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What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Brock Purdy?

The 49ers are a win away from making the Super Bowl with their “Mr. Irrelevant” quarterback, and it’s still impossible to have a rational conversation about him

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This NFL season has been a bit of a doozy, hasn’t it? The three biggest conversation points have been the relationship between a pop star and a star tight end, a Reddit conspiracy theorist who tore his Achilles tendon while playing for the New York Jets, and the debate over whether the quarterback of the best team in the NFC—the player who led the league in yards per attempt, passer rating, and explosive plays—is good or not.

Welcome to the Brock Purdy discourse. Pull up a chair. You’re going to be here for a while.

Based just on the framing I used to introduce Purdy, you may already be lightly steamed. Have I oversold Purdy by cherry-picking statistical categories in which he excels? Undersold him by suggesting, just days ahead of his second NFC championship game in two pro seasons, that someone with those accomplishments could be anything but good?

At one point this season, Purdy was the favorite to be awarded league MVP. At another, he was replaced by Sam Darnold after throwing four interceptions in a blowout loss. He’s been compared, by a beat writer covering the 49ers, to Joe Montana, but sports talk shows on multiple networks have devoted segment after segment to asking whether Purdy is a fraud. Every 49ers game is a referendum on Purdy’s place in the NFL’s quarterback hierarchy. Just this week, ESPN’s Ryan Clark said that the “single hardest thing I had to do all year was act like Brock Purdy deserved to be in conversations” with Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, and Lamar Jackson. Tune in to any form of sports TV coverage, and you’re likely to hear men wearing pocket squares not only debating how well Purdy throws a football, but also framing this debate as something verging on a morality play. On Monday, Fox Sports’ Nick Wright called himself a “villain” for considering Purdy a weakness for the 49ers. The first line of this story from Purdy’s hometown paper on how he’s been covered by the media and his teammates’ defenses of him uses the words “hate” and “slander.” On the babyfaced 24-year-old quarterback, we are a nation divided.

We The People are also fueled by takes, and arguing over quarterbacks is standard fare. But that doesn’t quite explain why Purdy is the one to inspire such dug-in sentiments from football observers and commenters. How did “Mr. Irrelevant” become our strongest wedge issue?

The simplest answer is that Purdy is the closest embodiment of one of the NFL’s most enduring debates: QB winz, baby! How much credit or blame the most important position on the team—but still just one among 53 men—should be assigned is one of the game’s skeleton keys. Channeling that discussion through a real person with weekly ups and downs lends some drama, but what we talk about when we talk about Brock Purdy is, at its core, whether or not wins are a “quarterback” stat.

Think about it this way: Purdy has produced excellent results as a quarterback, and his play is highly correlated to the 49ers winning a lot of games—they’re 20-5, including the playoffs, with him as a starter. He’s won three playoff games, which is more than Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence combined. He’s also doing that while being in Kyle Shanahan’s über-efficient, quarterback-friendly offense, which is one of the best in the NFL, surrounded by one of the league’s best collections of skill-position players and a defense that ranks fourth in DVOA. For the record, I think Purdy’s success says more about his surroundings than it does about him, and I’m compelled by the fact that Jimmy Garoppolo’s statistical output during the five full games he played for the 49ers after the Christian McCaffrey trade in 2022 was very similar to Purdy’s current output. I think the fact that Purdy threw two passes that hit Packers defenders in the hands during the first three quarters of last week’s rainy divisional-round game is about twice as meaningful as the fact that he threw an excellent pass to Brandon Aiyuk on a critical third down during what turned out to be the 49ers’ game-winning drive.

And here’s the rub: I don’t think wins are a quarterback stat … mostly. They’re more of a quarterback stat than they are, like, a box safety stat! (I was going to use middle linebacker there, and then I realized that’s probably a bad argument when writing about these 49ers.) It’s not right that one great drive should erase three bad quarters, but it is fair to be impressed by a quarterback who is sharpest when the stakes are highest. A huge amount of sports performance is stress management, and Purdy seems excellent at this.

But also, did you notice that on that final drive, it stopped raining?

This is the other factor in the intensity of the Purdy discourse—the randomness of small sample sizes. Playoffs included, Purdy has fewer than two seasons’ worth of starts. It’s not a lot of time to flesh out who a player is. If Purdy wins the Super Bowl this year, he’ll have a much different reputation than he would if the 49ers had gotten eliminated in the divisional round by Green Bay, the youngest team in the league. But it’s also entirely possible the difference was, at least in part, thanks to a slight, timely change in atmospheric pressure and Purdy’s seeming inability to play well in the rain. That kind of randomness influences games all the time, and it’s human nature to try to assign it meaning even when that’s folly. We’re all just dust in the wind would make for a weird SportsCenter segment, though I’d love to see them try. This may have something to do with why Shanahan’s hair is graying in fast-forward.

Speaking of Shanahan, last week, ESPN quietly buried an anecdote—told on the record by Purdy himself to reporter Nick Wagoner—that the 49ers head coach wanted Tom Brady to join San Francisco this past offseason. Purdy told ESPN that he had a meeting with his coach last spring in which Shanahan told him that if he was healthy he’d start, unless they could get Brady to play one more season.

“I remember him saying, ‘If we can get Tom Brady, we’re going to try to get him,’” Purdy said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s the GOAT. I get it.’ But something deep down inside me was sort of like, ‘Dude, I just showed you that I can play well in this system. And we were one game away from the Super Bowl.’”

The 49ers, yet again, are one game away from the Super Bowl. Purdy has played well in the system. But he won’t need to look any further than the opposite sideline to know that even playing in a Super Bowl is not necessarily enough to answer every doubt.

Purdy is starting an NFC championship game between two teams that are studies in quarterback indecision at the highest level. Jared Goff leads a Lions team that employs him because Sean McVay decided that wins, or at least Super Bowl wins, are at least a little bit of a quarterback stat. Purdy will start for San Francisco only after the 49ers made him the last pick in the 2022 draft, assuming he might have a shot to back up Trey Lance, who they drafted at no. 3 in 2021 in the hope that he’d do for the 49ers what Matthew Stafford did for the Rams after they got rid of Goff. Having put full faith in Purdy for this season—rain or not in that divisional game, Shanahan asked him to drop back to pass 39 times—and having fundamentally answered that question about whether Purdy really has what it takes are two different things. Learning Shanahan was daydreaming about Brady last offseason only makes that more clear.

There are plenty of bad-faith arguments about Purdy going around, but there’s good-faith uncertainty over how, exactly, to assess this player who almost always succeeds at the task in front of him because there’s good-faith uncertainty about what, exactly, it takes to be a successful quarterback at the highest level of football. If we’ve learned anything from the PurDiscourse, it’s that debating Brock Purdy is a better way to learn how your companion thinks about football than it is to learn anything about Purdy himself. But while most of us share the unalienable right to wheeze on about football players without much in terms of real implication, the only thing that really matters is how Shanahan feels after the next game or two. As it turns out, the last undecided Brock Purdy voter may be the only one that matters.