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How Brock Purdy won Kyle Shanahan’s trust

A closer look at Shanahan’s confidence in Purdy

NFL: Miami Dolphins at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Shanahan is notoriously finicky when it comes to his quarterbacks. It’s the position he’s hardest on, justifiably so or not. It takes a lot to impress him and even more to maintain a positive approval rating. Ask Matt Ryan or Jimmy Garoppolo.

What Shanahan wants in a quarterback is pretty straightforward. He wants his quarterbacks to consistently and safely execute his plays exactly as he draws them up. When that doesn’t happen, his patience wears thin and his frustration is palpable. He’s only comfortable with freelance if the play gets blown up or breaks down, and it best be done with ball security in mind.

So among all the wild surprises brought on by Brock Purdy’s improbable rise last season, this one just might top the list:

Purdy is the first quarterback Kyle Shanahan has trusted in his seven years in San Francisco.

He affirmed as much in his play calling. Oftentimes, when Jimmy Garoppolo would make a mistake, Shanahan would dial it back and tighten the reins on him–retribution for failure. Shanahan seemed to employ an opposite strategy with Purdy at times last season–most notably when the rookie QB struggled in the NFC Divisional playoffs against Dallas.

Purdy was harried; unable to find a rhythm against an extremely aggressive, talented Dallas defense at the beginning of the game. He aired some dangerous passes and absorbed a ton of pressure and a couple of sacks. With Jimmy G, Shanahan would have likely pivoted to pound the run game into oblivion. With Brock Purdy, Shanahan kept going to the air.

It was clear that Shanahan had strong conviction that Purdy would settle in, and this approach would facilitate that.

Maybe it was a trial-by-fire test to see how the rookie would respond?

Perhaps it was the opposite, maybe he knew how he would respond.

Potentially he wasn’t quite sure and simply wanted to send his young quarterback a clear message of support; a vote of confidence.

It wasn’t pretty statistically (thanks to a stellar performance from Dallas) but Purdy continued to get more comfortable as the game wore on. He took what the defense gave him and made some key plays down the stretch to help secure the victory in a defensive battle that hearkened back to a 1980s/1990’s brand of football.

What about Trey Lance?

Much like last season, the 49ers are not afforded the luxury of patience in 2023–especially at the quarterback position. The team is firmly entrenched in “win now” mode.

That’s a large factor in the misfortune of the Trey Lance situation. A young guy who needs reps and in-game experience to grow has watched that opportunity erode due to injury, the meteoric, unlikely ascent of Brock Purdy last season, and the 49ers’ need to compete for a sixth Lombardi trophy.

While this quarterback situation has been discussed and analyzed ad nauseam, it boils down to this:
Lance hasn’t had the chance to establish the trust that Purdy has because the 49ers aren’t in a position to offer it right now.

Purdy wasn’t even given that chance last season, it was thrust upon him due to the Niners’ inability to keep a quarterback on the field. The NFL can be a tenuous and unforgiving environment in that regard.

The bright side of that for Lance is that things can swing in his favor just as quickly as they have out of it.

After all, when times are tough, the most popular quarterback in the building is the backup. So the near-term objective for Lance is to make the most of his camp reps and focus on beating out Sam Darnold rather than worry about Purdy.

Dispelling Purdy Detraction

Some have disparagingly characterized and minimized Purdy’s accomplishments last season.

“He only dinks and dunks.”
“Let’s see how he does when teams have more film on him.”
“Anyone could play quarterback in this offense.”

Watch the analyst breakdown. Look at the stats. Remember the plethora of quarterbacks in Kyle Shanahan’s system that have failed miserably. Remember the context of having no professional experience whatsoever. Above all, remember his undefeated record.

The 49ers weren’t just eking by with him under center and hiding him; they were thriving and scoring more points per game.

Purdy came in and played better than Garoppolo–who was quietly putting together his best season as a professional. Whether you want to look at that as a testament to Purdy or an indictment of Garoppolo is a matter of heated opinion among followers of this franchise. Any way you slice it, Garoppolo is a successful veteran who has played in this system since 2017 and won a ton of games.

Purdy had never even played an NFL game and was unceremoniously thrown into an offense that is famously complex with a steep, long learning curve. This happened mid-game in a crucial matchup against the surging Miami Dolphins; during a season with Super Bowl aspirations; in the thick of the playoff hunt.

Yes, there was some initial simplification of the offense to help Purdy acclimate; however, it was to a much lesser degree than one would have expected. What happened next was in stark contrast to Shanahan’s usual M.O. and telling of his burgeoning belief in the rookie signal caller. As Purdy began to stack winning performances, Shanahan began opening up the playbook far more than he had with Garoppolo. He showed a greater measure of aggression and urgency to push the ball down the field where he had previously been tentative and conservative. Trust.

The odds against Brock Purdy seemed utterly insurmountable. No real training camp reps or meaningful practice time. A demanding head coach with a biblical playbook. No professional experience. A diminutive physical build. The immense pressure to not let teammates down; to let a successful season sink.

No one would have faulted him for abject failure. No one had to. What Purdy lacked in experience and athleticism he made up for in toughness, determination, and football intelligence. In his third NFL start, he won the NFC title in perpetually-hostile Seattle with busted ribs. All of this achieved with unflappable poise and veteran humility.

This is why Kyle Shanahan and 49ers players trust Brock Purdy. He defied nearly every imaginable expectation.

That said, trust is hard-earned and easily lost. Things in the NFL can change on a dime. How this dynamic evolves or devolves in 2023 remains to be seen.