Analysis

5 Plays That Illustrate Why Kyle Shanahan Trusts QB Brock Purdy

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.

Analysis

49ers Guilty of Wishful Thinking in High-Risk Trade for McCaffrey

I understand, on face value, why people are so enthused about the 49ers’ trade for running back Christian McCaffrey. But for me, I would not have made the deal for a number of reasons.

From the San Francisco perspective, the biggest is McCaffrey’s health and his recent play. In 2018 and ’19, he caught 223 passes in Carolina. Think about that: A running back catching 223 passes while also adding more than 2,400 rushing yards over a two-season span. That’s as productive as any running back ever.

And what has happened in the two years since? He caught just 54 total passes and missed 23 games and a ton of practice time.

Just a couple of years ago, everybody was excited when Todd Gurley went to Atlanta. And before that, Reggie Bush was supposedly a great acquisition by the Miami Dolphins. And later in his career, Warrick Dunn. The list goes on and on. Running backs that start to get hurt, especially with soft-tissue injuries, which is what McCaffrey has had — I can’t even think off the top of my head of a player that came back from that.

By the way, Kyle Shanahan has done this before. If you remember, a year after he arrived in San Francisco in 2018, he signed Jerick McKinnon for what many thought was a huge overpayment — $7.5 million for someone thought of as a backup running back, who, by the way, is not as good as McCaffrey but has the same set of skills. In 2018 and ’19, McKinnon never saw the field. In 2020, he played part of the season. He’s actually doing a little bit better this season in Kansas City, but running backs starting to get hurt are just a massive risk.

The other part of this is the 49ers have guys like Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk. They’re going to take the ball out of those players’ hands to put it more in the hands of McCaffrey, who historically has not had anywhere close to the average yards per pass attempt or rush attempts as the guys like Deebo Samuel, for example.

McCaffrey also is going to an offense that’s very running-back friendly. The 49ers traded four draft picks, including one as high as a two, to get a running back who is going to play in a system that almost every running back that’s played in has succeeded? They’ve generally flourished at running back with fourth-round or fifth-round picks. Back in the Mike Shanahan days, Denver had a running back who went for more than 2,000 yards, Terrell Davis, and another, Mike Anderson, who had 1,000-yard seasons, and each was a sixth-round pick.

Could McCaffrey stay healthy and be a great acquisition? Absolutely. But the odds are extremely high in the opposite direction. He could get hurt, miss four games, and then come back at the end of the season, and they make the playoffs. He’s back for the playoff run. But we have to remember something: To get to the Super Bowl, which we assume the 49ers think they have a chance to do or they wouldn’t make a deal like this — he has to play 15 more games. That’s effectively a whole season more than what we’re used to the length of his season being. He’s already played six, and he’s started to miss some practice time this season because of injury.

If McCaffrey from 2019 was put together with Kyle Shanahan, this would be a really dynamic combination. I mean, as good as any I can think of. But that’s not what we have here. The player of the last few years is the reality.

So we have a player six games into a season already starting to have a little bit of health issues who’s missed most of the last two seasons. He’s gone from averaging more than 110 receptions a year to 54 over two seasons. And he’s played pretty well so far this season but doesn’t look like the guy from 2018. He’s got to play 15 more games if they’re right that he’s a guy that can help them get to and maybe even win a Super Bowl. I just don’t see how that’s a realistic expectation.

The reality is, it’s been three years since we’ve seen that guy. It’s four seasons if we count the part of the season he played. So, at best, this is an extremely risky acquisition by the 49ers.

We haven’t even started talking about what the 49ers gave up to get McCaffrey. Jimmy Johnson was the first person who taught the league this: Quantity of draft picks is very important, not just the quality. The 49ers gave up four reasonably high picks to acquire McCaffrey, who’s got guaranteed money into next year.

So if McCaffrey does get hurt this year, they’re going to be paying a guy a decent amount of money next year who might not have played a full season over three years. This is a move I would have been afraid to make.

I think the 49ers believe they can maybe use McCaffrey moderately during the season, although that’s not Kyle’s personality. He’s a short-term-focused guy, so I don’t see them actually doing that. We used to have a term when I was in Philadelphia for this called “wishful thinking.” Where you wanted somebody to be what you wanted them to be so badly, you had a tendency to overlook facts; not even opinions or evaluations, you overlooked some facts. In this case, it’s who he’s been for the last 2 1/2 seasons.

I think the 49ers are a little guilty of wishful thinking. If you put the 2019 version of Christian McCaffrey in that offense, it’s dynamic. They probably underpaid if that’s what you’re going to get. But there’s no reason to think they’re getting that. I think they’ve kind of blocked out the negative to be comfortable with doing what they really wanted to do. And they’re crossing their fingers.

It’s not impossible it turns out positively for them, but it’s highly unlikely.

WATCH MORE: Why the 49ers Got a Steal in the McCaffrey Deal

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