SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Midway through the second quarter, while one of the most intense games of his six-year reign as 49ers coach was playing out on the Levi’s Stadium turf in front of him, coach Kyle Shanahan felt someone at his side, wanting to talk. It was head athletic trainer Dustin Little, waiting for a break in the action to brief Shanahan about starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Garoppolo has a break in his foot, Little said.
“How long’s he out for?” Shanahan said.
“It’s probably six months, at least,” Little told Shanahan. “It’ll be the whole season.”
Shanahan had a vital game to win, and a one-game lead in the NFC West to protect. He couldn’t tell the team, or his staff, that for the second time this year, their starting quarterback was now gone for the year. Particularly in this game, with the fastest and most explosive team in football on the other side of the field.
So he said nothing.
Afterward, he and three Niners players told me, basically, This is the life we’ve chosen. That’s one of the ways that, after Shanahan heard the news, his team was able to function like all was well. From the moment he heard the news, the Niners, and Brock Purdy, outscored Miami 23-7.
“Football is weird,” George Kittle told me afterward. “It’s a brutal, unforgiving sport. Saw Jimmy at halftime and he told me. That’s awful for your quarterback and your three-time captain. But you know, it’s kind of, ‘Well, that sucks, but we got a game to play.’ It’s like, We love you, and we’ll always love you, but we gotta go. See you after the game.”
“It’s kinda the beautifulness and craziness of the sport, what happened today.”
What happened: This was a tragi-fantastic football game. Doesn’t sound like that, with a final of San Francisco 33, Miami 17, and a season-ending foot injury to Garoppolo, the unluckiest man in football. But the Niners led by six for 12 tense minutes in the fourth quarter, and then the floodgates opened, and it was a strange end to what for 57 minutes was a heart-pounder. It started like it’d be a Miami rout, with a 75-yard Tua Tagovailoa TD pass on the first offensive play of the game. But Tua handed the Niners 13 points, and they won by 16.
This, actually, was the best game of the season that vast swaths of the country did not see. Because this was a CBS doubleheader week and the national TV audience got a terrific Kansas City-Cincinnati game in the late window, this Fox telecast—Miami with the most explosive offense in football at San Francisco with the best defense in football—missed most of the country. It wasn’t seen on the Eastern Seaboard (Boston/New York/Philadelphia/Washington) or in New England, Tampa/St.Pete, Orlando, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest and most of the Midwest and Southwest.
So you saw the score, and you heard Garoppolo is gone (on the September heels of Trey Lance being lost for the year), and you wondered two things: Who is Brock Purdy? And is San Francisco’s season over?
He’s a kid. And the season positively is not over. I’ll tell you one play that blew me away, and blew Shanahan away too, that explains exactly why the season’s not kaput for the Niners.
I met with Purdy for a few minutes after the game. Looks like he’s 17. He’s 22, 6-1 (generously), needs a haircut, and seems oblivious to what he’s headed into. He talks like, Bring all that skepticism on. “A lot of people have said a lot of things about me like, I’m not good enough, this or that,” he said in a room off the locker room at Levi’s Stadium. “I just trust in God, and I’ll continue to do what I do—put my head down and go to work.”
Work this week means prepping for his first NFL start next Sunday. Against Tom Brady.
“Pretty cool,” he told me. “The GOAT. He’s been playing football longer than I’ve been alive.”
This is my 39th season covering the NFL, and one thing that I’ve never liked is making one play a metaphor for an entire game. One play rarely is. Games have 155 plays or so in them, and in this case, it was the San Francisco defense that stood out. But I’m picking a play by this neophyte quarterback to be a vital one. Maybe not the biggest of the day, but certainly the biggest for Purdy.
Let’s recap. Miami 10, San Francisco 10. Niners ball, third-and-10 at their 35-yard line, 79 seconds left in the half, the home team already knowing that they’ve lost their second starting quarterback of the year. Garoppolo got crushed by two Miami defenders four minutes into this game. For the last 56 minutes, Purdy had to earn an incredibly valuable save.
The key point was late in the first half, on that third-and-10. At the start of the play, eight Dolphins crowded the line, a clear sign that again they would pressure Purdy heavily at the snap. On the sidelines, Shanahan prayed that Purdy would recognize the blitz and call for an adjustment to tight end George Kittle’s route. He was the primary receiver on the play, but now the correct read was for an adjustment so that Kittle would cut off his post route a bit shorter. Enough to make the first down, but not enough for a huge gain. “We had to do something quicker because we knew we weren’t going to have the time,” Shanahan said.
It was about 80 minutes after the game now, and the locker room was empty. I talked to Shanahan as he sat at a locker and tried to explain why Purdy’s decision here was so significant.
“I thought this was Purdy’s play of the game,” I said.
“I did too,” Shanahan said. “Especially with what they were doing to us. They were coming after Brock and doing a good job of taking our quick throws away. This was a huge job of Brock signaling something to change the route [for Kittle].”
There is something that Shanahan and Purdy did not know. The average NFL pass this season has been thrown 2.74 seconds after the quarterback gets the ball in his hands. Purdy threw this pass in 1.72 seconds. In the NFL this season, only five times in 13 weeks had a quarterback completed a pass of at least 10 yards in 1.72 seconds or less, per NFL Next Gen stats. This was the sixth. As Purdy prepared to get hit by Jaelan Phillips, he threw a dart to Kittle, who caught and ran for a 19-yard gain. This means something because it shows Purdy recognized the defense, changed the ball, was willing to take a big hit, and he was skilled enough to complete a downfield pass with everything going on.
“Just showing the guys I’m willing to take one on the chin, willing to do what it takes to win,” Purdy said.
Five plays later, at the Miami three-yard line, Purdy threw for Christian McCaffrey in the end zone. Not a perfect throw, but a catchable one. McCaffrey dropped it. Next play, Purdy tried McCaffrey again. Touchdown.
CMC gives the @49ers the lead before the half!
— NFL (@NFL) December 4, 2022
“After the touchdown,” Purdy said, “Christian came to me and said, ‘Thanks for believing in me and trusting me to make the play.’ That’s pretty wild. I mean, saying that to me. I grew up watching him. Now, I’m on his team, throwing him a touchdown pass. Wild.”
Niners 17, Dolphins 10. It was never closer than six the rest of the way. Purdy finished 25-for-37 with 210 yards, 2 touchdown passes and an interception.
Tua Tagovailoa will beat himself up for his consecutive interceptions and his in-and-out accuracy. Understandable. He missed four or five big throws to open receivers. But he did hit TD bombs to Trent Sherfield and Tyreek Hill. This team would be nowhere without him. So he gets a pass, and should, on a wobbly day against a great defense. Miami flew to Los Angeles after the game to practice for next Sunday night’s game at the Chargers—they’ll practice at UCLA—before the finale of a three-game road trip, a huge Week 15 game at Buffalo. Mid-December at Buffalo for the Dolphins. Fun!
As for the Niners, it’s Brockball now.
“I know the question is, can I step in and continue this ride of what our team has done?” he said after the game. “It’s not just a one-man show or anything like that. What Jimmy did for this team was amazing in terms of getting it rolling and getting us on a streak to win. The challenge for me is like, man, can I step up in that position and continue to feed those guys? Get them the ball. Make the right checks in the run game. Allow the defense to play great and play with them. That’s the challenge for me and that’s how I look at it and I’m excited for it.”
“What impressed me about Brock in camp,” Shanahan said, “is he was always willing to let it rip. He’s decisive. He started for years [at Iowa State] at a high level. You gotta have some balls to play quarterback in this league, and he does. We think we’ll have a chance with him.”
I think San Francisco’s Super Bowl chances got severely diminished Sunday. Hard to imagine Purdy walking into Lincoln Financial Field on Jan. 18 or 25 and winning a division or championship game against the steamrolling Eagles.
But Purdy won’t be afraid. And a guy who won’t give the ball away, playing with the defense, should make it interesting down the stretch. This season’s over for the cursed Garoppolo, but certainly not for the 49ers.