SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Kyle Shanahan is the clearest and deepest with his play calls and game plans. The offensive heart, soul, and conscience of the 49ers are right there, through his headset, and on the field every weekend. There’s no hiding from it, and Shanahan doesn’t want to hide from it.
And what happened in Saturday’s 49ers playoff opener against a Seattle defense clearly poised to stop the run? A lot has happened. Everything important has happened if you want to understand what’s going on with this team as they head into next weekend’s divisional round and beyond.
Shanahan challenged rookie Brock Purdy to throw a pass on game one (wild incompletion with a wet ball), game two (19-yard completion), game four (incompletion), fifth play (7-yard win) and a sixth-play pass (incompletion) en route for the 49ers to a field goal for the first points of the game. Then Shanahan kept calling passes – 19 in the first half alone, compared to just nine runs.
It wasn’t immediately dominant, but the tone was set in that 41-23 wildcard win of the round at Levi’s Stadium. The proof was inevitable. This is the path for the 49ers right now, this postseason, and maybe much longer. They face either the Vikings (if they win on Sunday) or the winner of the Tampa Bay-Dallas game on Monday night (if the Vikings lose). And whoever it is, the team playing the 49ers will know to figure out how to beat Brock Purdy.
It’s not like Shanahan will ever give up the run, and in fact things leveled out pretty quickly in the second half (the 49ers finished with 33 carries and 30 passes). But now the 49ers can go for a full-tilt airstrike if they want. And they kind of want it.
In Purdy’s first playoff game and just his sixth NFL start (and this was the first playoff win for a rookie QB since Russell Wilson in 2012), Shanahan put the game in his hands and was quite happy to stick around for long. Because it worked, especially against a Seahawks defense that stacked the line of scrimmage.
“I think they tried to take the run away but we shot,” said full-back Kyle Juszczyk. “And definitely some meat on the bone, but still just explosive games all day. I get what their plan is, we’ve got a rookie quarterback and we’ve got a hell of a running game. I’m sure they’re trying to get him to throw the ball. I’m sure that’s everyone’s plan.
“But I think he’s proved that’s okay. We can make some big plays in passing.”
Purdy family 🙌 @brockpurdy13 pic.twitter.com/sjVGrVGG4p
— NFL (@NFL) January 15, 2023
This is the path for the 49ers now because Shanahan has so much faith in Purdy, who missed a couple of shots early on (when it was light rain) but kept scoring all game, including seven passes from 15+ yards. On that day, Purdy was 18-for-30 for 332 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 131.5 passer rating; He also ran four times for 16 yards and a TD.
“It would be easy for (Shanahan) to say, ‘Okay, let’s keep trying to run the ball, let’s get 3 or 4 yards and just manage this thing,'” Juszczyk said. “I think he has the confidence in Brock that he can do plays himself.”
Of course, Shanahan famously allowed Jimmy Garoppolo to throw just eight times in January 2020 in the 49ers’ NFC Championship Game win over the Packers. Before that, Garoppolo had just 19 shots in the divisional round win against the Vikings.
This is not a blow to Garoppolo; The 49ers won those games, that’s what counts. But the point is, this is a whole new thing here. Purdy has proven he can take on more responsibility in six seasons than Shanahan has given credit to any 49ers QB, and it’s only building.
“I felt that way from the start when he got into the game against Miami when we didn’t have the luxury of sitting there and taking care of things like how the game was going,” Shanahan said. “We just had to call games to try and win the game and he did such a damn good job. And he’s done it every time since. I have a lot of faith in him and every week he gives us more and more confidence.”
And Purdy makes a little more every week. He’s displayed impressive elusiveness in the six games he’s played since coming on as a substitute after Garoppolo’s injury in that game in Miami. But on Saturday, the performance picked up exponentially – Purdy jiggled and jabbed away from the pressure a few times, resulting in big plays, a few TDs and most importantly, no terrible losses or turnovers.
“A couple of those touchdowns, I think that’s something I’ve done my whole life to find a way when it’s not there,” Purdy said.
Purdy’s best improvisation actually came from an incompletion in the fourth quarter when he ran almost to the left touchline and then sped across the width of the field, fooling a Seahawks defender and then lasering at Brandon Aiyuk in the end zone. Aiyuk failed to catch the ball but it was quite an exclamation mark.
Yes, his teammates noticed.
“It’s great to see what he’s doing back there, his little slippage coming out of his stuff,” said wide receiver Deebo Samuel. “It makes us a bit tired; we also have to walk around trying to open up. But it works.”
Last week, in a game against the Cardinals, Shanahan watched Purdy run around and run into a 17-yard sack that put the 49ers out of field goal range and said he almost immediately yelled at him about it.
Kyle, you just saw that it really works in this game, are Purdy’s extended scrambles ok now?
“No,” Shanahan said, shaking his head blankly.
“He’s been great at some,” Shanahan said. “The last one was very close, it was amazing how he threw BA in the corner. I know he just missed that. But he has a feel for it. He definitely makes me nervous about some of them. But he did a damn good job of getting away with it. He knows his body… tries never to give up on a piece. And he’s been very clever with the ball so far.”
It was all enough to catch the attention of one rather notable NFL fan.
PURDY HAS GAME!!!!!!!!!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 14, 2023
“LeBron said that?” said Purdy when told about the tweet, looking genuinely delighted. “Oh, that’s great.”
Said offensive tackle Trent Williams, “I love the fact that Brock is getting the attention he deserves. He’s a good player man. And I think anyone who watches football can see that. I’m not saying he’s the next Aaron Rodgers or Pat Mahomes, but he does everything we need him to do and more. I think that we can of course continue to win with him.”
Everything didn’t go perfectly. But the 49ers veterans liked everything they saw from Purdy, when things were wet and slightly disappointing early on and then as they scored 25 straight points to start the second half.
Typically, Purdy largely blamed the 49ers for being 17-16 down at halftime, despite having outperformed the Seahawks 249-176 up to that point. That happened because the 49ers had to settle for two short field goals on drives into the red zone, and a few defensive collapses suddenly breathed life into Seattle.
“By halftime Kyle was straight, he was like, ‘Hey man, the games are there, the opportunities are there; We’ve got to keep it simple and get it across to the guys,'” Purdy said.
The answer: The 49ers went on a 13-play TD drive immediately after kickoff in the second half, which was completed by Purdy himself with a 1-yard sneak. Then Charles Omenihu snatched the ball away from Seattle QB Geno Smith on next possession and Nick Bosa recovered. And the router was suddenly on.
In the midst of that frenzy, Purdy maneuvered around and found Elijah Mitchell wide open in the right flat for a 7-yard touchdown. Purdy’s first read was Aiyuk on his left, but Aiyuk was covered. Then Purdy got some pressure, rolled left, felt more pressure, so he stepped back in the middle and turned him over to Mitchell in the right apartment. Simple TD.
Then this came:
341 total yards. 4 total TD’s.
Playoff Purdy in full effect.#SuperWildCard #NFLPlayoffspic.twitter.com/IQVcd9TAJS
— NFL (@NFL) January 15, 2023
At the time, it almost looked like Purdy started throwing it at Mitchell before he even turned to face him. Which Purdy basically confirmed. Instinct, both ways. That’s why he said he was partying so boisterously.
“Just a broken piece,” Purdy said. “I was trying to go left to BA and make my progress from there. It just broke. Elijah did his job of staying under cover and if he had time he could get out. It was my last read. The front just broke. When I climbed, Elijah was where he needed to be.
“And that’s why I was excited. I had that confidence in him to be here and the same for him in me. Just a big part of the game to create momentum, just a big game for everyone and a big moment for everyone.”
The moments just keep getting bigger for the 49ers. Your rookie QB sure doesn’t shrink. If anything, he’s better. It’s right on the field. It’s happening right now.
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(Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)