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Why the 49ers believe in Brock Purdy, their star — yes, star — quarterback

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Long before Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback, Pro Bowler and MVP candidate was a thing, Purdy was a Thing.

Specifically, Purdy was Thing 1, his costume of choice along with offensive linemen Nick Zakelj and Alfredo Gutierrez, his teammates, then-roommates and fellow characters from Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat," at the Niners' 2022 Halloween party.

The 49ers had lost to the Kansas City Chiefs eight days earlier but were optimistic because of the recent trade for running back Christian McCaffrey.

That Halloween night offered a brief football getaway at Khartoum Lounge in nearby Campbell, California. Purdy was the backup to starter Jimmy Garoppolo but flashed potential during practice. He was finally feeling comfortable cutting loose with his teammates.

At one point in the evening, Purdy was chatting with McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk when he went full Oprah Winfrey handing out cars to her audience.

"He said, 'Hey, just give me a chance, I can make a lot of plays,'" Kittle said, laughing. "'I'm going to feed you the ball, I'm going to feed you the ball, I'm going to feed you the ball.' ... It was pretty phenomenal."

While Kittle & Co. loved Purdy's bravado, they also found it amusing in a "whatever you say, rookie" kind of way. Thirty-four days later, Purdy stepped in for an injured Garoppolo against the Miami Dolphins and quickly proved that his Halloween night proclamations were no laughing matter.

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After Purdy threw a pair of first-half touchdown passes in what would become a 33-17 Niners win, Kittle walked into the locker room, kicked Purdy's chair and told him he was crazy. When Purdy asked Kittle what he meant, the tight end reminded the quarterback he'd spoken it into existence.

"I'm going to tell my kids that story," Juszczyk said. "Especially if we go win a Super Bowl with him, I'm telling that story forever."

It would be the last time anyone in the Niners building doubted Purdy. Outside of the 49ers facility, however, Purdy skeptics abound.

Even as Purdy's résumé has grown to include leading the NFL in QBR (72.7), setting a franchise record for passing yards in a season (4,280) and becoming the first Niners quarterback to throw at least 30 touchdown passes (31) since 2001, there's no shortage of opposing fans and media waiting for him to turn back into a pumpkin.

Purdy is aware of the critiques, many of which center on his draft status -- he was "Mr. Irrelevant" in 2022 -- his lack of elite arm strength and size, and the number of top-tier players and coaches surrounding him on the San Francisco roster. For many players, it would be low-hanging motivational fruit.

But that's not how Purdy operates. He doesn't care what skeptics say. He hasn't memorized the names of the eight quarterbacks taken ahead of him in his draft class. Being doubted is nothing new for Purdy, from youth football to college to this past offseason, when the Niners were ready for one final run at Tom Brady before guaranteeing Purdy the starting job in 2023.

Purdy's motivation comes from the day-to-day grind of his position and repeatedly proving to himself -- and, by extension, his team -- that he's up for one of the most high-profile jobs in sports: 49ers quarterback. Purdy leads them into the playoffs for a second straight season, where they'll host the Green Bay Packers in an NFC divisional round playoff game Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, Fox).

"That's sort of been the theme of my life in a sense," he said. "I was drafted last ... and here's that mindset again. And I feel like this time, I haven't let it go and I don't want to lose it."

AS THE HEAD coach of the "Special Forces" in the San Tan Youth Football League in Queen Creek, Arizona, Randy Gardner already had a quarterback when an 11-year-old Purdy joined the team.

Purdy's preferred position in his first season of tackle football? Quarterback. But as the new kid, he was made the right tackle and got occasional quarterback reps. That changed in the championship game, with the Special Forces down three touchdowns.

"He basically just stepped in and was like, 'All right, let's go,'" Gardner said. "I don't think it was a surprise to him that he got an opportunity to play."

Purdy led a comeback, as the Special Forces drew within three points before ultimately falling short. It was Purdy's first big moment at quarterback, where he has played since.

Brock Purdy's bravado as a rookie made an immediate impression on his heralded veteran teammates. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

"That championship game it was like, 'Dang it, we should have switched to him earlier,'" Gardner said. "He probably was in his own mind thinking there that his opportunity would come and when the opportunity would come, he'd be ready to go."

Upon arrival at Perry High School in Gilbert, Arizona, Purdy quickly proved his readiness by lighting it up on the freshman team. As a sophomore, he shared time with another quarterback. After taking the starting job as a junior, he led Perry to a pair of state runner-up finishes.

Purdy began his freshman year at Iowa State in 2018 third on the depth chart, but when he stepped in against Oklahoma State in Week 2, he threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 84 yards and another score in a victory, becoming a Cyclones sensation in his first two seasons.

The rest of Purdy's time in Ames didn't go how he had hoped despite continued success for the team. His freewheeling approach that led to an average yards per pass attempt of 10.2 and 8.4 his first two years declined to 7.5 and 7.8 as a junior and senior.

"I became sort of a head case in terms of not playing the convicted way that I had before," Purdy said. "I was more about what other people thought of me. I feel like I sort of just played not myself. I was just playing quarterback in the wrong state of mind."

To snap back to his previous mindset, Purdy received another sobering reminder that his ascent to the top of the NFL would have to mimic all the climbs he'd made before.

As the 2022 draft unfolded, Purdy waited patiently for his name to be called. As the seventh and final round neared its conclusion, he fielded interest from the 49ers, Houston Texans and Minnesota Vikings to sign him as an undrafted free agent. The Niners removed the guesswork and used the final pick in the draft -- No. 262 -- on Purdy.

Finally, Purdy's biggest challenge was before him, and he laid out all the things he wanted to prove to himself.

"[It's] sort of challenging myself every day with little things," Purdy said. "I'm the most professional quarterback in the league. I'm the most consistent. I'm aggressive, I'm a baller, I do the little things right.

"When I got here, I sort of had to learn that kind of mindset and I just sort of wanted to show my teammates and my coaches, I'm the guy. Not in a cocky way but in a way of I'm worthy of being on this team."

AN UNDRAFTED OR late-round quarterback bursting onto the scene to take the league by storm isn't new. In fact, the quarterback who elicits the most comparisons to Purdy knows all about the praise and skepticism that go with being that guy.

Entering the 1999 season, Kurt Warner was the St. Louis Rams' backup, stuck behind Trent Green in an offense loaded with talent and a forward-thinking playcaller in Mike Martz.

When Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, Warner stunned the football world by stepping in and throwing for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns on his way to earning the league and Super Bowl MVPs as the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV.

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"What do you think people were saying the next year?" Warner said. "'Oh gosh, this guy's a Hall of Famer?' No, they were like, 'OK, was that a fluke? Can you do it again?'"

While Warner heard the whispers about whether he could keep it up, those questions were being presented long before social media and its never-ending supply of opinions existed.

Daniel Wann, a sports psychologist at Murray State University, has studied the psychology of sport fandom for 40 years and is unsurprised by the doubts that fans express about players such as Warner and Purdy.

In Purdy's case, Wann says it's easy for his doubters to use the ammunition available to them -- his size (6-foot-1, 220 pounds), low draft position, talented teammates and coaches -- to form an initial, negative opinion.

Which is why, despite what Purdy has accomplished over his 28 NFL starts, it's more important for his skeptics to hold onto their initial opinion than to evolve as more information becomes available. In Wann's world, it's confirmation bias in its purest form.

"If nothing else, social media has given people the opportunity to present their opinion over and over and over again, and they're going to want to show that they were right," Wann said.

Perhaps because they have so much in common -- they both wear No. 13, played college football in Iowa, replaced an injured No. 10 and have ties to the Phoenix area -- it's unsurprising that Purdy and Warner share a similar approach when it comes to finding more intrinsic motivation.

"My whole goal was I'll make 'em believe just by going and being me," Warner said. "My standard was when I played in college, I was the best player. When I played in the league, I was the best player. So, my standard was be the best player on the team, be the best player in the league, and that's all you need to prove."

While Purdy is made aware of things being said or written about him by others, he mostly avoids social media. He maintains an Instagram account but says he uses it exclusively to "bring joy" to people who love the 49ers, God and his family.

"I know who I am," Purdy said. "I know my purpose in life is to love those in my life, the people in my community, and serve people in my life and that overrides any other kind of opinion or anything that someone has online or on TV. I don't live for that and I never have. And so even though I'm a starting quarterback now, why would I change?"

DESPITE PLENTY OF outside speculation, Purdy was almost always going to be the Niners starter this season, as long as he recovered from the repair of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow in time.

Early in the offseason, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan sat down with Purdy and assured him that if he was healthy he would be the starter unless Brady wanted to play one more season for his hometown Niners.

An ecstatic Purdy understood the logic, but the competitor in him also bubbled under the surface.

"That meant so much to me," Purdy said. "I remember him saying, if we can get Tom Brady, we're going to try to get him. 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.' ... More than anything, I was like, 'OK, now let's go.'"

It's that competitive spirit Shanahan and the Niners have quickly grown to love. Yes, they say Purdy is humble and down to earth, but he carries an edge on the field that manifests in many ways.

Inside the walls of the 49ers' locker room, their meeting rooms and even occasionally on the practice field, it's not unusual to find a coach or player flashing the "discount double check" at Purdy.

It's a nod to Purdy's first preseason game, when he threw a game-winning 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tanner Hudson against the Green Bay Packers. After the throw, Purdy turned to San Francisco's sideline and did Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' patented celebration while Rodgers stood on the opposite sideline.

Shanahan still laughs at the memory and gives Purdy a hard time about it, but it's one of the earliest moments in which he recognized he might have something special.

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"I was like, 'Dude, what are you doing?'" Shanahan said. "You're a rookie. You can't be doing that. What are you talking s--- to Aaron? He is like, 'No dude, I have no idea what happened. I was just excited and out there playing.' He has a passion to him and a competitiveness and it's real. And I think he had that right when he got here."

Left tackle Trent Williams realized long ago it was unnecessary for him to run all the way to the end zone after long touchdowns when he could celebrate with his teammates on the sideline while preserving a few clicks on the odometer.

The result of that choice is a front-row seat to some of Purdy's wild celebrations. It's one of Williams' favorite things because it offers insight into the swagger that Purdy doesn't otherwise show publicly.

"I love watching him get in his zone after a big play," Williams said. "You see his confidence just oozing, and then it's cut that off and right back in the huddle."

Purdy's celebrations and production aren't the only reasons teammates and coaches gravitate to him. After he threw four interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens on Christmas night, Purdy spent his ensuing two news conferences shouldering the blame for his mistakes and refusing to make excuses. He did the same during San Francisco's three-game losing streak earlier in the season.

That penchant for accountability and transparency goes a long way with a star-powered locker room but left Shanahan wondering if Purdy sometimes takes it too far.

"Sometimes I think he's too hard on himself in terms of that," Shanahan said. "I think he always looks at what he can do better."

It's why, on the rare occasion things have gone awry for Purdy, nobody in the 49ers building has worried about how he'll bounce back.

PURDY ARRIVES AT the doorstep of his second NFL postseason with even higher expectations than last season, when the Niners advanced to the NFC Championship Game.

They haven't shied away from the importance of jumping through their Super Bowl window now. Purdy takes that responsibility seriously but also brings a larger sample of NFL success.

In 16 starts this season -- he sat out the final game because the Niners had clinched the NFC's top seed -- he finished first in the NFL in yards per attempt (9.6), yards per dropback (8.8), yards per completion (13.9) and expected points added per dropback (0.26). He finished second in completion percentage (69.4%) and third in touchdown passes (31).

Brock Purdy has constantly proved people wrong in his football career, starting when he was 11 years old and continuing by throwing 31 touchdown passes for the 49ers in 2023. Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire

But there is room for growth. Purdy points to continuing his work on passing mechanics to improve his velocity and throwing power. He also wants to continue to tweak his pocket movements and decision-making so he can, as he says, "win games with my mind over just trying to be a superhero."

Shanahan wants to see Purdy continue to improve in close- and late-game situations, something he can get from more experience, especially the kind that only the NFL playoffs can provide.

And if Purdy is able to do those things and lead the 49ers to a sixth Lombardi Trophy, will it be enough to silence the doubters?

"Can you move the needle with championships? Absolutely," Wann said. "Can you move the needle with MVPs? Absolutely. Can you rewrite people's opinions? Probably not."

As Warner can attest, that can be done only with consistency and longevity. After three Hall of Fame-caliber seasons with the Rams, he went six years before returning to Pro Bowl form with the Cardinals in 2008 on his way to earning a gold jacket in 2017.

Because of that, Warner is quick to remind that sweeping declarations on Purdy or any player shouldn't be made a year or two into their career.

"I don't know if he's ultimately going to be a great, elite quarterback," Warner said. "We can't tell that yet. ... The bottom line for quarterbacks is you have to keep proving things until you prove everything."

    

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