Brock Purdy doesn’t have to be a perfect QB to win for the 49ers

Brock Purdy is on fire. The 49ers are 3-0, and the young QB is excelling inside Kyle Shanahan’s system. The second-year quarterback is on pace for over 4,000 passing yards, completing 67 percent of his passes, and has yet to throw an interception. It’s understandable that Niners fans are over the moon. Have we reached a point where Purdy belongs among the NFL elite, or is this elaborate trickery fueled by the 49ers’ astounding supporting cast and coaching?

The truth might be both, and neither.

We all have this tendency to evaluate players in extreme platitudes. Players are either “elite” or “busts,” without much wiggle room in between. We’re also obsessed with having a take immediately, rather than letting things play out and accepting that we don’t know everything right now. So let’s take a deeper dive into Purdy’s season and see what we do know about him as a quarterback and where things sit.

Purdy landed in the PERFECT situation

Endless praise is given to the 49ers for “finding” Brock Purdy with the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft,” but this is silly. Sure, the team likely had him on their board — but a Mr. Irrelevant selection isn’t about hiding a gem, it’s about taking someone left on your board who you don’t want to deal with the stress of trying to sign them as a UDFA.

If you look at Purdy’s scouting report from that draft, it’s not exactly pretty. He’s given credit for being a four-year starter at Iowa State, and working well within structure without being very creative. He also excelled at Iowa State as a rhythm passer, and worked best when he could build a steady string of completions to a good cast of playmakers. That’s where the positives more or less end. Purdy had decent arm strength, but nothing to write home about, and there were concerns about his lack of improvement from year-to-year as a college starter.

Compare those abilities with what he inherited in San Francisco:

  • Good structure? Check. Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme is as good as any in the NFL. It uses layers of playmakers at various positions to present mismatch opportunities and gives a passer plenty of options.
  • Doesn’t need elite arm strength? Check. The West Coast system the 49ers runs leans entirely on quick thinking and processing, with the receivers being tasked with doing the heavy lifting on gaining yards after the catch, rather than through air yards.
  • Does it create rhythm? Check. It’s a system that punctuates the run game with short passing and likes to get the quarterback established quickly. On Thursday night against the Giants 10 of the 49ers 15 plays on the first drives were pass plays, and the yardage gained was predominantly off YAC. When you end the first drive with points after a QB has already completed numerous passes in a West Coast system they’re likely to continue having success.
  • Does the team have playmakers? Double check. This team is littered with options for Purdy, ranging from Christian McCaffrey, to George Kittle, to Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. Outside of McCaffrey nobody here is really viewed as “best in class,” but as a total unit they’re absolute monsters.

This shouldn’t diminish what Purdy is doing, however

Just because a QB is in the right spot doesn’t mean they’re not good in their own right. There isn’t some weird nobility in being to excel anywhere when it comes to NFL quarterbacks, and truth be told every top quarterback in the league thrives because of the system they’re in.

Purdy is processing the field very quickly. He’s adept at taking the snap and quickly analyzing if his first read is open, before ripping it in there — and most importantly he’s showing immense trust in his receivers and the offense. The big gains Purdy makes through the air come from anticipation throws, which isn’t something a lot of quarterbacks with single-digit starts are able to do.

By comparison, this is where Justin Fields is struggling right now. He lacks anticipation because he (rightfully) has no faith in the Bears’ offense, and the only player he trusts is DJ Moore. Still, there’s so much hesitancy from the playcalling that he’s risk averse when it comes to anticipation throws that could be picked off.

Meanwhile Purdy is told to run a play, and he’s going to run it like a robot. He will throw when he’s supposed to, hit the spacing his supposed to, and when this is paired with a well designed offense it’s going to lead to success.

This doesn’t mean he’s perfect though

One of the greatest analogies I’ve heard for the two different schools of quarterbacks comes from my coworker Mark Schofield. He characterizes quarterbacks as either “bakers” or “chefs.”

  • Bakers are the quarterbacks who can follow a recipe. You give them the measurements and the method for success and they will try to execute on the plan. Like baking, just because you have a recipe doesn’t mean the end result will be successful. The best “bakers” at quarterback will show the precision and skill to follow these directions perfectly, they’ll win and as long as the recipe is good.
  • Chefs are the quarterbacks who play with feel. They’re the ones standing over the stove adding a a pinch a salt, a turn of pepper and constantly tasting as they’re going. They’ll look at a recipe for ideas, but when it comes time to cook they’re making the dish their own. The ability to win while they chef comes from understanding of where how the play is cooking, and finding ways to make it better.

The best quarterbacks in the league are a blend of these traits. Patrick Mahomes is damn near a 50/50 of executing on Andy Reid’s plays, while being able to improvise when things break down.

As it stands Purdy is a baker, but you can tell he’s interested becoming a chef. He’s Chef Curious. This is a quarterback who knows how to success inside structure, but when things break down he tends to just loft a ball up to receivers based on vibes and be confident it’ll all work out.

The saving grace for the 49ers is their offensive talent is so good that these “vibes” throws work more often than they don’t, which is why so many brand Purdy as a “lucky” quarterback. “Luck” isn’t really a fair term, it’s more like unparalleled trust in his guys to make a play, which can be a good thing or it can lead to some bad decisions.

The jury is still out, but things look REALLY good

Even if Purdy is never able to develop elite “chef” skills, that doesn’t mean he won’t be able to win a lot of games for the 49ers. The improvising Chef QBs tend to garner more awe, because they create astounding highlight plays and get lauded for their creativity. That shouldn’t diminish what it takes to execute on a plan.

So it’s not accurate to either say Purdy is already among the NFL elite, nor is it fair to write off all his achievements because of the Shanahan offense. At the very least he’s showing more playmaking ability than Jimmy Garoppolo inside the same system.

If Purdy can win out of structure more often he could become one of the best complete quarterbacks in the NFL. If he doesn’t that’s okay too — because winning is the name of the game and the 49ers have found their recipe.

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