SANTA CLARA, California – In a three-step drop, in two and a half seconds, the ball is launched. Brock Purdy saw what he wanted before the penalty, knew where he was going and went there. Not an ounce of fear. His ability to execute is not compromised. He just tore up the left lane. The ball traveled 41 yards in the air, bounced flawlessly over Tampa Bay cornerback Jamel Dean and into the hands of Brandon Ayuk.
And Ayuk ran 43 yards the rest of the way for a 76-yard touchdown, and the signature moment of the 49ers’ 27-14 win over the Buccaneers, Purdy yelled.
Three weeks ago, Purdy finally appeared exposed. But he came off the week leading the 49-game winning streak. In those two games, he completed 78.4 percent of his passes for a combined 629 yards and six touchdowns and scored 61 points on the 49ers offense. Just like that, the doubt about him is gone. The fight may be back, but the question is whether it can handle what’s coming.
“Every week,” Christian McCaffrey said, “there’s always things where we say, ‘Wow. That was unbelievable.’ But at some point, he is just who he is. … The doubters have been silenced.
In the middle, he might resemble Frodo Baggins in his helmet. Off the field, a suburban youth pastor can have a spin. But it would be wise not to let any of that distract from Purdy’s inner football ferocity. It was Week 14 of the 2022 season when he made his first NFL start against Tampa Bay that officially began the Purdy era. He threw for 185 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-7 rout of the Bucks. On Tom Brady, no less. A barely drafted, no-name quarterback.
Even a year later, Purdy faced Tampa Bay again and built such a reputation that Baker Mayfield, the former No. 1 pick, was clearly the lowest quarterback in the game. Purdy sealed his all-around season with an absolute passer rating.
“I don’t even know what that is,” Purdy said. He’s the perfect quarterback in the perfect system, full of talent, perfect character to handle it all, and the perfect statistic to show how he’s capable of being so much more.
@Jerrymcd and I were lucky enough to cover Brock Purdy in the first QB game in the Bay Area against Nick Foles against the #Raiders in 2013.
— Josh Dubow (@JoshDubowAP) November 20, 2023
Flaws are there, for sure. Brave, Purdy implored coach Kyle Shanahan to avoid going down on purpose this week after getting at least one of three straight. It is still a work in progress. But it’s been 16 weeks since Purdy was given the keys to the 49ers’ kingdom and 15 starts. At every step, he answers doubts about his readiness, skills and abilities.
Sunday was another arm day.
The 49ers offense can cover itself. Shanahan’s focus on the run game and nature of the passing game tend to limit the threats thrown down the field. The 49ers don’t have a blitz-open burner, and the strength of their offense is yards after the catch, so there’s little incentive to push the ball downfield. And their last quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, couldn’t consistently throw deep and seemed to have stopped trying. Soon, the 49ers’ offense felt underpowered. It can make them predictable.
But in Sunday’s decisive game, the 49ers, who entered with the eighth-highest rushing percentage on first downs (36.6 percent), went on a road trip this time. Five yards from the line of scrimmage, Purdy started in the slot on the left side and Ayuck had a move on Dean. The Buccaneers seemed completely unprepared for what was to come. Single-high safety was way out of position. Dean Ayuk seems confused as to whether or not he’s running another crossing route or something. Dean looked back at the ball and saw that it was ripe. His attempt to jump was a disappointment.
Brock Purdy to Brandon Yuck! #49ers x #FTTB pic.twitter.com/RABdT8jKSD
— The SFNiners (@TheSFNiners) November 19, 2023
The deep ball was such a break from the norm, and Ayuck was so far ahead of any other 49er, he didn’t even have time to think about the celebration. He eventually settled on Smeeze, a popular restaurant in the Bay.
“That was the longest touchdown of my career,” Ayuk said with a smile after his 156-yard receiving touchdown on Sunday. “I didn’t know what to do.”
In last Sunday’s impressive win over Jacksonville, a win that reset their balance, Purdy was 6-for-6 on throws of at least 20 yards, three of which were missed. It was arguably the throw of the year when one dangled in the pocket and went down the right sideline (34 yards in the air) to George Kittle for a 66-yard touchdown. According to Pro Football Focus, Purdy entered Sunday’s game 20-for-30 for 568 yards and six touchdowns throwing for 20 yards or more.
Make those seven touchdowns.
With seven games left, IUC is well on its way to another 1,000-yard season. He is on pace for career highs in receiving yards per game (84.4), yards per reception (17.8) and yards per target (12.3).
Besides Ayuk, Kittle is one of the beneficiaries of Purdy’s magic. Kittle had 24 touchdowns in 76 games as a starter before Purdy. In 16 games against Purdy, he has 12 touchdown receptions, including Sunday’s 3-yard score.
“It’s a combination of bullying and being more open,” Kittle said with a smile before breaking up with Purdy. “I think we have a lot of opportunity because of the way Brock takes care of the football and the way he can extend with his feet. He does a good job of keeping his eyes up. Being able to take those long drives makes me feel like we’re going to be on the field for a long time. When you’re on the field eight to 10 plays and you’re going down into the red zone. The protection is a bit worn and you can damage the coating.
Just like last year against Tampa Bay, Purdy will again follow up a win against the Buccaneers with a short-week trip to Seattle. After that it’s on to Philadelphia. In the northwest, the 49ers’ usual home of terror, and with Purdy injured, the 49ers’ Super Bowl chances to return to the position were lost last season. These next two weeks will be tough tests for Purdy. Another chance for questions. Doubts appear.
But even if he struggles in those harsh environments, we’ve seen enough to know that those struggles won’t be the end of him. We’ve seen enough to know that it won’t be shaken for the time being. Beneath the boyish look and humble aura, Purdy has some seriously big energy. And it is suitable for this group.
The 49ers were built for ultimate runs, and they’re showing it again.
(Photo: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)