Thompson: Brock Purdy was able to come up, come down and save the 49ers

SANTA CLARA, California. — The biggest run of the night may not have been Christian McCaffrey’s. Or Deebo Samuel. Or even by George Kittle in one of his epic “grab and run”.

No. It was probably the game manager. The Lions’ most thrilling, back-breaking and taming runs, one might say, were those of Brock Purdy, who staged a 17-point comeback in the San Francisco 49ers’ 34-31 victory Sunday over Detroit in the NFC Championship Game.

“I’m blocking my man and the next thing I know I hear screaming,” left guard Aaron Banks said from the party in the 49ers’ locker room at Levi’s Stadium after the game. “And Brock is 20 yards from the field.”

One candidate was Purdy’s 21-yard scramble on second-and-11 in the third quarter. He started from the center and turned on his baby burners to get away from Lions defender Brian Branch. Two plays after the defense forced a turnover, Purdy had first-and-goal for the 49ers at the Detroit 4-yard line. McCaffrey finished the drive with a 1-yard score to tie the game at 24.

Purdy’s run was symbolic of the 49ers’ aggressive mood. Red zone problems wouldn’t get in the way this time. A field goal was not an option.

He could have scored himself if it wasn’t for Samuel.

“It came at me and bounced,” Samuel said. “I feel like if I would have made that block, he probably would have scored.”

Another candidate was Purdy’s breathtaking run on the first play of the next drive. McCaffrey missed the block in the blitz on Detroit safety Ifatu Melifonwu. But Purdy ducked under what would have been an 8-yard sack on first down, turned left and moved toward the sidelines. Before he was tackled, he tossed a laser down the sidelines to Kyle Juszczyk for a first down with his toe. It was the first play on the drive that produced the go-ahead field goal. It was the first sign that Purdy was in his bag.

Another option, perhaps the best, was his third and fourth runs in what amounted to the game-winning drive to send the 49ers to the Super Bowl against Kansas City. With just under five minutes left and the 49ers just beyond midfield, Detroit was desperate for a stop. But Purdy reached into his pocket and took off again. He slipped out of the grasp of Lions sack specialist Aidan Hutchinson, slipped from the clutches of linebacker Jack Campbell and outpaced linebacker Alex Anzalone to the edge.

After moving up the field, into open space, Purdy did not slip. I dove in first. Because he wanted every meter. Because scared money doesn’t make money. Because championships are not won with passivity.

Purdy was considered by many to be the prototypical game manager. A passenger more than a driver. A beneficiary rather than a benefactor. A prevention of losses rather than a recovery of victory. The label game manager is basically a pejorative in modern quarterback discourse.

But the 49ers needed more on Sunday. Their season was on the line. Their championship hopes were fading.

Purdy became what they needed: an attacking midfielder, a difference maker. In the second half, he was 13-of-16 passing for 174 yards and a touchdown. No interceptions. His 49 rushing yards were the best proof that he was not simply a passenger in this historic comeback. He was driving.

“I thought it was the difference between winning and losing,” coach Kyle Shanahan said of Purdy’s struggles. “He made some great plays with his legs, coming out of the pocket, moving the chains on some first downs, some explosives. I raced my ass off today. It wasn’t easy for any of us. He kept grinding. “He was incredible in the second half.”

In the NFC Divisional Round, Purdy overcame his struggles on the final drive, leading the 49ers to the game-winning score. He rallied for the NFC title, leading San Francisco from 17 points down.

He orchestrated a 27-point streak on five consecutive drives, flipping the Lions’ script.

“When I’m down 17 at the half,” Purdy said, “I honestly think, ‘Okay, God.’ You brought me here. Win or lose, I will glorify you.” This is my peace. This is joy. This is steadfastness. This is where I get it from. This is the truth.”

Detroit played a significant role in its own demise. Missed passes. Pass field goals in favor of pride and model. Purdy made sure that all their misdeeds were punished.

It was more than enough to add some substance to the Purdy debate. At least to give his detractors a break. At least to acknowledge the possibility that his ceiling might be even higher than his halo. He may not be on the level of probable MVP Lamar Jackson or the talented Josh Allen. Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are the most coveted talents.

But Purdy isn’t home.


Brock Purdy did it with his legs and his arm Sunday, rushing for a key 49 yards in the second half to help spark the 49ers’ comeback over the Lions. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

“I don’t have enough good things to say about Brock,” McCaffrey said. “All he’s done since he’s been here is play at an elite level. And it all starts with him. We’re lucky he’s our quarterback. He takes a lot of heat for no reason. “Everything he did was a great leader and a great player.”

Purdy doesn’t have a big arm. Or the dazzling athleticism. His inexperience shows itself at times. His precision may abandon him. He’s had enough wiretaps to convince you that he has to live right. He posted some amazing stats, putting his name in MVP conversations, but he also had a few moments to make the thought of winning the league’s highest honors a little ridiculous.

All of this was evident in Sunday’s first half. It was Purdy’s version so easy to question, to mock when mentioned to the elite. He completed just 47 percent of his passes in the first two quarters – including an interception that set up a Detroit touchdown – and missed several other throws. The 49ers’ potent offense, against a vulnerable defense, managed just seven points in the first half.

The entire Bay Area was demanding to speak to the manager.

That’s when Purdy emerged. The young man with a healthy smile, a responsible attitude and a humility at your service.

“My faith has never wavered,” 49ers safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. said of his quarterback. «I’ve been saying this all year. You have a guy like that who can control the game, who knows where to go and when to go with the ball. I’m happy that he is on my team. I’ll tell you. I never worry. When Purdy needs to score points, that’s when he’s at his best.

What helped the 49ers were Purdy’s immeasurables. The gunslinger mentality. The middle-major decision. Mr. Irrelevant’s chip on his shoulder. The tenacity of the little guy.

Like that breathtaking throw to Jauan Jennings on third-and-4 with the 49ers down 17. Purdy scrambled, stopped short of the line of scrimmage and threw a pass across his body toward the center. It was more like an alley-oop, and Jennings needed all of his 6-foot-3 frame and 6-foot-4 wingspan to grab the catch with one hand and keep the momentum going. It was Patrick Mahomesian.

But above all, the heart. Purdy isn’t afraid of pressure. At times he may seem shaken, but not enough to make him go into a shell. His desire to win took over on Sunday.

The point of the match, his deep take on Brandon Aiyuk, was for him to be the opposite of a game manager. With the 49ers down two touchdowns, and after the defense had just committed a massive turnover on downs, Purdy didn’t want to play it safe.

He was trying to do a comedy. He had the feeling that they needed something big and he did it.

“At that moment,” Purdy said, “I look at it as if we needed a show. I’m not going to be stupid and just throw the ball. But BA is one on one. I’ll take that opp. Especially in this type of game. We needed that type of game. “So people can say what they want, but I was giving my boyfriend a chance.”

The Lions had a lone safety circling the middle of the field. When Samuel crossed on a crossing, safety went with him. That left Aiyuk one-on-one with Detroit cornerback Kindle Vildor.

“I saw him live,” Samuel said. “I saw the guy clip the high cross I was running and I looked up and Brock took it off.”

Purdy is here, and not Jimmy Garoppolo, because the 49ers can’t win the Super Bowl without a quarterback capable and willing to hit the deep ball. For all his success, Garoppolo’s hesitation to throw downfield, even if created by Shanahan’s hesitation to call for longer throws, put a limit on the 49ers’ offense. They drafted Trey Lance looking to become more dynamic.

They ended up with Purdy, who can climb and push the ball downfield.

The 49ers lost their last Super Bowl because they failed to score in the fourth quarter. While Patrick Mahomes was turning into a legend, the 49ers’ offense was stifled by Garoppolo’s predictable slant passes and pocket containment.

Even Purdy might not beat Mahomes. But it’s not out of the question. It was said that he couldn’t come from behind and so it was. It was said that he couldn’t carry the team and he did. It was said that he wasn’t the reason the 49ers won and in fact he was. He is, in fact, surrounded by talent. And he could be outclassed. He could fail. But Sunday was further proof of the player in him. He can do it. He can do it.

Purdy is not afraid. Not to run towards it, or throw it, or take away the top of the defense.

His pass to Aiyuk landed a little too deep – or pass interference might have prevented Aiyuk from reaching the ball – and Vildor had an interception chance. His job is to keep up with the receiver, and he did that. But the pass bounced off his helmet and into Aiyuk’s arms.

Lucky? Absolutely. But fortune favors the brave.

“I saw the replay,” Kittle said, “and I thought, ‘Just how we wanted it to be. Take the mask off the guy straight to BA’ Dang. “Brock’s good at football, right?”

If it is a game manager, it must be the premium version.

GO DEEPER

The 49ers win the NFC Championship Game and justify an entire era

(Top photo of Brock Purdy celebrating a touchdown in Sunday’s NFC championship game: Cooper Neill/Getty Images)