SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The most important run of the night may not have been by Christian McCaffrey. Or Deebo Samuel. Or even by George Kittle on one of his epic catch-and-runs.
Nope. It was probably by the game manager. The most momentum-seizing, back-breaking, Lions-taming runs, a case could be made, were by Brock Purdy, the conductor of a 17-point comeback in the San Francisco 49ers’ 34-31 win Sunday over Detroit in the NFC Championship Game.
“I’m blocking my man, and next thing I know I hear screaming,” left guard Aaron Banks said from the party in the 49ers locker room at Levi’s Stadium after the game. “And Brock is 20 yards downfield.”
One candidate was Purdy’s 21-yard scramble on second-and-11 in the third quarter. He took off up the middle and turned on his baby burners to get away from Lions defensive back Brian Branch. Two plays after the defense forced a turnover, Purdy had the 49ers first-and-goal at Detroit’s 4-yard line. McCaffrey finished the drive with a 1-yard score to tie the game at 24.
Purdy takes off for 21 yards!
— NFL (@NFL) January 29, 2024
Purdy’s scamper was symbolic of the 49ers’ aggressive mood. Red-zone issues wouldn’t get in the way this time. A field goal wasn’t an option.
He might’ve scored himself if not for Samuel.
“He ran right into me and bounced off,” Samuel said. “I feel like if I would’ve made that block, he probably would’ve scored.”
Another candidate was Purdy’s breathtaking scramble on the first play of the next drive. McCaffrey missed the block on blitzing Detroit safety Ifeatu Melifonwu. But Purdy ducked beneath what would’ve been an 8-yard sack on first down, spun to his left and scooted towards the sidelines. Before getting tackled, he threw a laser along the sidelines to Kyle Juszczyk for a toe-tapping first down. It was the first play on the drive that produced the go-ahead field goal. It was the first sign Purdy was in his bag.
Purdy magic in full effect 🪄
— NFL (@NFL) January 29, 2024
Another option, maybe the best one, was his third-and-4 run on what amounted to the game-winning drive to send the 49ers to the Super Bowl against Kansas City. With just under five minutes left, and the 49ers just across midfield, Detroit was desperate for a stop. But Purdy stepped up in the pocket and took off again. He escaped the grasp of Lions sack specialist Aidan Hutchinson, slipped the diving clutches of linebacker Jack Campbell, and outran linebacker Alex Anzalone to the edge.
After turning up the field, weaving into open space, Purdy didn’t slide. He dove head first. Because he wanted every yard. Because scared money don’t make money. Because championships aren’t won with passivity.
Brock Purdy keeps on doing damage with his legs!
— NFL (@NFL) January 29, 2024
Purdy has been typecast by many as the prototypical game manager. A passenger more than a driver. A beneficiary more than a benefactor. A loss preventer more than a victory retriever. The game manager label is basically a pejorative in modern quarterback discourse.
But Sunday, the 49ers needed something more. Their season was on the line. Their championship hopes were slipping away.
Purdy became who they needed him to be: a playmaker, a difference maker. In the second half, he was 13-for-16 passing for 174 yards and a touchdown. No interceptions. His 49 rushing yards was the best evidence he wasn’t merely a passenger in this historic comeback. He was driving.
“I thought it was the difference between winning and losing,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said of Purdy’s scrambling. “He made some big plays with his legs, getting out of the pocket, moving the chains on some first downs, some explosives. He competed his ass off today. Wasn’t easy for any of us. He kept grinding. He was unbelievable there in the second half.”
In the NFC divisional round, Purdy overcame his struggles to come up clutch on the final drive, marching the 49ers to the game-winning score. He one-upped himself for the NFC title, leading San Francisco from 17 points down.
He orchestrated a run of 27 points over five consecutive drives, flipping the script on the Lions.
“When I’m down 17 at half,” Purdy said, “honestly I’m thinking, ‘Alright God. You’ve taken me here. Win or lose, I’m gonna glorify you.’ That’s my peace. That’s the joy. That’s the steadfastness. That’s where I get it from. That’s the honest truth.”
Detroit had a significant hand in its own demise. Dropping passes. Passing on field goals in favor of pride and pattern. Purdy made sure all their misdeeds were punished.
It was more than enough to add some texture to the debate about Purdy. At least to give his detractors pause. At least to recognize the possibility his ceiling might be even higher than his halo. He may not be on the level of the probable MVP Lamar Jackson or uber-talented Josh Allen. Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are more coveted talents.
But Purdy isn’t home.
“I don’t have enough good things to say about Brock,” McCaffrey said. “All he’s done since he’s been here is play at an elite level. And everything starts with him. We’re lucky he’s our quarterback. He takes a lot of heat for absolutely no reason. All he’s done is been a great leader and a great player.”
Purdy doesn’t have a big arm. Or the blazing athleticism. His inexperience shows up at times. His accuracy can abandon him. He’s had enough interceptions dropped to convince you he must be living right. He put up some astounding statistics, throwing his name into the MVP conversations, but he’s also had some moments to make the thought of him winning the league’s highest honors a bit ridiculous.
All of that was evident in the first half on Sunday. It was the version of Purdy so easy to question, to scoff at when mentioned with the elite. He completed just 47 percent of his passes the first two quarters — including an interception that set up a Detroit touchdown — and missed several other throws. The potent 49ers offense, against a vulnerable defense, mustered just seven first-half points.
The entire Bay Area was asking to speak to the manager.
That’s when Purdy emerged. The young man with a wholesome smile, responsible attire and at-your-service humility.
“My faith never wavered,” 49ers safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. said of his quarterback. “I’ve been saying it all year. You’ve got a guy like that who can control the game, who knows where to go and when to go with the ball. I’m happy he’s on my team. I’ll tell y’all that. I never worry. When Purdy needs to put up points, that’s when he’s at his best.”
What pulled the 49ers through was the immeasurables of Purdy. The gunslinger mentality. The mid-major resolve. The Mr. Irrelevant chip on his shoulder. The little guy toughness.
Like that heart-stopping throw to Jauan Jennings on third-and-4 with the 49ers down 17. Purdy scrambled, stopped short of the line of scrimmage and threw a pass across his body to the middle. It was more like an alley-oop, and Jennings needed all of his 6-foot-3 frame and 6-foot-4 wingspan to snag the one-handed catch and keep the drive alive. It was Patrick Mahomesian.
But most of all, the heart. Purdy isn’t afraid of the pressure. He can look rattled sometimes, but not enough to shake him into a shell. His will to win took over Sunday.
The play of the game, his deep chuck to Brandon Aiyuk, was him being the opposite of a game manager. With the 49ers down two touchdowns, and after the defense had just come up with a massive turnover on downs, Purdy wasn’t looking to play it safe.
He was trying to make a play. He sensed they needed something big and he went for it.
— NFL (@NFL) January 29, 2024
“In that moment,” Purdy said, “I’m looking at it like we need a play. I’m not going to be stupid and just throw the ball up. But B.A. is one-on-one. I’ma take that opp. Especially in this kind of game. We needed that kind of play. So people can say what they want, but I was giving my guy a shot.”
The Lions had a single safety who was hovering in the middle of the field. When Samuel cut on a crossing route, the safety went with him. That left Aiyuk one-on-one with Detroit cornerback Kindle Vildor.
“I seen it live,” Samuel said. “I seen the guy cut the high cross that I was running and I just looked up and Brock cut it loose.”
Purdy is here, and not Jimmy Garoppolo, because the 49ers can’t win the Super Bowl without a quarterback capable and willing to hit the deep ball. For all his success, Garoppolo’s hesitancy to throw downfield, even if created by Shanahan’s hesitancy to call for longer throws, put a ceiling on the 49ers’ offense. They drafted Trey Lance looking to get more dynamic.
They ended up with Purdy, who can scramble and push the ball downfield.
The 49ers lost the last Super Bowl they reached because they couldn’t score in the fourth quarter. While Patrick Mahomes was fashioning himself into a legend, the 49ers offense stifled under Garoppolo’s predictable slant passes and pocket confinement.
Purdy may not outduel Mahomes, either. But it’s not off the table. It was said he couldn’t come from behind and he has. It was said he couldn’t carry the team and he did. It was said he wasn’t the reason the 49ers won and he was. He is, indeed, surrounded by talent. And he might get outclassed. He might come up short. But Sunday was more evidence of the gamer in him. He can manage up. He can manage down.
Purdy isn’t afraid. Not to run for it, or sling it, or take the top off the defense.
His pass to Aiyuk wound up a bit too deep — or pass interference might have prevented Aiyuk from getting to the ball — and Vildor had an interception chance. His job is to stay on top of the receiver, and he did. But the pass bounced off his helmet and into the arms of Aiyuk.
Lucky? Absolutely. But fortune favors the bold.
“I saw the replay,” Kittle said, “and I was like, ‘Just how we wanted it to look. Off the guy’s facemask right to B.A.’ Dang. Brock’s good at football isn’t he?”
If he’s a game manager, he must be the premium version.
49ers win the NFC Championship Game and justify an entire era
(Top photo of Brock Purdy celebrating a touchdown in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game: Cooper Neill / Getty Images)