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49ers QB Brock Purdy Has Worked Hard to Defy, Exceed Expectations

Charles Barkley would hate playing against Brock Purdy.

If you’re confused by the cross-sport reference, hang with the story for a minute. In the meantime, understand many NFL scouts are even more confused by the mere existence, let alone success, of Purdy.

In short, even as Purdy keeps playing like some hybrid of Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Dan Marino, many NFL scouts keep waiting for midnight to strike on this fairytale. At some point, those scouts believe, his lack of physical prowess (size, speed and arm strength) will catch up with him. 

“I keep saying it, and I keep being wrong,” one scout said recently. “The arm is just average; he’s not big enough. … If you look back at his tape from his senior year, you wouldn’t say he was a good decision-maker. But here he is kicking ass, and good for him.”

Former ESPN NFL Draft analyst Todd McShay said on the Ryen Russillo Podcast he had a “terrible grade” on Purdy and rated him as a potential sixth-round pick.

While all sorts of qualifiers can be tossed into the argument – he hasn’t had to play from behind much, is surrounded by star talent, including Christian McCaffrey, Trent Williams, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, plays in a quarterback-friendly system designed by Kyle Shanahan and has maybe the best defense in the NFL – he has been as close to perfect as the NFL allows. To wit:

  • The San Francisco 49ers are 13-0, playoffs included, in the games where he has played the majority of the game. That includes his first significant appearance against Miami last year and excludes the NFC Championship Game at Philadelphia, where he was knocked out in the first quarter.
  • The 49ers have scored 30 points or more in 10 of his 11 regular season appearances and 11 of the 13 games overall.
  • This is not dink-and-dunk stuff. He is averaging a league-leading 10.7 yards per attempt this season, is averaging 9.5 per attempt for his career and has thrown 25 TD passes and only four interceptions in 13 games.
  • He has a passer rating of 113.3 in those 13 games. By comparison, Patrick Mahomes is the NFL’s all-time leader in passer rating at 105.1, with Aaron Rodgers next at 103.6. Tom Brady is 10th at 97.2. Those are all regular season numbers.

Having mentioned Brady, there is a comparison to the likes of him, Warner, Roethlisberger and Marino. Brady and Warner each won Super Bowls in their first season as starters, and Warner’s St. Louis Rams averaged more than 30 points a game along the way. Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh to a 13-0 record in his rookie season.

As for Marino, he completely broke the notion of a learning curve for quarterbacks as a rookie in 1983 and then obliterated the existing NFL record for TD passes with 48 in his second season (it had been 36 set twice in the early 1960s).

Marino and Roethlisberger are more explainable because they had first-round pedigree. Brady and Warner are well-known as longshots who made good but still possessed the kind of size that made them look the part.

Purdy is listed at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds but is probably 6-foot at most. He’s more of a Drew Brees clone, but even Brees didn’t start to play this well until his fourth season.

So, how exactly is Purdy doing this? Again, he’s surrounded by talent and a great situation, starting with Shanahan.

But that’s not unlike a lot of great players. Peyton Manning spent his career surrounded by talented skill players like Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Marino had wide receivers Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, plus coach Don Shula. Brady always had a good defense. Plus, he and coach Bill Belichick probably formed the greatest quarterback-coach combo in league history.

In the NFL, nobody wins or becomes great without help. At the same time, you better have some real talent.

His Brain Works Incredibly Fast

Call it “processing” or whatever term you want to use, but Purdy’s mind works at a rate that is faster than most football players. This is not purely about intelligence (although Purdy graduated from Iowa State in four years).

Purdy is sixth in Time to Throw but is tied for first in Complete Air Yards among the top 10 quarterbacks in Time to Throw, according to NextGenStats. The ball comes out quickly, and the 49ers are picking up yards when it does.

Quarterback  Time to Throw Completed Air Yards
Tua Tagovailoa 2.37 6.3
Trevor Lawrence 2.46 5.9
Joe Burrow 2.46 3.8
Andy Dalton 2.5 6.4
Dak Prescott 2.53 4.4
Brock Purdy 2.56 7.1
Mac Jones 2.59 5
Gardner Minshew 2.62 4.9
Desmond Ridder 2.62 5.5
Matthew Stafford 2.67 7.1

Much has been made of how Purdy did on the S2 Cognition test before the 2022 draft (his scores ranked with the likes of Brees). Understanding what that means is more important.

Or, as S2 Cognition co-founder and neuroscientist Brandon Ally said during the 2022 season, “The game will never be too fast for Brock.” In short, Purdy’s natural ability to react gives him a better chance than most.

49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk amplified that point.

“That’s a really underrated part of this whole process,” Juszczyk said. “Most people don’t understand that athletic ability is great, but you have to be able to think really fast, too. So much is happening at one time with so many moving parts; if you can’t sort that out, you can have all the athletic ability in the world, and it doesn’t matter. Brock can do that.”

Warner looked at it slightly differently from a quarterback’s perspective.

“To me, I always looked at it like the ability to recognize and focus on the one player or area where you knew you had to make the play and be able to block out all of the other stuff,” Warner said. “If I know that I have two receivers heading into a zone, there’s one defender who’s going to have to make a choice, and I have to figure that out, and nothing else about the play really matters.”

Likewise, Warner said the criticism Purdy has received from some about how he can often throw to the first read is misplaced.

“I think people miss the fact that he’s so focused that he’s actually getting to his first read,” Warner said. “You see him drop back, make the read, and as soon as that back foot hits, the ball is gone. The fact that he sees it so fast and is so confident in what he sees is a credit to his understanding of the offense.

Regardless of how you look at it, the situation comes down to recognizing situations quickly. While Purdy gets help from the large use of motion in the 49ers' offense to recognize the defense in advance of the snap, there’s still an enormous amount of data to analyze on the fly, such as what type of footwork he needs to use depending on who he is throwing to.

Again, that is often generalized to mean intelligence, such as when the aforementioned Barkley summarized it in a recent interview on the Dan Patrick Show.

“I always wanted to play against really athletic guys because most of them are as dumb as rocks. Because most of them played the game on athletic ability … you can outsmart them. They just want to run and jump; they don't use any of their brain cells ... I used to hate playing against the smart kids,” said Barkley, who then pointed to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as examples.

“Because neither one of those guys, you would say, had exceptional athletic ability. But they are two of the greatest players ever because of hard work, brains, and work ethic.”

Or, as Jusczyk said when Barkley’s comments were relayed to him.

“One hundred percent,” Juszczyk said. “Boom, drop the mic.”

San Francisco 49ers Brock Purdy

He Demands Better By Action

On Sunday night against Dallas, there was a moment when it was clear that Purdy had the full attention of his teammates. He stood in the huddle and yelled out the call, pointing his right forefinger to emphasize the point. Every player in the huddle was glued on his every word.

That’s not accidental, and it’s entirely natural. 49ers' skill players have become accustomed to running out routes completely with Purdy because he has been more likely to find them open at any time.

The prime example came last year in the opening playoff game at home against Seattle. At one point, Brandon Aiyuk was running a sideline play that could have progressed to a deep shot if he had kept running. However, he stopped because no other quarterback he had worked with had ever thrown that pass on that particular play call.

Purdy saw it and threw it to the back of the end zone, where the pass fell incomplete. Purdy then put his hands on his hips and stared at Aiyuk. He didn’t say anything, but the message was clear.

“Oh yeah, I messed that up, and he let me know it,” Aiyuk said at the time. “I have to run that out.”

Ever since, Aiyuk, a player many scouts believe could be a No. 1 receiver if he plays to his potential, has been far more diligent about running out his routes. Likewise, Samuel emphasized being in better shape this season.

Demonstrates Strong Work Ethic

It’s one thing to be a gym rat. It’s another to be a guy who works out in the 105-degree heat of a Phoenix summer.

When Purdy was in high school, he began working with former NFL QB Dan Manucci as his personal instructor. Manucci would put Purdy and his other protégées through a variety of drills. But the most brutal drill was one where the quarterback had to do various up-and-back and side-to-side movements, simulating what they would do during a play.

Brock Purdy works with Dan Manucci in Arizona.

That would go on for a full minute. Back and forth, sprint right, turn around and sprint left, all while keeping focused downfield to know where all the receivers would be. Manucci would then have the receivers change spots during the minute. Finally, as the heat would be tiring their legs and causing them to tighten in the core, Manucci would call out a number associated with the receiver the quarterback was supposed to throw.

“It gets you to focus when things get hard, and you're tired, and your body has a hard time getting into the proper position to throw by getting your feet under you,” said Manucci, who nicknamed the drill “Cardio Quarterbacking.”

For his part, Purdy just nodded.

“That’s a real thing, and it works,” Purdy said. “People talk about going out here in the offseason and throwing a lot, but that’s a serious drill where you have to keep yourself focused when you're exhausted, and it’s brutally hot.”

The Kid Has Confidence

49ers players such as LB Fred Warner have been impressed with Purdy from almost the time he arrived after being the last pick of the 2022 draft. In their eyes, he quickly went from being Mr. Irrelevant to a quite different nickname around the locker room.

Big (rhymes with “Sock”) Brock.

Warner has constantly raved about how Purdy would never back down in drills, even when he and other veterans would talk trash to see if they could get under his skin and rattle him.

That confidence has started to show up in other ways. In the season's opening week against Pittsburgh, Steelers CB Patrick Peterson talked about how there were “tells” in Purdy’s game and how he expected to get an interception against Purdy.

Purdy never flinched and went right after Peterson in the game, throwing a touchdown pass to Aiyuk. After the game, Purdy slyly asked, “That was on Patrick Peterson, right?” Not that he didn’t know the answer.

The moment became an internet meme. More importantly, it was a sign of Purdy’s confidence. Former NFL offensive lineman Willie Colon, who now works as an analyst for FOX, noticed right away.

“I think the kid has nuts, man,” Colon said during an episode of the Ryen Russillo Podcast. “I’m a fan of cocky quarterbacks. Maybe because I grew up in the era of Brett Favre and Dan Marino.”

Colon then referred to the moment when Purdy smirkingly called out Peterson.

“I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, Purdy,’ … it’s like watching the white guy who gets picked last in the pickup game, and all of a sudden, he gets on the court, and he’s got handles, and he dunks on your ass, and then you see he has a Supremes t-shirt. He’s culture that has flavor.”

To that end, Purdy showed amazing confidence in the victory over Dallas. On San Francisco’s first possession of the second half, the 49ers held a 21-10 lead. They had been moving the ball effectively, but the game was still in question.

On a third-and-3 play, Purdy hit Aiyuk on the left side, and the play turned into a 40-yard gain. However, that gain was wiped out by a holding call that turned the down into a more precarious third-and-13 from the 49ers 40-yard line.

This was a chance for the Dallas Cowboys to sack Purdy and change field position or force him into a mistake. Instead, he threw a dagger through their heart, hitting Samuel deep in the middle of the field for a 42-yard gain that set up another touchdown for a 28-10 lead.

Jason Cole has covered or written about pro football since 1992. He is one of 49 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has served as a selector since 2013. Cole has worked for publications such as Bleacher Report, Yahoo Sports, The Miami Herald and The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. You can follow Jason on Twitter @JasonCole62.