NFL

Super Bowl 58 Difference Maker: Brock Purdy Is Not Jimmy Garoppolo 2.0

By Scott Kacsmar

Super Bowl 58 is a matchup featuring one of the greatest statistical quarterbacks through two seasons in NFL history, and Patrick Mahomes is also going to be there. Yes, Brock Purdy has quickly gone from Mr. Irrelevant to the third-youngest starting quarterback in Super Bowl history, and his immediate rise to stardom in San Francisco’s star-studded offense has made him one of the most polarizing figures in the league.

Coming into this season, Purdy was the team’s only real question mark. Was his rookie season legitimate, and would he be fine after the elbow injury? He answered a lot of that right away as the 49ers were the hottest team in the league at 5-0, scoring 30 points every week. They also dropped 42 points with Purdy throwing 4 touchdowns in each game against their main NFC rivals, the Cowboys and Eagles. Purdy ended up finishing the season No. 1 in a long list of passing metrics and was an MVP candidate, likely to finish in the top five in that award in just his second season.

Without having lived through all of NFL history, it is still hard to remember a time when a quarterback could have this much success so quickly and not be better embraced by fans and analysts of the game alike.

But San Francisco under head coach Kyle Shanahan is a unique case in NFL history, and we kind of lived through this already four years ago when Jimmy Garoppolo was preparing to take on Mahomes and the Chiefs in Super Bowl 54.

Including playoffs, Garoppolo was 21-5 (.808) as San Francisco’s starter going into that Super Bowl against Kansas City. Sure enough, Purdy is 21-5 as San Francisco’s starter going into this Super Bowl against the Chiefs.

But before you think this is going to be déjà vu and the Chiefs are going to get the best of Shanahan’s “system” quarterback, think again. While we already looked this week at how the Kansas City defense has improved to elite status this year, the 49ers are also better on offense than they were in 2019. They are in a better position to duel with Mahomes if necessary.

The main reason for that is going to vary depending on who you ask. But a lot of people will sooner credit Deebo Samuel no longer being a rookie like he was in 2019, the addition of Brandon Aiyuk, and the trade for running back Christian McCaffrey before they credit Purdy.

But the quarterback position is where the 49ers have their biggest edge over four years ago. Purdy is not Jimmy Garoppolo 2.0, and he has a chance to silence his critics with an impressive win over the Chiefs in Super Bowl 58.

We look at Purdy’s unique place in history after two seasons, the vaunted Shanahan system that changes his perception, where he differs from Garoppolo in this offense, and how that can benefit the 49ers in beating the Chiefs for the first time under Shanahan, who is 0-3 against Mahomes.

Purdy’s Unique Place in History as a Fast Starter

In going back to our opening sentence, this matchup is a showcase for two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history based on the first two seasons of their careers. Once Patrick Mahomes got the starting job in 2018, he immediately threw 50 touchdown passes and won league MVP, leading the Chiefs to the No. 1 seed and overtime of the AFC Championship Game.

He has since only improved as a player and has had the best 7-season start to a career in NFL history for quarterbacks, if not for any position.

But if you are talking about just the first two seasons, Mahomes and Purdy stand-alone or among elite company in so many statistical areas. The following stats look at where they stand among the more than 130 quarterbacks who attempted at least 500 passes over their first two regular seasons:

  • Purdy has the highest completion percentage (68.7%) to start a career.
  • Top five in passing touchdown rate through two seasons: Patrick Mahomes (8.1%), Kurt Warner (8.0%), Dan Marino (7.9%), Lamar Jackson (7.4%), and Brock Purdy (7.2%) [the only quarterbacks above 7.0%].
  • Mahomes (111.7) and Purdy (111.4) have the highest passer ratings after two seasons, and Purdy (614) had just one fewer pass attempt than Mahomes (615) in this span.
  • Mahomes (8.72) and Purdy (8.61) also have the two highest adjusted net yards per pass attempt (ANY/A) averages in the first two seasons.
  • Top three in yards per pass attempt through two seasons: Brock Purdy (9.2), Ben Roethlisberger (8.9), and Patrick Mahomes (8.7).
  • Highest passing success rates since 1994 through two seasons: Patrick Mahomes (54.0%) and Brock Purdy (53.4%).

When you talk about the best quarterbacks in NFL history since 1950 through two seasons, you really have to put Mahomes and Purdy in the mix with these five quarterbacks:

Dan Marino (1983-84 Dolphins): Pro Bowl rookie with 20 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. Won MVP in 1984 after rewriting record books with 5,084 passing yards and 48 touchdown passes, records that stood for the next 20-25 years. Led Miami to Super Bowl where they lost to the 49ers.

Kurt Warner (1998-99 Rams): From humble beginnings in the Arena Football League after a failed tryout with the 1994 Packers, Warner took over at 28 years old in 1999 after starter Trent Green tore his ACL in the preseason. His storybook season saw him throw 41 touchdowns and win MVP along with Super Bowl MVP honors.

Ben Roethlisberger (2004-05 Steelers): He won his first 14 starts as a rookie and had a 98.1 passer rating with 8.9 yards per attempt. He led the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game where they lost to the Patriots. In his second season, he led the NFL in touchdown pass rate (6.3%), yards per attempt (8.9), and yards per completion (14.2). He became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl after leading the Steelers as the first No. 6 seed to win the Super Bowl.

Russell Wilson (2012-13 Seahawks): Just a third-round pick and standing at 5’11”, Wilson won the starting job in the preseason and had one of the best rookie quarterback seasons ever with 26 touchdown passes (tied with Peyton Manning for the then-rookie record) and a 100.0 passer rating. In his second season, Wilson again had strong numbers and rode a great Seattle defense all the way to a Super Bowl win.

Lamar Jackson (2018-19 Ravens): After taking over for Joe Flacco during his rookie season, Jackson quickly established himself as a unique dual-threat weapon. In 2019, he won a unanimous MVP after he threw for a league-high 36 touchdowns while also rushing for 1,206 yards and 7 touchdowns in 15 games. But Jackson did not win a playoff game in either season, the only quarterback on the list with that negative.

Purdy wears No. 13 as a tribute to his childhood idol Dan Marino, though his career may have more in common so far with Roethlisberger and Wilson as they both played early on very good teams with a strong defense, running back, and weapons to throw to.

But while those quarterbacks would need several years before they started posting big numbers on top of their efficiency, Purdy already passed for 4,280 yards and 31 touchdowns in 16 games this season. Purdy also led the NFL in 2023 in the following statistics:

  • Touchdown passing percentage (7.0%)
  • Yards per attempt (9.6)
  • Adjusted yards per attempt (9.9)
  • Adjusted net yards per attempt (9.01)
  • Yards per completion (13.9)
  • Passing success rate (54.7%)
  • Passer rating (113.0)
  • QBR (72.7)

It is almost impossible to have a season like that and not be at least a very good, if not great quarterback. But the 49ers are not your typical offense.

How the Shanahan System Changes the Perception of Brock Purdy

It feels odd to be writing about another Chiefs-49ers Super Bowl where Mahomes isn’t the only historic quarterback playing from a statistical standpoint. I wrote the exact same thing four years ago in talking about Garoppolo, who at the time was in the top three in history along with Mahomes for stats like win percentage and yards per attempt.

But the main reason quarterbacks can’t seem to get any credit in San Francisco is because of Kyle Shanahan’s offense and its deep history of inflating statistics.

The vaunted “Shanahan system” is something that goes back to the 1980s when Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father, was the offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos with John Elway at quarterback. Elway won MVP in 1987, which led to a head coaching job for Shanahan with the Raiders, which didn’t last long.

But when Shanahan returned as the head coach of the Broncos in 1995, he brought along Alex Gibbs, his offensive line coach who was the father of the zone blocking scheme, which allowed just about any running back to plug in and perform well behind a cut-blocking scheme. Shanahan’s offense also loved a quarterback with mobility and a strong arm like Elway’s, and he was someone who could do bootlegs and play-action, throwing deep to receivers who were open with the defense having to respect the run.

This style, combined with some great talent at the skill positions, helped the Broncos to win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997-98. After Elway retired, the Broncos struggled to find another quarterback, but Shanahan’s system did help Jake Plummer in 2003-05 look much better than the quarterback he was in Arizona. Jay Cutler had a couple of solid years in Denver too, but Shanahan was eventually fired.

By the time he resurfaced in Washington, his son Kyle was on his staff in 2010 after spending some time in Houston with Gary Kubiak, another Shanahan disciple. They made Matt Schaub look better than he was in that offensive scheme down in Houston. Then in 2012, Washington drafted Robert Griffin III, and he won Offensive Rookie of the Year running a variation of the Shanahan offense with Kyle as coordinator and Mike as head coach. But an ACL injury in the playoffs put Griffin’s career on the wrong path.

Kyle eventually moved on to be the offensive coordinator with the Falcons, and in his second year there in 2016, Matt Ryan had the best season of his career with an MVP award and a Super Bowl appearance. Ryan never had the legs of an Elway, but he could do play-action passing with the best of them, and he enjoyed the improved running scheme and still had Julio Jones in his prime. We’ll just skip over how badly Shanahan and the Falcons blew that 28-3 lead in the big game, but that offense was great in 2016.

That’s how Shanahan ended up getting his first head coaching job with the 49ers in 2017. The team traded for Jimmy Garoppolo from New England, but the early years of Shanahan’s tenure were plagued by injuries, including Garoppolo’s torn ACL just three games into 2018, and having to start quarterbacks like Brian Hoyer, C.J. Beathard, and Nick Mullens. It was actually Mullens who averaged just south of 250 passing yards per game in Shanahan’s offense, but as we saw when he played with the Vikings in 2023, Mullens can’t stop himself from throwing interceptions.

That’s a big reason why Shanahan was once 8-28 in games not started by Garoppolo.

But when Garoppolo stayed healthy in 2019, the team was 13-3, the NFC’s top seed, and they had a great offense and defense. George Kittle broke out at tight end, Deebo Samuel was a productive rookie, Raheem Mostert rushed for over 200 yards and 4 touchdowns in the title game that year, and Garoppolo had solid numbers with 8.4 yards per attempt and a 102.0 passer rating.

But there was still skepticism about Garoppolo, who was only asked to throw 58 passes in the postseason that year despite the team reaching the Super Bowl. He didn’t finish the job, and the 49ers fell 31-20 to the Chiefs in Super Bowl 54 after going scoreless in the fourth quarter. It was another blown double-digit lead in a playoff game for Shanahan, which has happened to him in 2012 with Washington, 2016 with Atlanta, and with San Francisco in 2019 (Super Bowl 54) and 2021 in the NFC Championship Game against the Rams.

Garoppolo’s durability was always a concern as were his limitations as a player. But before we christen Shanahan as the quarterback whisperer, you really have to question why someone who grew up spending decades around offenses that could seemingly mold any quarterback into producing Pro Bowl stats would trade a king’s ransom to move up in the draft and take a raw prospect like Trey Lance with the No. 3 pick the 2021 draft. Not only did Lance throw just 318 passes in college, but he played at an inferior level of competition with North Dakota State.

If you want to blame the Lance pick on general manager John Lynch, you could ask him the same thing as he won a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay with the merely serviceable Brad Johnson at quarterback, who took advantage of a great defense. Lynch also was a safety in Denver under Mike Shanahan and saw the Jake Plummer glow-up firsthand.

The Lance pick has obviously not tanked the 49ers, but it does make you think about how much of success in the NFL is pure dumb luck. If the 49ers knew how great Brock Purdy was going to be, why did they wait to take him with the final pick of the 2022 draft? But Purdy’s insertion into the lineup was a fluke as he entered 2022 as a third-string quarterback behind Lance and Garoppolo.

But once they were both injured, Purdy was the only one left to steer a roster ready for a Super Bowl. You could argue no rookie quarterback has ever stepped into a better situation in NFL history than Purdy did, but he played far better than anyone could have imagined. When he threw for over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns in a wild card win over Seattle, it was the first time a rookie quarterback played like that in a playoff win since Sammy Baugh in 1937. His best play of that game wasn’t even caught as Brandon Aiyuk cost him a fourth touchdown throw with a drop on a brilliant ad-lib play.

Purdy backed up his rookie success with a full season of highly efficient play that few quarterbacks have ever shown they can sustain over 16 games like he did. That should have dramatically changed the conversation on him this year, yet it feels like many in the media still doubt him for some reason.

  • Yes, Purdy has great weapons that are uniquely talented with the way they can create YAC, and he has a strong running game with Christian McCaffrey.
  • Yes, Purdy has an incredible left tackle in Trent Williams, though the rest of the line is lacking a bit, especially in the pass-blocking department.
  • Yes, Purdy has great offensive coaching and the support of a strong defense too (a bit stronger in 2022 than in 2023, though).

Purdy is enjoying these advantages to begin his career while other quarterbacks either never have them, or they have to wait years for the team to build out that well like Troy Aikman in Dallas.

But why are we dogging a guy for taking advantage of his surroundings and playing well most weeks? Is it the Mr. Irrelevant aspect of Purdy’s story? That would be ironic since many of his detractors are the type of people who would support Tom Brady and Joe Montana as the best quarterbacks in history, players who were athletically bland and drafted in the sixth and third rounds respectively. Draft status should be a dead argument by 2024 for things like this.

Are we supposed to pretend that Joe Montana, the San Francisco legend himself, didn’t have a highly innovative offensive coach in Bill Walsh, an annually great defense, and he played with the likes of Jerry Rice (GOAT), John Taylor, Roger Craig, and Brent Jones in a conference devoid of other Hall of Fame quarterbacks for a decade?

Did we forget that Kurt Warner’s breakout year also came in an elite offense with generational dual-threat Marshall Faulk, future Hall of Fame wideouts in Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, and a Hall of Fame left tackle in Orlando Pace? The defense was also great both years Warner made the Super Bowl with the Rams in 1999 and 2001.

Did Tom Brady not have Bill Belichick’s coaching and defense leading the way for him in New England in 2001-06 before they were on the cutting edge of offensive innovations with the shotgun spread (2007) and two tight end sets (2010) in later years once they brought in talent like Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski?

Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson played right away with No. 1 scoring defenses, great head coaches in Bill Cowher and Pete Carroll, and they had bruising backs like Jerome Bettis and Marshawn Lynch behind them. They had clutch receivers like Hines Ward and Doug Baldwin.

Even Mahomes got to start his career in an Andy Reid-coached offense with Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Sammy Watkins would have been the best wide receiver on his team these last two years. Watkins was the third target in 2018 for the Chiefs.

Name a great quarterback, and he likely had help on his side. They are not doing it alone out there.

All I know is McCaffrey was doing great things for Carolina teams that kept finishing 5-11. Kittle’s touchdown numbers have exploded since Purdy took over. In his fourth season, Aiyuk has turned into a dominant wideout, and 8-of-11 games with 100 receiving yards in his career are with Purdy at quarterback.

At some point, you have to acknowledge the quarterback, the most important position in the game, is also one of the team’s great players if the results are consistently this good.

Purdy vs. Jimmy G: The Similarities & Differences

There are going to be some obvious similarities in how the San Francisco offense works with Purdy as it did with Garoppolo. Yards after the catch (YAC) is a big part of this offense, which is expected when you have this scheme combined with the way Deebo Samuel and George Kittle can move with the ball in their hands. Ditto for McCaffrey as a receiver.

Sure enough, Purdy led all quarterbacks with 6.7 YAC per completion in 2023 according to Pro Football Reference. Garoppolo led in the same stat in 2022 (7.0), 2021 (6.5), and 2019 (6.6). Nick Mullens also led the league in YAC per completion for the 49ers in 2018 (6.9). That’s just what this offense does.

But do you know who has finished No. 2 or No. 3 in that stat in 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022, and 2023? Patrick Mahomes. Just some food for thought for how much of a detraction this is or isn’t.

Both quarterbacks have their share of colorblind moments where they seem to miss a defender in the path of their throw. Garoppolo threw an interception on 2.6% of his passes with the 49ers and Purdy is right there with him at 2.4%, and Purdy may have more dropped interceptions though that is a very subjective stat.

But there are three key areas where Purdy is better than Garoppolo:

  • Purdy throws more deep balls and is better at it.
  • Purdy is a better scrambler than Garoppolo ever was and has a lower sack rate.
  • Purdy is less of a play-action merchant.

This season, Purdy was 26-of-47 (55.3%) on passes thrown at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, including a solid 8-of-18 (44.4%) on passes thrown over 30 yards.

Garoppolo was at his best as a deep passer in 2019, and he still only had 19 completions that were thrown 20-plus yards (3 thrown 30-plus yards). Things only declined there in 2020-22 for him. In the 2021 season when the 49ers still reached the title game, Garoppolo was just 11-of-37 (29.7%) on 20-yard throws with 5 interceptions.

Purdy only scrambled 16 times in the regular season, but he was effective with 7.8 yards per scramble. You could see it in Week 1 in Pittsburgh when he picked up a 3rd-and-12 with his legs on a nice run. Purdy has scrambled 5 times for 62 yards this postseason, and some of his scrambles were key to the team’s comeback win against Detroit in the NFC Championship Game.

Garoppolo was never much of a runner, and Purdy seems more comfortable in the pocket and better at dealing with pressure as both a passer and scrambler. He’ll need every bit of that against the Chiefs, who rank No. 2 in sacks and pressure rate and will likely come with the blitz in the Super Bowl.

We know play-action passing is like a cheat code if done right, and the 49ers use it more than your typical offense. But Purdy has shown he is less reliant on it than Garoppolo was, and he is better in a standard dropback game than Garoppolo.

  • In 2019, Garoppolo used play-action on 26.3% of his passes and increased his yards per attempt by 4.3 yards.
  • In 2021, Garoppolo used play-action on 22.7% of his passes and increased his yards per attempt by 2.0 yards.
  • In 2022, Purdy used play-action on 21.8% of his passes and his yards per attempt was 0.4 yards higher without using play-action.
  • In 2023, Purdy used play-action on 20.9% of his passes and increased his yards per attempt by 1.0 yards.

Not only are the Chiefs going to face a better offense than they saw in Super Bowl 54, but the 49ers are better now than they were last season when Garoppolo was still the starter. Purdy came off the bench late in that 44-23 loss to the Chiefs and threw his first NFL interception.

He might throw one in this game too, but he is better equipped to put up more points than Garoppolo did.

Purdy’s Shot and the Unpredictability of the Super Bowl

You never know how a quarterback is going to react in his first Super Bowl. He could throw 4 touchdowns in one quarter as Doug Williams did for the 1987 Redskins, or he could look like a deer in the headlights on the big stage like Rich Gannon for the 2002 Raiders.

People probably forget that Garoppolo was not the big problem in Super Bowl 54 until it was late in the game, and he needed to be great. But he wasn’t. His most memorable play is the 3rd-and-10 incompletion he overthrew on a deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders. One play later, Garoppolo was sacked on fourth down by Frank Clark, and the Chiefs held on.

Going into that game, Garoppolo was a very good 7-4 (.636) at game-winning drive opportunities in his career. But he failed on that one, the biggest drive of his career.

Purdy is 4-3 (.571) at game-winning drives as the 49ers are rarely in that position these days. He would be 5-2 if rookie kicker Jake Moody connected on a 41-yard field goal in Cleveland this year.

But maybe the craziest stat is that Purdy has a game-winning drive in 3 straight playoff games that he finished, and that gives him more game-winning drives in the postseason than Peyton Manning (2), Brett Favre (2), Aaron Rodgers (2), Roger Staubach (2), and Johnny Unitas (2), among others, had in their whole Hall of Fame careers.

To be fair, Purdy’s game-winning drives against Dallas (2022 NFC Divisional) and Detroit (2023 NFC Championship Game) both came very early in the quarter to break a tie. The only time he’s really gone down the field late in a big game, trailing, was against Green Bay two weeks ago. The defenses of the Lions and Packers this year are well below that of the Chiefs.

But that experience should help Purdy a lot in this game as he has shown the ability to shake off a bad start and put things together late. He even did that in Cleveland earlier this year against a good defense in a game where McCaffrey, Samuel, and Williams were injured. He still marched the team down the field late, but the rookie kicker missed.

Remember, Purdy’s only postseason loss was the 2022 NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia where his elbow was injured on the opening drive, and he couldn’t throw the ball. He hasn’t legitimately lost a playoff game yet (4-1).

Purdy seems to have earned Shanahan’s trust in big games, which is very important. It always seemed like Shanahan tried to hide Garoppolo in the postseason, which eventually backfired.

There is no hiding Mr. Irrelevant on the biggest stage in football. Purdy will be in the spotlight, taking on a team with Mahomes that is looking to secure a dynasty label with a third championship.

But if Purdy can pull this one off and win Shanahan his first Super Bowl ring after they tried to give up the farm for Trey Lance? It would just be further proof that no one really knows how to evaluate the most important position in the sport, including one of the NFL’s most storied franchises.

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