June 20, 2024
Purdy's underwhelming practice performances were forgotten as he expertly ran the Niners' offense in his first game since the NFC Championship Game.

SANTA CLARA — There was no controversy or competition for the 49ers’ starting quarterback job this season.

The gig was Brock Purdy’s.

And he reminded everyone why that was the case on Saturday.

The quarterback’s inexperience (five starts last regular season) and injury (he had his ulnar collateral ligament repaired this past offseason) didn’t matter to Niners’ coach Kyle Shanahan.

He remembered what Purdy did for his offense last season.

And while it was only one series of a preseason game, Purdy provided the same thing for the Niners against the Broncos’ first-string defense Saturday.

(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Exhibition or not, the preseason home opener was Purdy’s first game since he injured his elbow in January’s NFC Championship Game. He looked like the quarterback we saw win eight straight games, including two in the playoffs.

“First game action since the postseason last year. To be able to get out there and sort of shake that stuff off…” Purdy said. “It felt really good to be out there with the guys in a game environment — get the nerves out a little bit.”

“It was good to be able to drive and be able to take some hits and get right up and run a play again after that. It helps me sort of settle into the game,” Purdy said.

The arm strength was as solid. He didn’t recreate the plot of the movie Rookie of the Year and come back from an elbow injury with the ability to throw like Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, but Purdy can still complete a 25-yard pass to the sidelines.

More importantly, he didn’t lose his impressive accuracy, decision-making, or scrambling abilities. He’s still Shanahan’s extension on the field — the vessel by which the coach can run his full offense.

Or, to put it in jock terms: Purdy is still the man.

And that fact makes the Niners the NFC’s team to beat this season.

(Apologies to the Eagles — who only beat the Niners last January because Purdy, literally couldn’t throw the ball.)

(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

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Purdy went 4-for-5 for 65 yards Saturday. He also had an 8-yard scramble, nearly scoring on a third-and-long from the 10-yard line, boldly cutting inside and running into contact, instead of running out of bounds, to reach the end zone.

And while the 49ers didn’t score a touchdown on Purdy’s only drive Saturday, he — and, by extension, the Niners’ offense — showed some serious moxie in the contest.

That’s the kind of positivity you want to create when you risk your starters in an exhibition game.

It’s enough to make one understand why Shanahan never doubted that No. 13 was his first-string quarterback in ’23.

And why the ripple of discontentment amongst some Niners fans these past few weeks was always ridiculous.

Objectively, it’s been an underwhelming training camp for Purdy this summer. Practice interceptions and unimpressive scrimmage stat lines had at least a vocal corner of the Niners’ fanbase wringing their hands about Shanahan’s decision to appoint the second-year quarterback the starter.

Some of those practice struggles can be tied to over-aggression. Purdy admitted Saturday that he tries things on the practice field he would never dare try in games.

“This whole process with my arm, there’s times where you get in an 11-on-11 situation,” Purdy said. “I want to see if I can fit this in there, or not.”

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy (13) gains yardage against the Denver Broncos in the first quarter of a NFL preseason game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

It’s important to remember that Purdy didn’t hint at what would come in last season’s training camp, either. He was unremarkable on the practice field last August.

He was, however, impressive in preseason games. His play in those exhibitions forced the Niners to keep him on the 53-man roster.

Some guys practice well but can’t perform in games. (The Niners might have a rookie kicker who fits this mold.)

Other guys are unremarkable — or downright bad  — at practice, but are excellent in games.

Yes, the latter player might frustrate, but it’s the only kind you can have on the field when the games mean something.

“I’m a competitor. I want to be able to rip the ball… it’s practice for a reason,” Purdy said. “What matters is game days on Sundays.”

Or Saturdays in the preseason, it seems.

Purdy might not have the strongest arm or be the fastest runner, but he is a true gamer.

That’ll get you — and your team — pretty far in this league.

It might even leave you as the last team standing.

Backup QB Chronicles

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• Sam Darnold played well in his showcase game (a full two quarters-and-change of play). It wasn’t enough to end any competition for the No. 2 quarterback job behind Purdy, but you have to believe that heading into the final week of training camp practices, Darnold has the advantage on Lance for the gig.

Darnold finished the game 11-for-14 for 109 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.

It should have been zero interceptions.

The pick was a perfect pass that went through receiver Ronnie Bell’s hands and hit him in the face mask. It was exactly where the ball was supposed to be, exactly when it was supposed to be there. To hold that interception against him would be absurd.

Darnold’s arm talent is exceptional, and he has put it on display behind a second-string offensive line that can’t block. He’s also shown some nice scrambling abilities and a clear understanding of where the ball should go in Shanahan’s playbook.

You could do a whole lot worse than Darnold as a backup quarterback.

• But Lance can still land the job, thanks to his late push on Saturday.

Let’s be clear: Lance wasn’t as good as Darnold against the Broncos — he had one interception (that was his fault) and could have thrown four more, by my count.

But he made some nice throws and drove the 49ers down the field twice in the final minutes to win the game. Had Lance not done that, the performance might have been disqualifying. Because he did, he should have a shot at the No. 2 job Friday against the Chargers.