In late December, every NFL injury is a potential Super Bowl-defining loss.
Teams that lose players at critical positions can go from favorite to also-ran in a heartbeat. For anybody else, being down to their third-string quarterback would be the curtain coming down on their season. For San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, it’s just another opportunity to weave his magic.
Quarterback Brock Purdy, Mr. Irrelevant from the 2022 NFL Draft, has stepped into the fray, won his first three games of meaningful action and now has people asking whether he can win a Super Bowl for the team.
Five different quarterbacks have now dropped back at least 100 times for Shanahan during his 49ers tenure, and three of the five have averaged at least 7.8 yards per attempt, which is higher than Aaron Rodgers’ career mark.
Shanahan is able to generate offense regardless of the quarterback spearheading his attack. Where the quality differences of those players tend to show the most is in actually winning and losing the games. Jimmy Garoppolo not only has the highest yards per attempt figure (8.3) of the bunch but also has one of the best win rates in NFL history despite making 70 turnover-worthy plays to just 49 big-time throws during his time as 49ers quarterback.
Can the 49ers win a Super Bowl with Purdy?
Purdy was an interesting player in college. He put together an outstanding freshman year at Iowa State, earning an 89.3 overall PFF grade after generating 10.2 yards per attempt and almost doubling his number of big-time throws to turnover-worthy plays. From that point, his performances regressed and settled into a good-not-great holding pattern.
He has marginal NFL size and physical tools, and so he slipped all the way to the final pick of his draft class. But quarterback still remains a position where mental acuity and supporting cast are huge variables.
Landing in San Francisco to get teamed up with Kyle Shanahan is a quarterback’s dream. Add in the weaponry this team can now deploy with the likes of Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Christian McCaffrey and Brandon Aiyuk among them, and it’s a dream landing spot for a quarterback to play to the very peak of his capabilities, whatever they are.
When you add in the fact that San Francisco has arguably the best defense in the league, there is no reason Purdy can’t do enough to keep this train on the tracks.
Purdy is running this offense at a high level and is already flashing the ability to do some complex quarterback things — working full-field reads or maneuvering around pressure or defenders — but he’s also sticking very closely to the Shanahan script.
Just 16 of Purdy’s 93 pass attempts have been anything beyond his first read, and while, to be clear, this isn’t a knock on him, it’s a potential issue going forward if the script doesn’t always work. You don’t need a quarterback to show the ability to deviate from the game plan and improvise if the offense is cooking, but in the playoffs against the best teams in the league, that might not always be the case. If it isn’t, can Purdy adapt and overcome with less assistance from the sideline?
The other area of variance that could swing from a strength to a weakness is turnovers. Purdy has two interceptions this season, and neither came in his two games starting. He has six touchdown passes to those two picks on the year, but he has five turnover-worthy plays.
Against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 15 facing third-and-11 with just two minutes before the half, Purdy never saw the backside safety and fired a pass right to Quandre Diggs, who had nothing but open space in front of him and dropped the ball.
This happens to all quarterbacks at some point in the season, but it’s random, and the good luck on that play can easily flip in an instant. If it does, that completely changes the dynamic of the game and puts more pressure on Purdy to produce to offset the mistake.