”
While predecessor Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t always seem comfortable with Shanahan’s exactitude, Purdy seems to have balanced the scales in terms of when to let it rip and when to play it safe.
“The biggest thing is playing within our scheme and if there are opportunities where if stuff breaks down, we go play some backyard football plays,” Purdy said. “But I’m not searching for those plays. I’m aggressive with what I do and how I throw the ball, but I still have to learn there are times and situations where I’ve got to be smart. They do a good job of not handcuffing me.”
Rather than dwell on the “Has Brock returned to earth?” storylines that surfaced nationally during the three-game losing streak and bye week, Purdy got away to Iowa to see his fiancee and even drove a tractor on her family’s farm. He pondered the three losses without obsessing over them.
“There’s a standard, especially with this organization,” Purdy said. “We all demand a lot of ourselves. I was more feeling the pressure within myself, because of how I played in the past. That’s where I was at, but I came in with a clear mindset.
“I’ve got dudes around me, I’ve got a great defense, be smart with the ball and make plays — play free in terms of cutting it loose but also within the scheme and being smart with the ball and that’s where I’m at.”
While Purdy was the picture of calm, Lawrence was so rattled by the 49ers defense after being sacked five times he threw a late interception directly into the hands of linebacker Fred Warner without a Jaguars receiver anywhere near the play.
It wasn’t unlike what Purdy did a few times over the last month before doubters began to wonder if he really was, as Shanahan put it during training camp, “the real deal.”
Purdy was indeed the real deal against Jacksonville, with a touch of magic thrown in.