SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Kyle Shanahan speaks the clearest and deepest with his play calls and game plans. The offensive heart, soul and conscience of the 49ers are all exposed there every weekend through his headset and onto the field. You can’t hide from that, and Shanahan doesn’t want to hide from that.
And what happened on Saturday in the 49ers’ playoff opener against a Seattle defense clearly set 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 it heads into next weekend’s division round and beyond.
Shanahan called up rookie Brock Purdy to throw a pass on the first play (wild incompletion with a wet ball), the second play (19-yard completion), and the fourth play (incompletion), called Purdy for a long side throw on the fifth play (7-yard gain) and throw a pass on the sixth play (incompletion) en route the 49ers to a field goal for the first points of the game. Then, Shanahan continued to call pass plays – 19 in the first half alone, compared to just nine runs.
It wasn’t immediately dominant, but the tone of this 41-23 wild card round win at Levi’s Stadium was set. The evidence was inescapable. This is the way for the 49ers right now, in this postseason and maybe much longer. They will face the Vikings (if they win on Sunday) or the winner of Monday night’s Tampa Bay-Dallas game (if the Vikings lose). And whoever it is, the team playing against the 49ers knows they have to figure out how to beat Brock Purdy.
It’s not like Shanahan will ever give up the run, and in fact, it tied pretty quickly in the second half (the 49ers finished with 33 runs and 30 passes). But now the 49ers can launch a full airstrike if they want to. And they would like that.
In Purdy’s first playoff game and only his sixth NFL start (and this became 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 have had it for quite some time. persisted. Because it worked, especially against a Seahawks defense piling up the line of scrimmage.
“I think they tried to take the point away, but we came out well,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “And definitely some meat on the bone, but still playing explosively all day long. I understand what their plan is, we have a rookie quarterback and we have a great game. I’m sure they want him to throw the ball. I’m sure that’s everyone’s plan.
“But I think he’s proven that’s fine. We can make some great moves in the passing game.
— NFL (@NFL) January 15, 2023
This is the way for the 49ers now because Shanahan has so much faith in Purdy, who missed a few pitches early (when it rained lightly) but kept playing the entire game, including seven pass plays over 15 yards. On the day, Purdy went 18-for-30 for 332 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions for a passer rating of 131.5; 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 10 or 15 feet and just deal with this thing,'” said Juszczyk. “I think he has that confidence in Brock that he can make plays himself.”
Of course, Shanahan let Jimmy Garoppolo throw the ball just eight times in the 49ers’ NFC Championship Game victory over the Packers in January 2020. Before that, Garoppolo threw the ball just 19 times in the divisional round victory over the Vikings.
This is not a knock on Garoppolo; the 49ers won those games, that’s what mattered. But the thing is, this is something very new here. Purdy has proven he can handle more responsibility than Shanahan has entrusted to a 49ers QB in six seasons, and it’s only growing.
“I felt that way from the beginning, once he got into that game against Miami, when we didn’t have the luxury of sitting there and worrying about things the way the game was going,” said Shanahan. “We just had to call play to try and win the game, and he did such a great job. And he’s done it every time since then. Have a lot of faith in him and gives us more and more confidence every week.”
And Purdy does a little more each week. He has shown impressive elusiveness in the six games he has played since coming on after Garoppolo’s injury in that game in Miami. But on Saturday, the performance expanded exponentially – Purdy zigzagged and sawed away from the pressure a few times, leading to huge plays, a few TDs, and most importantly, zero terrible losses or turnovers.
“A few of those touchdowns, I think it’s something I’ve done all my life to find a way when there isn’t one,” Purdy said.
Purdy’s best improv actually came on an unfinished run in the fourth quarter, when he nearly ran to the left sideline and then raced the full width of the field, pumping a Seahawks defensive lineman and then throwing a laser at Brandon Aiyuk in the end zone. . Aiyuk couldn’t contain the ball, but it was quite an exclamation point.
Yes, his teammates noticed.
“It’s great to see the kind of things he does there, his little slipperiness coming out of things,” said wide receiver Deebo Samuel. “It makes us a little tired; we also have to run around, try to open up. But it works.”
Last week, in a game against the Cardinals, Shanahan saw Purdy run around and get into a 17-yard pocket that put the 49ers out of range of field goal and said he almost immediately yelled at him about it.
Kyle, you just saw that it actually works in this game, are Purdy’s extended scrambles okay now?
“No,” Shanahan said with a deadpan shake of her head.
“He was great on some,” Shanahan said. “That last one was very close, it was incredible that throw to BA in the corner. I know he just missed that. But he has a feeling for it. He definitely makes me nervous on some of it. But he did everything he could to get away. He knows his body… never tries to give up on a play. And he’s been very smart with the ball so far.”
It was all enough to catch the eye of one rather notable NFL fan.
PURDY GETS GAME!!!!!!!!!!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 14, 2023
“Did LeBron say that?” Purdy said upon learning of the tweet, looking genuinely excited. “Aw, that’s great.”
Striker Trent Williams said: “I think it’s great 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 is, but he does everything we need from him and more. I think we can of course keep winning with him.”
It didn’t all go perfectly. But the 49ers veterans loved everything they saw from Purdy, when things were damp and slightly underwhelming to begin with, and as they scored 25 consecutive points to start the second half.
Most of the time, Purdy mostly blamed himself for trailing the 49ers 17-16 going into halftime despite outscoring the Seahawks 249-176 up to that point. That happened because the 49ers had to settle for two short field goals on drives to the red zone, and a pair of defensive slumps suddenly gave Seattle a lot of life.
“Going into halftime, Kyle was straight, he said, ‘Hey man, the actions are there, the opportunities are there; we just have to keep it simple and bring it to the guys,” said Purdy.
The answer: The 49ers went on a 13-play TD drive immediately after the second half kickoff, closed by Purdy himself on a 1-yard sneak. Then Charles Omenihu stripped Seattle QB Geno Smith’s ball on the next possession and Nick Bosa recovered. And the flight had started suddenly.
In the middle of that attack, Purdy maneuvered around and found Elijah Mitchell wide open in the right flat for a 7-yard touchdown. Purdy’s first reading was Aiyuk on his left, but Aiyuk was covered. Then Purdy got some pressure, rolled to the left, felt more pressure, so he stepped back to center and flipped it over to Mitchell in the right flat. Easy TD.
Then came this:
341 total yards. 4 total TDs.
— NFL (@NFL) January 15, 2023
At that point, it almost looked like Purdy started throwing it at Mitchell before turning all the way to him. Which Purdy actually confirmed. Instinct, both ways. That’s why he said he celebrated so lavishly.
“Just a broken game,” Purdy said. “I tried to go left to BA and go through my progressions from there. It just broke. Elijah did his job by staying under protection, and if he had time, he could get out. He was my last book. Front just broke. When I scribbled, 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 myself. Just a big part of the game, to create momentum, just a big game for everyone and a big moment for everyone.
The moments keep getting bigger for the 49ers. Their rookie QB certainly isn’t budging. At least he’s getting better. It’s right there on the field. It’s happening.
Thompson: The Seahawks struck first, but Deebo Samuel struck hardest
(Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)