SANTA CLARA — Brock Purdy smiled as he strolled the sideline, chatted up happy teammates, and savored the 49ers’ opening scoring drive. It couldn’t have been a starker contrast to the last time he played in a game.
You know that game — in Philadelphia, with the NFC Championship on the line, and Purdy helplessly withering in pain because of a torn elbow ligament from the first series of an eventual 31-7 defeat on Jan. 29.
This game, it was only a preseason affair, but it reintroduced Purdy to “game speed,” and it offered the 49ers’ home crowd a welcome reminder of his rookie heroics from last season, when he went from “Mr. Irrelevant” to an unbeatable wonder.
One series was enough for Purdy’s re-entry.
Sam Darnold relieved Purdy after that 10-play opening drive, which ended with a 20-yard field goal from Jake Moody but, more important, saw Purdy escape unscathed after replicating his 2022 play-making ability.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy (13) throws the ball during warmups before the start of a NFL preseason game against the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
A Purdy-to-Darnold order could reflect the 49ers’ depth chart for their Sept. 10 season opener, although Darnold failed to procure a first down on his opening series. Darnold leapfrogged Trey Lance in the rotation, after Lance struggled as the 49ers’ starter in their 34-7 preseason-opening loss last Sunday at Las Vegas.
Protecting Purdy were 4-of-5 offensive linemen expected to start in the Sept. 10 season opener at Pittsburgh, the lone exception being All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams, who was safely stashed on the sideline with running back Christian McCaffrey and tight end George Kittle. Jalen Moore started in place of Williams.
Purdy made more than a ceremonial appearance. He completed 4-of-5 passes while targeting the 49ers’ top three wide receivers: Deebo Samuel (25 yards, 14 yards), Jauan Jennings (21 yards) and Brandon Aiyuk (11 yards).
Those weren’t the hold-your-breath plays, however.
Rather, Purdy endured his first sack, and, voila, escaped injury. Running back Ty Davis-Price whiffed on a block, and Purdy avoided one defender before being gently dragged down by Jonathon Cooper at the 10-yard line, for an 8-yard loss.
The next play was even more teeth-gritting: Purdy scrambled, opted not to throw to an open Jennings at the goal line, and raced to the 3-yard line, setting up the first successful field goal by Moody, a rookie-third-round pick who missed twice against the Raiders.
Seven months ago, on the 49ers’ home field, Purdy produced his eighth win in eight games since replacing an injured Jimmy Garoppolo. After that 19-12 divisional playoff triumph over the Dallas Cowboys, next came a fateful showdown at Philadelphia for the NFC title. Purdy’s right-elbow ligament got torn on a sack, and it got repaired March 10 via an internal-brace procedure that allowed for an expedited comeback, rather than a year-long hiatus with Tommy John reconstructive surgery.
Remarkably, Purdy was cleared to practice at the start of training camp 3 1/2 weeks ago, did not experience any setback while on a pitch count, and he cleared a “huge” milestone last week by maintaining his velocity amid his first string of practicing three consecutive days.
Darnold didn’t push the 49ers down field as well in relief of Purdy. Third-down situations proved problematic, from an incompletion on Darnold’s first series to three Broncos sacking him on his second drive.
Defensively, the 49ers also gave many Week 1 starters their first action this preseason. Sunday’s lineup featured Javon Hargrave’s debut on a line next to Arik Armstead, Kerry Hyder Jr. and Clelin Ferrell; linebackers Fred Warner, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, and Curtis Robinson; cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Ambry Thomas; and, safeties Talanoa Hufanga and rookie Ji’Ayir Brown.
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This preseason’s first game-related injury took out Danny Gray (shoulder). Gray, an embattled second-year receiver, returned the opening kickoff 23 yards before being steered out of bounds.
Hyder also left with a shoulder injury, and that impacts the defensive line’s depth. Nick Bosa still hasn’t reported, though it’s believed contract-extension talks are heating up ahead of the season opener. Earlier Saturday, the 49ers placed Aug. 1 acquisition Taco Charlton on injured reserve, where they also put fellow defensive end Darryl Johnson two weeks ago.