With 7:02 left in the first quarter of the NFC Championship, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy sold a hard play-action fake, taking a deep drop back in the pocket as he scanned the field looking for one of his many talented playmakers to get open.
Pitted up against one of the best defenses in football and playing on the road against the number one-seed Philadelphia Eagles, Purdy and the 49ers’ offense found themselves in an early 7-0 hole and desperately needed to shift momentum.
But leading the vaunted Eagles’ defense was edge rusher Haason Reddick, who had 16 sacks during the regular season, and unfortunately for Purdy, wasn’t fooled in the slightest by the play-action fake and quickly made his way to the quarterback. He swiped his arms at Purdy, making a powerful and violent impact with the young signal caller’s throwing arm, and forced a strip-sack that immediately changed the complexion of the entire game.
The ball was loose, replays showed that the Eagles had clear possession. But worst of all, Purdy was clearly shaken up and had to be taken out of the contest. Early indications on the televised broadcast was that Purdy’s throwing arm was hurt.
As crushing as the injury was for the morale of the entire team, a team that had yet to lose a game with Purdy at the helm, no one knew just how severe the injury was at the time.
An injury to his right elbow, Purdy was eventually forced back into the game after another injury to back-up quarterback Josh Johnson left Head Coach Kyle Shanahan without any other options at the most important position in football.
Unfortunately, the severity of the injury, which was later confirmed during the broadcast to be to his throwing elbow, left Purdy barely able to throw the ball to the line of scrimmage.
The 49ers went on to lose that game to the Eagles, 31-7. A heartbreaking ending to an otherwise magical season.
But with the season officially over, all attention turned to Purdy’s elbow injury, and if the injury was serious enough to potentially force the rookie quarterback to miss any of next season’s training camp, preseason, or even regular season games.
The diagnosis wasn’t good. An MRI revealed that Purdy had suffered a torn UCL in his throwing arm, an injury most common for pitchers in baseball.
Per a tweet from Tom Pelissero, a reporter for NFL.com, Purdy would need to have surgery, “Purdy is getting second opinions, but the initial hope is he can undergo a repair — not reconstruction (AKA Tommy John) — and will be ready for training camp.” (@TomPelissero)
The plan was for Purdy to get surgery on the 22nd of February, and if all went well, he likely wouldn’t have to miss too much of the offseason training program.
The most recent update, however, isn’t good news for 49ers fans.
In a piece for The Athletic by 49ers reporters Matt Barrows and David Lombardi, it was revealed that the surgery had to be postponed due to “ongoing inflammation.” Keith Meister, the surgeon in charge of Purdy’s operation, recommended the surgery be postponed and won’t meet with the young quarterback again until sometime in early March (Barrows & Lombardi, 2023).
The timetable of recovery for Purdy post-surgery was expected to be somewhere between 6-9 months, so the postponement of this surgery is worrisome.
Purdy, the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, had a remarkable season. Originally the third-string quarterback on the 49ers roster, injuries to starting quarterback Trey Lance in Week 2 and back-up quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 13 forced the Iowa State product into the starting spot.
How did he respond? 16 passing touchdowns to only 4 interceptions, a 107.3 quarterback rating, and a 7-1 record in games he started (including two playoff wins) en route to a 3rd place finish in the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year voting.
Following his sensational performance during that stretch, many believed that the starting quarterback job was Purdy’s to lose going into next season, a notion many would have laughed at only three months ago.
But with the most recent injury and surgery updates, there is one question on every 49ers fan’s mind: What are Shanahan and General Manager John Lynch going to do at the quarterback position?
The end to this season will likely stick with 49ers fans for a long time.
A team that had won an NFL-leading 12 games in a row heading into the NFC title game, it seemed that this group of guys was in the midst of a truly special run.
Losing to the Eagles in a game where everything seemed to be going against them at the worst possible moments, it is worth noting that hardly anyone expected the third-string quarterback led 49ers to make it this far.
Purdy’s success this season only further complicated what Shanahan and Lynch’s longterm plan at the quarterback position was going forward, if there was a firm one to begin with. But Purdy’s injury might potentially throw out whatever plan the 49ers’ brass was leaning towards before the NFC Championship.
“I know we have two starters on our team right now that I believe we can win with,” stated Shanahan at their end-of-season press conference, “so when you have that situation, you’re not that eager to go looking around.”
Judging off of these comments, Shanahan appears content going into next season with the two quarterbacks currently under contract.
Assuming both were healthy, 2021 third-overall pick Lance and 2022 seventh-round pick Purdy were likely heading into an open competition to see who would take the reins at starting quarterback moving forward.
That may still be the plan, but with Lance further ahead in his injury-rehabilitation process, will the talented dual-threat quarterback go into training camp with a slight lead in the quarterback competition?
Despite Purdy’s success, the 49ers notoriously gave up a massive package of draft capital to acquire Lance after starting only 17 games at North Dakota State, an FCS school. Lance played sparingly during his true rookie season, but went into this past season as the starter before a broken ankle ended his season only two games in.
Purdy vs. Lance
Lance and Purdy are both young quarterbacks who, from all accounts, are fully supported and beloved in the 49ers locker room. That’s where the similarities stop.
Lance, as previously mentioned, hasn’t played a ton of high level football over the past few seasons. He has all the talent in the world, a cannon of an arm paired with elite mobility and elusiveness packaged into his 6’4 225 pound frame. But his moments of success to this point in his young career have gone hand-in-hand with expected inconsistencies, growing pains and, perhaps most concerning, the injury-bug.
In the four games he started over the past two seasons, Lance completed 55.4% of his passes for 635 yards, two touchdown passes and three interceptions. While he was able to demonstrate his dual threat ability in those starts, running the ball 40 times for 187 yards (4.7 yards per carry), he left his first start last season with a sprained MCL, and his most recent start this season with a season-ending broken ankle.
While the raw counting numbers haven’t been impressive, Lance has had his flashes of big-time throws and elusivity in the pocket that made him highly touted coming out of college. Injuries have continued to keep him off the field, but general manager John Lynch, citing his own injury history in the early parts of his eventual Hall of Fame career, made the case that it may be unfair to already label Lance injury-prone.
“Trey had his issues and Trey’s had a rough go here the last couple years. He’s obviously going to have to prove that he can stay healthy, but I know there was periods of my career early on where I struggled to stay healthy, then I went eight years without missing a snap.”
Purdy, on the other hand, threw over 1400 passes as a four-year starter at Iowa State. His 8-game sample size as a starter in the NFL has certainly been more impressive than Lance from a statistical perspective, and he doesn’t have a lengthy injury history. However, he lacks the arm talent and physical traits of Lance, and while his floor appears to be much higher than Lance’s, it is fair to question whether we’ve already seen Purdy’s ceiling as an NFL starter.
When Lance was asked on the Rich Eisen Show about the upcoming quarterback competition between him and Purdy, he dismissed the notion that he would be gifted the job, “Brock [Purdy] played way too well and Brock played at such a high level and handled himself the right way. Whether (the job) is his or mine, I’m going to be better for it and I’m excited to get on the field and compete. That’s all I want an opportunity to do.”
If there is one thing that the 2022 San Francisco 49ers proved, it was a rare ‘next man-up’ mentality that helped the team rally behind not one, not two, but three different starting quarterbacks over the course of a 20 game regular season and playoff run. The most recent update that Purdy’s UCL surgery will be postponed unsurprisingly worries 49ers fans, but the competition and collective chip on the shoulder of Purdy and Lance may give the 49ers the best version yet of both young quarterbacks and as a result, the teams’ best shot at the Super Bowl they’ve had during the Shanahan era.
Update: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy is scheduled to have surgery on his ruptured UCL in his right elbow on Friday, March 10, in the Dallas area, per The Athletic (Barrows & Lombardi, 2023). Recovery time for this procedure is typically between 6-9 months.