by Evan Bruner
There are many reasons people are drawn to sports. The action, the complexity, the teamwork. Few activities can match the excitement of a sporting event. Sports don’t just make for great games, they make for great stories — ones that can be told for decades. For every great team, game, or player, there is a tale to go with it. Even if time allows for hyperboles and embellishments, the true power stories remain the same. There’s no greater story in sports than that of the underdog, the guy who was counted out and underestimated proving everyone wrong. From Tom Brady being selected 199th overall to Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team, there’s no shortage of underdogs in professional sports.
That’s why it’s no surprise that fans have taken a liking to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy. He was taken with the last pick in the 2022 draft and was the team’s third-string quarterback behind Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo. Not everyone was certain Purdy would even make the 49ers’ 53-man roster, and far fewer thought he would take a snap in the regular season.
But after injuries to both Lance and Garoppolo, Purdy was thrust into the spotlight late in the season and, to the surprise of many, flourished from the jump. The 49ers went 5-0 with Purdy as a starter, 6-0 counting the game where Purdy relieved the injured Garoppolo while throwing for 1,374 yards, 13 touchdowns, and four interceptions. Purdy’s first postseason start was a success too, throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns en route to 41-23 victory over Seattle.
Less than nine months after being dubbed “Mr. Irrelevant,” Purdy is as relevant as any player in football. The 49ers are a juggernaut, brimming with talent and filled with momentum, and the rookie from Iowa State finds himself at the center of it all. Against all odds, Purdy has gone from a nobody to a national phenomenon, but the question still remains: is Brock Purdy’s story too good to be true?
The answer isn’t as simple as a yes or no. Rather, the answer lies in where you look. Statistically, Purdy has been quite good, not just by rookie standards, but by NFL starter standards. Including the postseason, he has 16 passing touchdowns and four interceptions, and his 66 percent completion rate and 8.53 yards per attempt indicate solid efficiency. Even advanced analytics aimed at isolating individual players’ performance speak relatively highly of Purdy. He has a 78.0 PFF grade, higher than Aaron Rodgers and Justin Herbert, and has the ninth-highest EPA (Expected Points Added) and CPOE (Completion Percentage Over Expected) composite score, higher than Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady, and Trevor Lawrence.
But football isn’t played through spreadsheets. Player evaluations use a combination of comprehensive quantitative and qualitative measurements to gauge a player’s true skill and talent. While Purdy passes the quantitative aspect of his assessment with flying colors, qualitative accounts offer a different perspective.
On tape, Purdy’s game doesn’t come close to matching his stellar production. His smaller stature and below-average arm strength puts a cap on his game, and while his poise and pocket presence were exemplary in early regular season action, he has shown immense regression in those areas since. Additionally, as Purdy’s poise has deteriorated, so have his throwing mechanics. He doesn’t always set his feet and has some noticeable wasted motion in his release. As a decision-maker, Purdy, for the most part, has been solid. Still, he has his fair share of head scratchers; instances of missing open players and throwing to well-covered players do pop up from time to time.
The obvious difference between Purdy and Garoppolo is Purdy’s willingness to create. He has the mobility to elude the rush and break the pocket. However, this breaking of the pocket has led to mixed results. There’s certainly some good, as Purdy’s extending of the play gives receivers more time to get open, but it’s also led to some rather reckless throws. The overall synopsis of Purdy on film is that his skill and football acumen don’t align with his production.
These mixed findings paint an unclear picture of what exactly Purdy is. It’s no secret he has benefited from Kyle Shanahan’s creative genius, highlighted by pre-snap motion and play action, as well as a trove of versatile pass catchers. But the fact Purdy’s production well exceeds that of Garoppolo and Lance suggests there’s more to the story. It could be luck, it could be intangibles, but there’s no exact answer. This is why Purdy is still somewhat of a mystery in NFL circles.
As a player, Purdy is far from a bulletproof player destined to lead his team to eternal glory. But does he need to be? The 49ers have gotten the formula down, and Purdy has yet to lose a game as an NFL starter. There’s a real reason to think San Francisco has a shot at making the Super Bowl. Purdy is more than deserving of praise for how he’s stepped up to the challenge as a seventh-round rookie. It’s easy to see why fans are so enamored by him. But for every Cinderella Story, no matter how grand, the clock eventually strikes midnight, and with the 49ers only two wins away from another Super Bowl appearance, the stakes are only getting higher.