Brock Purdy and the Anatomy of the Back-Up Quarterback

San Francisco 49ers starting QB Brock Purdy
Photo Credit: Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group

Poise. Grit. Toughness. All these characteristics fit just about every late-round or undrafted quarterback who is forced into action due to injuries or ineffectiveness by the players in front of them. The media has to find a way to compliment them despite their often-obvious lack of talent — and these clichés have been their go-to for years. The latest in this long line of passers is the San Francisco 49ers’ Brock Purdy.

Purdy was the very last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, otherwise known as “Mr.Irrelevant.” He had a productive career at Iowa State, finishing with 12,170 passing yards and 83 touchdowns to just 33 interceptions. He is the school’s leader in both passing yards and touchdowns, as well. Despite his very solid collegiate career, there was very little NFL buzz as the draft approached, and for good reason.

Purdy is just over 6 feet tall and 220 pounds, with average-at-best physical tools. He completed a high percentage of his college passes (67.7%), but his accuracy was inconsistent due to a lack of arm talent. Overall, there was nothing special about him as a prospect.

What Brock Purdy is doing is not unprecedented

Purdy profiles very similarly to many other quarterbacks who have had brief success, only to fall out of the spotlight and back into back-up roles. Gardner Minshew, AJ McCarron, Case Keenum, and even former 49er Nick Mullens, just to name a few.

What do all those players have in common? They lack the physical traits to be a high-level starter. So many of these QBs are easy to like and root for because they often possess the “intangibles” teams look for. Leadership, football IQ, having that “dawg” in them — whatever you want to call it. The point, though, is there is usually a clear reason to believe that their success will be fleeting.

Looking around the league right now at QB, it’s hard not to notice the sheer number of freaks at the position. Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, etc. I could go on and on about how talented the league’s young signal callers are.

That’s why it is harder than ever for the Brock Purdy’s of the world to stick as starters. They just can’t compete with the uber-talented guys across the NFL. That doesn’t mean they are bad players or don’t deserve a chance. It just means that their teams can’t afford to not try and upgrade if given the chance.

Can Brock Purdy be Gardner Minshew?

For a glimpse of what Purdy could be, just look at Gardner Minshew’s career in Jacksonville. If you just look at the stats, he was very productive for the Jags. In 23 games with 20 starts, he threw for 5530 yards with 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

The problem was that he didn’t have the tools needed to elevate the players around him. He was very accurate, but lacked the arm strength needed to complete difficult throws. He often needed to run around and try to make a play, but didn’t have the talent around him to win that way consistently. His start for the Eagles last week was a great example of how productive he can be with a great supporting cast.

Despite that, nobody smart will be calling for him to replace the more talented Jalen Hurts. I loved watching him play in Duval, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before he would be replaced with a more talented QB. Even Jaguars fans must admit that watching Trevor Lawrence play is an entirely different experience from watching Minshew. It’s never fun to get rid of a guy who has the personality he had, but it seems to be working out in the long run.

Kyle Shanahan can’t settle for Brock Purdy

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has proven that his offense can succeed with just about anybody at quarterback. Even so, there is a reason why the 49ers traded so much to get Trey Lance in the 2021 NFL draft.

He can do things that no other QB Shanahan has had in San Francisco can do. That potential is too enticing to not explore. Based on the way many analysts and fans are talking about Lance, you would have never believed that he was named the starter to begin the year. That is exactly what happened though, and I don’t expect that to change next year — regardless of how Brock Purdy finishes his 2022 season.

Maybe that doesn’t end up being the right decision. Making a big move for a quarterback doesn’t always work out. Just ask Nathaniel Hackett and the Broncos. Still, the 49ers need to be sure that Lance isn’t the guy they thought they were getting with the third-overall pick. Only then should they consider giving Purdy a true audition to be the full-time starter.

Is it fair? No, probably not. If he continues to produce the way he has so far, then he deserves a chance to compete for the job. But it would be irresponsible not to give the more talented player in Lance at least a full season to prove himself.

Don’t set expectations too high for Purdy

In a sport dominated by some of the best athletes in the world, it is simply hard to be great without at least one or two stand-out traits. It doesn’t always have to be speed, arm strength, or even accuracy, but you must bring something special to the table. Unfortunately for all the passers mentioned above, they simply do not.

I hope that Brock Purdy and other guys like him find a way to pan out as starters. It’s a fun story and I love the underdog as much as the next guy. Even Jets quarterback Mike White is getting another chance after Zach Wilson struggled while White was injured. History, however, is not on their side.

My advice would be to enjoy the ride for however long it lasts, but don’t be surprised if things fall off suddenly. For the 49ers, they just have to hope it lasts a few more weeks.

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