Brock Purdy’s meteoric rise from the 2022 NFL Draft’s Mr. Irrelevant to playoff starter for the San Francisco 49ers has been well documented, but the narrative evolved in the Divisional Round last week against the Dallas Cowboys.
In key situations in the 49ers-Cowboys matchup, Kyle Shanahan showed the ultimate confidence in Purdy’s ability to handle the moment by putting the ball in his hands and trusting him to make the right decisions.
Only seven starts into Purdy’s NFL career, Shanahan trusts him in a way that is unprecedented for a head coach with a rookie under center. The following plays validate this assessment:
Q1 4:20 | Third-and-16 | Cowboys’ 27-yard line
On third-and-16 from the Cowboys’ 27-yard line, one would expect Shanahan to dial up a draw, regular screen, or quick screen to get the ball out of Purdy’s hands, avoid a sack, and protect his young QB and the field position to get off the field with a field goal.
Instead, Shanahan calls for a seven-step drop principle (five-step in the gun) with seven-man protection (with George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk protecting, then helping tackles with potential chips). Purdy produces by throwing a laser to Brandon Aiyuk for a 17-yard gain and a first down.
The end zone picture (above) validates Shanahan’s faith in his quarterback’s intangible quality of spatial awareness to get this ball off before right tackle Mike McGlinchey is placed in his lap.
Q2 0:30 | Third-and-1 | 49ers’ 37-yard line
On third-and-1 with 30 seconds left in the first half, Shanahan trusts Purdy enough to call a play where the primary target, Deebo Samuel, is running a short in route over the middle. Throwing the ball over the middle and down the field with little time on the clock, Shanahan risks a tipped ball, sack, and possible turnover going into the locker room at halftime.
For most young quarterbacks, coaches are going to take a more conservative approach. Shanahan goes all in and pushes the ball up the field.
With this five-man protection and the 49ers offensive line creating a firm pocket (above), Purdy once again shows off his accuracy and coverage awareness by perfectly locating the ball against a bracket coverage to Samuel for a first down.
Notice the location of the throw (above) is equidistant between the bracket coverage, which allows Samuel to use his catch radius and keep the ball away from the defenders.
Q2 0:19 | Second-and-10 | 49ers’ 47-yard line
With complete confidence in his young quarterback, Shanahan calls the 49ers’ patented counter pass to take the shot up the field and get San Francisco into field goal range.
Throughout the season, the counter pass has been key to drawing the linebackers toward the line of scrimmage and clearing space over the middle for explosive plays.
With Aiyuk taking the top off the coverage (above), Purdy is given a clean space to get the ball to a wide-open Jauan Jennings in stride, outside the hashmarks, and out of bounds to stop the clock.
On this long-developing play, Purdy again shows quiet feet, vision, and confidence as the 49ers are able to put themselves in scoring position.
Q4 9:02 | Third-and-2 | 50-yard line
On this short-yardage play (below), San Francisco shifts into an empty formation, with Shanahan telling the world that it was on Purdy to make the right decision.
With three receivers to his left and two to his right, Purdy already has the answers to the test.
- With Kittle lined up at the bottom of the screen and a cornerback over him, Purdy knows Dallas is in zone coverage.
- With the Mike LB cheated to the field side over the tight end and a two-deep look, Purdy knows pre-snap that it is a shell coverage, (Cover 2 or Cover 4) and he’s got the matchup he wants with linebacker Anthony Barr over Aiyuk and the middle of the field open.
Again, Purdy shows his football intelligence, nimble and quick-twitch footwork, touch, and accuracy, while Aiyuk is able to find a way to get inside of Barr with a savvy release (above).
The ball is up and out lightning quick and well-placed between the Will and Mike linebackers to protect the ball, giving Aiyuk some run-after-catch room and a first down (below).
One of the things to note is how well the 49ers’ offensive line protected and provided space for Purdy to quickly complete his throwing motion. When you see the center and guard firm on the nose tackle to keep him on the line of scrimmage and offensive linemen square, you know they’re well-coached.
With help from his offensive line and the technique of Aiyuk’s release, Purdy rewards Shanahan’s trust once again.
Q4 6:50 | Third-and-3 | Cowboys’ 34-yard line
With a four-point lead and the game in the balance, this was one of the most pivotal plays of the Divisional Round.
Shanahan starts it off by thinking of players – not plays – with Kittle and Christian McCaffrey lined up at the bottom of the screen.
This is where coaching, position fundamentals, technique, and great players all step up at the same time.
On this most important play to keep the clock running, Purdy once again delivers by showing off his vision, ability to change speeds, and accuracy.
Purdy immediately sees the Dallas linebacker drop to cover Kittle (above), who is No. 1 in the progression, and moves on quickly to McCaffrey, giving him a quiet precision pass to protect the ball from colliding defenders.
Once again, the pass protection is beautifully executed, leaving Purdy an enormous amount of space to complete his throwing motion.
Notice the nuance of the ball placement (above), forcing McCaffrey to throttle down slightly with his defender playing over the top. The ball is actually thrown to McCaffrey’s left breast plate to keep the ball out of harm’s way. This forces the defender to play through McCaffrey’s body to get to the ball.
The standard of performance and level of play that Purdy has displayed since he became a starter is absolutely unprecedented. He is now 7-0, has already won two playoff games, and has shown no signs of letting each moment become too big for him.
Quarterbacks are judged at the end of the day on their ability to take care of the football and win. We can’t anoint Purdy because he hasn’t been doing it for 10 years. Heck, he hasn’t done it for 10 weeks. But the tape validates the elite level of his weekly performances. He hasn’t been perfect — nobody is — but he is playing winning, championship-level football.
The most important relationship in all of sports is the relationship between a quarterback and his coach, a relationship built on competency and trust. Shanahan and Purdy have shown us what that looks like.
Marc Trestman is a former NFL, CFL and college coach. He coached in four Grey Cups in the CFL, winning three over seven years with Montreal and Toronto before becoming head coach of the Chicago Bears. Follow him on Twitter at @CoachTrestman.