Nobody on the 49ers is going to say it directly, but nobody on the 49ers really has to. It’s basically carved into franchise canon now:
Brock Purdy obviously is focused all-out on this postseason right now, but he also has done more than enough in just over a month of brilliant play to lock himself in as the team’s presumed starting quarterback going into the offseason, training camp, the 2023 regular season and probably a lot longer than that.
Purdy is QB1, and he’s already 1-0 as a playoff starter with an increasingly good chance to run the table this postseason. Trey Lance is QB2 with a chance to compete for the starting job, and to push Purdy, whenever he fully recovers from his broken ankle. The 49ers will probably add a veteran QB for experience and balance.
The postseason is happening presently, but that’s the plan, the reality, the conviction and the slightly accidental genius of what Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have developing in front of them.
Of course, this might change if Purdy is seriously hurt or suddenly turns in a droopy performance in Sunday’s divisional-round game against either Tampa Bay or Dallas. Things always might change and already have multiple times this season for the 49ers’ QB plans.
But the Purdy ascension, for a lot of reasons that I’ll detail in this column, is a stronger tide than anything else we’ve seen in the last few seasons because of the work he did before taking over the starting job and, naturally, the 6-0 run into at least the second round of the playoffs since his QB1 tenure began.
Even if nobody on the 49ers is going to say it flat out, just listen to Deebo Samuel speaking about Purdy recently.
“The first game he ever started, he called timeout,” Deebo said. “That kind of shocked me. Kyle don’t play that. That showed me the type of guy he is.”
Deebo doesn’t just toss out praise like that for fun. When Deebo notes that the rookie QB has the guts and gumption to stop the game himself, that is very much worth noting. I believe Samuel was referring to the early moments of the second quarter against Tampa Bay on Dec. 11, when Purdy was making his first start for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers were already up 14-0 and driving; Purdy scrambled for a yard on third-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 33-yard line, and then came the timeout.
Three plays after resetting things, Purdy threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey and the game was basically done.
Maybe that’s when the most accomplished 49ers players started not only to count on Purdy to make the right play but to believe he could put them into the right play even when Shanahan couldn’t. Garoppolo could do that sometimes, I’m sure, but possibly not all of the time. When he was playing this season, Lance just wasn’t there, and it’s hard to know when and if that arrival will ever happen.
Purdy? He’s there. He had one last hurdle to jump before the 49ers could comfortably ink him in as the 2023 QB1, he cleared it easily in Saturday’s four-touchdown (three passing, one running) performance in the wild-card victory over Seattle. Playoff jitters? Maybe early, but after a few misses, Purdy just did what he’s been doing through this run: score points and avoid turnovers.
In his seven games (counting the Miami game), Purdy has thrown 16 TD passes, run for two more, thrown just three interceptions, and the 49ers have outscored their opponents 239-120 with Purdy distributing efficiently to Deebo, McCaffrey, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and everybody else.
Could Purdy be doing this in a less comfortable situation? Probably not. He’s not a one-man offense. He’s a facilitator, and he’s happy to say so. But Purdy can also light up a defense and improvise into huge plays like he did in the second half on Sunday. Purdy is a system QB and he also can be an out-of-system QB, and he can be efficient doing both.
Which is exactly what Shanahan wants from his QB. It’s what he got from Matt Ryan in 2016, when Shanahan was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. What the Shanahans believed Kirk Cousins could do when they drafted him in 2012.
Listen closely to 49ers players and they’ve known for a while that Purdy was a QB1 candidate, even back to training camp when he was Mr. Irrelevant to the world but raising eyebrows on the practice field and meeting rooms.
When we talked a few days after Purdy first subbed in for Garoppolo on Dec. 4, Trent Williams even suggested that Purdy was sort of like “the elephant in the room” during training camp, just clearly on everybody’s radar. In some ways, I don’t think Purdy really even needed to jump the playoff hurdle for most of the 49ers’ locker room. He was already the guy before Saturday.
It also was a bit jarring to see Lance (after his second surgery a few weeks ago) using crutches to — pretty laboriously — move around at suite level during Saturday’s game … while Purdy was moving the team, throwing TDs and bellowing to the crowd. Again, things can always change, but this one seems pretty set.
Over the last few years, the 49ers have been through an incredible amount of QB volatility, not all their fault but certainly involving some quick recalibrations on the fly. They went from Garoppolo as their franchise QB in the 2019 season to considering Tom Brady in 2020 to trying to trade for Aaron Rodgers in 2021 to trading three first-round picks to move into position to draft Lance (and heavily consider Mac Jones) to keeping Garoppolo this summer and needing Garoppolo as insurance for Lance and finally to Purdy after Garoppolo’s own injury.
There have been reports that they will consider other options this offseason, and I’m sure there will be more as the weeks go on and the 49ers remain a top NFL talking point. Yes, Shanahan and Lynch could have a chance at Brady again this offseason.
But do they know a 46-year-old Brady would be better than what they’re getting from Purdy now? That’s not even including natural improvement into Purdy’s second season. Could they be sure of anything about Derek Carr? Can they count on Garoppolo?
If Garoppolo had remained healthy and taken the 49ers into the playoffs, I believe Shanahan and Lynch would’ve been prepared to try to bring Garoppolo back as the starter, with Lance and Purdy as the backups. But Garoppolo got hurt again and in came Purdy. And yes, Purdy has been better than Garoppolo already.
Shanahan and Lynch always weigh everything, especially at QB. But their nature is to stick with what they know and like unless there’s a dramatic reason to change things up. They absolutely do not have a dramatic reason to change things up from Purdy. In some ways, he is the dramatic change, and he’s been there all along.
“He’s definitely the most poised rookie I’ve ever had,” Shanahan said after the 49ers’ 21-13 victory in Seattle on Dec. 15, which was Purdy’s first road start and came when he was suffering from a rib injury.
There’s another major difference between this offseason and most other QB situations: The 49ers have Purdy signed for $870,000 next season, $985,000 in 2024 and $1.1 million in 2025 and can’t negotiate an extension with him until after 2024. That is millions and millions less than almost every other team will pay its QB1, and it is a huge advantage in all salary-cap calculations, and it’s the exact opposite of the pay-him-or-lose-him decisions faced this offseason by Baltimore with Lamar Jackson and the Giants with Daniel Jones — and the 49ers with Garoppolo in 2018.
This time, the 49ers would have to commit large money in order to move away from the guy who is winning.
And it was pretty telling that while generally (and logically) avoiding the declaration of anything official about the 49ers’ QB depth chart next season, Lynch mentioned Purdy and Lance to me last week … and did not mention Garoppolo. That’s because Purdy has basically supplanted any reason for the 49ers to try to keep Garoppolo into next season.
Meanwhile, I think the 49ers will listen to any trade offers for Lance, but I don’t think a trade is realistic. They likely wouldn’t get value back for an injured player and they also still like Lance. There’s no doubt that Purdy has been far better than what little they’ve seen from Lance in two seasons, but you don’t trade three first-round picks for somebody and then give up on him after he’s barely played.
I don’t think cutting Lance is overly productive, either. It’d save the 49ers some cash but would cost them more on the salary cap in dead money. So what’s the point? It just makes sense to keep Lance on the roster as a viable alternative if Purdy falters or gets injured next season. And if none of that happens, maybe the 49ers can trade Lance in 2024.
And by law, I’m required to add that Cousins is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after next season, when he’ll be 35. I’ve only mentioned the Cousins option about 100 times since Shanahan’s arrival in 2017, but to be fair, Shanahan’s mentioned it himself a few times. Since I’m the guy who is keeping this one alive, let me be the one to say: It’s getting pretty close to closing that door, finally, because of everything Brock Purdy is doing now and capable of doing for years.
Kawakami: Brock Purdy’s playoff debut is a sign of huge things to come for the 49ers
(Photo: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)