There’s a tendency to measure Brock Purdy against those who came before him on the most quarterback-centric franchise in the NFL.
I’ve been around long enough to see Joe Montana and Steve Young in practice and in games, quarterbacks who by the time I was around played for 49ers teams with elite rosters and coaches en route to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But the quarterback Purdy most reminds me of isn’t going to the Hall of Fame, although he did win a Most Valuable Player award and helped take a moribund franchise out of the shadows and into the limelight. He did it with a hard-nosed attitude, a ton of completions, minimal turnovers and the ability to be a creative point guard capable of enhancing the skills of those around him.
Rich Gannon was sold on Brock Purdy immediately. He was watching when Purdy came off the bench after Jimmy Garoppolo broke his foot and delivered a 33-17 win over the Miami Dolphins.
“Honestly, I was just blown away,” Gannon said in a recent phone interview. “From the first series, you could see his poise, his confidence, his decision-making, his accuracy. He just looked like a natural.”
Coming off UCL surgery on his right elbow, Purdy had some rusty training camp practices. There were a handful of interceptions on balls he shouldn’t have thrown. His short-range passes had enough steam to get the job done but frozen ropes are not Purdy’s stock in trade. The throws that occasionally brought with them a low whistle from onlookers more often belonged to Sam Darnold.
But practices aren’t the same as a game, nor are they the proper judging ground for who is and isn’t a viable NFL quarterback.
It was a lesson learned from 1997 through 1999 when the Raiders transitioned from Jeff George to Gannon.
Whatever you think of George, his arm talent was undeniable and showcased in its purest form in practice. Watching George was like watching Mark McGwire in the cage, a daily miracle that had to be seen to be believed.
Of course, no one was hitting George in practice and he was operating against a shaky Raiders defense. But even at that, his ability to put the ball on the money from great distances with a flick of the wrist was a site to behold.
George was the classic Al Davis downfield thrower, but new coach Jon Gruden wanted a leader who would change attitudes, move the chains and get everyone involved. Gannon had been a journeyman starter, considered a classic backup when he arrived at age 34.
During Gannon’s first training camp, practices were less than impressive — especially to those of us who were used to watching George’s daily pyrotechnics. Gannon rolled out a lot more, and sometimes threw at the feet of unsuspecting receivers or aborted plays with glares when routes weren’t run correctly.
When a Gannon-George comparison was brought up, Gruden explained everything was going as planned. Gannon was teaching new teammates how to carry on when the quarterback extended a play. Things weren’t as they seemed.
To which every media member had a collective eye roll. Surely the Raiders had made a mistake.
Turns out the Raiders were ripe for a change. With Gannon at quarterback, the Raiders became an offense with an interlocking system of plays, with one setting up the other, instead of a disjointed series of attempts at quick strikes. The Raiders had four teams with winning records in 25 years after their return to Oakland. Gannon was the quarterback for three of them. He was a two-time All-Pro and won the MVP in 2002.
That the franchise had a collective face-plant in the Super Bowl against their old coach and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn’t detract from Gannon being the most influential player during the Raiders’ second run in Oakland.
Combine his first four years in Oakland before injuries hit and Gannon was playing at a Hall of Fame level, even if he’d never accrue enough numbers to get there.
Gannon was an extension of Gruden, and it’s the thing that struck me about Purdy and his connection to coach Kyle Shanahan. The quarterback he needed wasn’t Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance. It was a smallish but experienced leader from Iowa State to whom the “oohs” and “aahs” were few and far between.
Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon scrambles for a touchdown in 2000 against the 49ers at Candlestick Park. File photo
Gannon and Purdy have never met and in some ways couldn’t be more different. Gannon was edgy and sarcastic. I wrote once when the offense was struggling that maybe they should give Marques Tuiasosopo a series or two, and Gannon accused me of smoking crack. The first time I talked with Purdy — the week before Garoppolo got hurt as it turned out — he repeatedly called me “sir.”
Gannon had better running skills, particularly in his first season with the Raiders when he repeatedly scrambled for first downs and had 527 yards rushing.
But in terms of manipulating a defense with their mind and executing the wishes of the head coach, Gannon and Purdy are kindred spirits.
“If you just look at him, he’s never going to be Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes,” Gannon said. “He’s not going to whip it around or throw it 40 yards across the field. That’s not his game. But he knows what his strengths are and also understands his limitations. He makes good decisions inside and outside the pocket, doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and when he does he turns the page very quickly.”
Gannon was present when the Raiders scrimmaged the 49ers in Las Vegas, and talked to enough people to get an idea of the high regard in which Purdy is held. Hint: It has nothing to do with being Pick No. 262.
“Forget where he was drafted. Set that side, the round, all that stuff,” Gannon said. “Just for a rookie quarterback to go in there and do what he did, I wouldn’t expect that from any of the kids that drafted this year, Bryce Young in Carolina, C.J. Stroud in Houston or Anthony Richardson in Indianapolis. I just wouldn’t.”
Or Trey Lance for that matter this year.
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“For as much flak as John Lynch and Kyle got about it, it seems people aren’t giving them credit for identifying a quarterback that a lot of people passed on,” Gannon said. “They liked his DNA, his football intelligence, his competitiveness, his leadership skills, his ability to be a smooth operator.”
Gannon was never able to deliver the ultimate prize, mostly because the Raiders imploded, returned to their former selves and have remained there ever since with the exception of one playoff season in 2016 and another in Las Vegas in 2021. There are Raiders fans who never forgave him for it.
Purdy has a better team around him than Gannon ever did, leaving open the possibility of validating the theory that being a championship quarterback is as much about being a natural facilitator as it is arm strength, athleticism and hype.