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Brock Purdy’s Injury Was the One Problem Kyle Shanahan Couldn’t Solve

The 49ers unraveled in their NFC championship game loss to the Eagles. Now, after missing out on the Super Bowl for the second straight year, is their championship window closing?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When San Francisco 49ers All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams was asked this week about how the 49ers would block outside linebacker Haason Reddick and the Philadelphia Eagles’ elite pass rush in the NFC championship game, Williams’s answer was simple:

“It’s not about how we block them,” Williams told The Athletic this week. “It’s more about what type of game we get into.”

Williams had no idea how prescient those words would be. The 49ers’ nightmare scenario unfolded on Sunday in a 31-7 loss to the Eagles after San Francisco lost both of its active quarterbacks to injury—an especially crushing way to lose their second NFC championship game in a row.

“How does it feel to lose the NFC championship game because I don’t have a quarterback?” tight end George Kittle said after the game on Sunday. “Pretty shitty, to be honest.”

On San Francisco’s first drive against the Eagles on Sunday, Reddick blew past 49ers tight end Tyler Kroft and knocked the ball out of QB Brock Purdy’s right hand. (Head coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game that he understood it was a tough block for a tight end to make, but that receiver Brandon Aiyuk was open deep for what would’ve been a huge gain. “It was going to be a big play,” Shanahan said.)

It ended up being a big play for all the wrong reasons. Reddick’s strip-sack injured Purdy’s elbow; just three passes into the biggest game of the campaign, the 49ers were forced to turn to their fourth quarterback of the season. Replacing Purdy was journeyman Josh Johnson, who joined the 49ers in December and has had 10 stints on eight different NFL teams over the last six years. On Sunday, Johnson lasted less than two quarters, leaving the game in the third quarter after suffering a concussion. Johnson’s injury forced the 49ers to turn back to Purdy. But Purdy’s throwing arm was so limited that he told Shanahan he wouldn’t be able to throw deep, and the 49ers had running back Christian McCaffrey test a helmet equipped with a radio in case he had to take over at QB.

“At some point,” Fox announcer Greg Olsen said after Johnson left the game, “the cards that you’re dealt, you just can’t make a hand.”

Yet, the 49ers made it this far despite being dealt a terrible hand all season. Anointed starting QB Trey Lance broke his ankle in Week 2. His backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, broke his foot in Week 13. That left the 49ers with Purdy, who rose from the obscurity of being the 2022 draft’s “Mr. Irrelevant” into the fan favorite to keep the job next year over Lance, who the team took with the no. 3 pick two years ago.

The 49ers offense was better with Purdy than it had been with anyone else under center. Since Purdy replaced Garoppolo against Miami in Week 13, the 49ers offense had ranked first in points per game (31.8) expected points added (70.8) and ESPN’s offensive efficiency (77.2), and the 49ers were undefeated.

Without Purdy, the 49ers had no chance against an Eagles defense that had the second-highest sack rate in the 21st century and the third-most sacks in a season ever with 70. Johnson took two sacks, three delay of game penalties, and lost a fumble when he dropped a perfect shotgun snap just before halftime. That fumble allowed the Eagles to extend their 14-7 lead into 21-7, all but icing the game.

The offensive implosion seemed to unravel the 49ers defense, which played immaculately to begin the game but quickly lost its composure. San Francisco committed three defensive penalties on the Eagles’ second touchdown drive, each resulting in an Eagles first down. Philly’s fourth touchdown drive was gifted by a (questionable) roughing the punter call on a fourth-and-6. The 49ers had nine penalties in the first three quarters after having just six penalties in their previous two playoff games combined. Philly’s offense received seven first downs by penalty, the most in the last 20 years, according to ESPN. (They also managed this in a game refereed by John Hussey, who oversaw the second-fewest penalties of any crew chief this season). Midway through the fourth quarter, linebacker Dre Greenlaw was penalized for unloading Rocky Balboa-esque left hooks trying to loosen a ball from Eagles running back Kenneth Gainwell while the whistle was being blown. Nick Bosa, the 49ers defensive end and likely NFL Defensive Player of the Year, even took a cleat to the leg in a collision with an Eagles player on the sideline during a punt, leaving Bosa’s sock soaked in blood. “It was kind of a sign,” Bosa said after the game, “it would be a rough day,”

The 49ers have been snakebit ever since losing the Super Bowl to the Chiefs in February 2020. The following season completely unraveled for San Francisco after a litany of injuries in back-to-back games at MetLife Stadium against the Giants and Jets, accelerating the player criticism of turf fields. Garoppolo suffered a season-ending ankle injury that year, and the 49ers finished 2-7 down the stretch with backup QBs Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard. Last season’s 49ers made the NFC championship game despite both Garoppolo (thumb and shoulder) and Lance (index finger) suffering injuries that limited their ability to throw the ball. That championship game ended with Garoppolo throwing an interception while under pressure from the Rams’ Aaron Donald. And now, after yet another title game loss, the 49ers’ Super Bowl window might be starting to close.

Shanahan may win a hollow Coach of the Year award for his work during the regular season, as he guided the Niners to the no. 2 seed in the NFC through the quarterback turmoil. But Sunday is just the latest playoff gut punch. Shanahan coordinated the Falcons offense that blew the 28-3 lead to Tom Brady’s Patriots six years ago. His 49ers blew a fourth-quarter lead against the Chiefs in the Super Bowl when his defense ran out of gas and Garoppolo wilted in the fourth quarter. He lost out in the Matthew Stafford trade sweepstakes to his friend Sean McVay, then lost to McVay and Stafford’s Rams at the doorstep of the Super Bowl last year. Shanahan’s teams will always be in the mix, but this year was of particular importance for this team’s championship window.

The 49ers made it this far in large part because they have a bunch of cheap talent. But that won’t last for long. Bosa is heading into the final year of his contract and could land the largest contract ever for a defensive player. Their other starting defensive end, Samson Ebukam, is also a free agent, as are starting defensive backs Jimmie Ward and Tashaun Gipson, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, and linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, among others. They likely don’t have the money to retain all this talent, and they’ve traded away their most valuable first- and second-round picks in this year’s draft to replenish the roster. They seem likely to lose defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, one of the hottest head coaching candidates, too. This was their moment—and they missed it.

That doesn’t even get into their quarterback situation. Purdy has probably earned himself the job going into 2022. Garoppolo is a free agent and it seems unlikely he’d return to be a backup. And Lance, for whom the 49ers traded two first-rounders to move up and take in 2021, seems like he might want a trade to the Titans this offseason. Amazingly, of all the 49ers questions entering this offseason, Purdy might be one of the most certain parts of this team in 2023. And for a team defined by QB injuries, that is not comforting.

As Sunday’s loss wound to a close, the 49ers grew more frustrated than ever. Players were shoving each other. Sidelines cleared. Williams, their team captain and a future Hall of Famer, tossed an Eagles player to the ground and began throwing punches. Williams himself was the one who said winning on Sunday depended on what type of game the 49ers got into. It turns out they ended up in the worst kind.