How Purdy, Lance and Darnold control 49ers' Super Bowl fate

ByNick Wagoner and Jeremy Fowler ESPN logo
Monday, July 31, 2023

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It's late in Thursday's practice, Brock Purdy's first full session in 181 days. What took place the preceding six months is far from his mind.

Purdy is busy spitting out another lengthy Kyle Shanahan playcall, strolling to the line of scrimmage and hoping to find rhythm in what had been a rust-filled first practice back from his March 10 right elbow surgery.

After Purdy takes the snap, he drops back and scans the field. Streaking receiver Deebo Samuel catches his eye down the right sideline, and Purdy doesn't hesitate. He uncorks a high, arching spiral.

There's only one problem: Samuel is about 45 yards down the field, and Purdy's pass travels about 50.

The ball falls harmlessly to the ground as Purdy claps his hands at the missed opportunity. But nobody else seems too concerned, instead focusing on Purdy's ability to make such throws less than five months since surgery.

After all, this is training camp practice No. 2 and missing an open deep ball on July 27 isn't the same as, say, overshooting Emmanuel Sanders for a winning touchdown, as Jimmy Garoppolo did in Super Bowl LIV.

"Obviously, being out there for my first day, I wanted to let it rip and all that," Purdy said. "But it felt good coming out of my hand. I've just got to get on the same page with them and get more reps."

There will be plenty more reps and time for Purdy and fellow quarterbacks Trey Lance and Sam Darnold to get on the same page with Samuel and the rest of their receivers. To be sure, there is a quarterback competition happening in Santa Clara. It's just not the traditional kind in which snaps are divided up and a winner is declared at the end.

Instead, 49ers general manager John Lynch and head coach Shanahan are following through on their offseason quarterback proclamations, when they repeatedly called Purdy the "leader in the clubhouse" to start. Indeed, Purdy will get the starting reps in training camp as he recovers from offseason elbow surgery. For the first couple of weeks of camp, Purdy will practice two out of every three days, leaving Lance and Darnold the remaining snaps when Purdy sits.

In many ways, Purdy, Lance and Darnold are competing against a common opponent: time.

Purdy was a revelation last season but must prove he's fully recovered from a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow to nail down the job. That leaves the door cracked a little for Lance or Darnold. Lance is a former No. 3 overall pick who has been inconsistent in small samples and is running out of time to prove himself in San Francisco. And Darnold is a former top-five pick looking to revive his career but doesn't have many chances left to prove he's an NFL starter.

That quarterback quandary rests against the backdrop of a Niners team that has made it to the NFC Championship Game in three of the past four seasons, has been waiting almost 30 years for a sixth world championship and again has Super Bowl title expectations.

But to finally make those Lombardi dreams a reality, can one of the Niners' quarterbacks -- questions and all -- finally offer the stability and production the team has desperately sought since the days of Joe Montana and Steve Young at the game's most important position?

LATE IN THE forgettable 6-10 2020 season, Shanahan and the Niners got their first up-close look at Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen. Allen had struggled some through his first two seasons, but his rare combination of size, arm talent and off-schedule ability had finally come together, eventually resulting in a second-place finish in league MVP voting.

On "Monday Night Football," Allen torched the Niners for 375 yards and four touchdown passes.

A few months later, the Niners, who had grown weary of investing in Garoppolo -- absent for 33 games because of injury since signing a then-record $137.5 million contract in 2017 --traded three first-round picks and a third-round selection to the Miami Dolphins to move up 12 spots to the No. 3 pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

As Shanahan discussed a dream scenario of finding a quarterback who could operate from the pocket like Drew Brees and run like Lamar Jackson, Allen's performance resonated.

"I don't look at it as trends of the league," Shanahan said then. "I look at it as there's some special players or special people."

Despite early interest in Alabama's Mac Jones, Lance won out at No. 3 because the Niners believed he had the traits to develop into one of those special players.

On the field, they saw above-average arm strength and elite physical attributes. Off it, they saw a magnetic personality and work ethic. In Shanahan ethos, players who can beat a defense in multiple ways -- think Samuel running a slant on one down and rushing behind a pulling guard for 25 yards the next -- enhance their value. Lance fit that mold.

"Kyle is always looking for ways to expand the offense and come up with all of these great schemes that he does, and Trey was more mobile than Jimmy allowed," a team personnel source said. "That opened up possibilities."

Lance arrived from FCS North Dakota State with the fewest college pass attempts (318) of any first-round quarterback selected in the past 41 years, so the Niners expected a learning curve.

With that in mind, they planned to keep Garoppolo as the starter, buying the 21-year-old Lance time to develop. If he did so ahead of schedule, that would be a good problem. In the opening two weeks of Lance's rookie training camp, he offered glimpses that such a scenario could unfold.

During joint practices with the Los Angeles Chargers in Southern California, Lance got his first work with the starting offense and followed with a promising performance in the ensuing preseason game. Shanahan began preparing packages specifically for Lance so he could get valuable game reps.

The following week, Lance's career hit a speed bump. In the preseason finale against the Las Vegas Raiders, he chipped a bone in his right index finger.

Lance hoped the injury would heal without surgery, but it got worse as the season wore on. Without the ability to bend the finger, Lance couldn't throw normally, forcing him to significantly alter his mechanics to finish throws with the middle finger.

"Your whole body is connected from the ground up similar to a golf swing, so anything that gets thrown off, it can definitely adjust things," Shanahan said. "And when you overcompensate it, whatever it is, watch any quarterback throughout the year, that's when things start to hurt and then have to go back and recalibrate it."

The injury affected other parts of Lance's mechanics, such as his feet, and contributed to arm fatigue. He started two games as a rookie and spent much of the following offseason trying to unlearn the tweaked mechanics.

Lance spent much of the 2022 offseason working with private quarterbacks coaches Adam Dedeaux and John Beck at 3DQB in Southern California. Shanahan has close ties to Beck after coaching him in Washington, and the Niners had been impressed with what 3DQB had done to help Matthew Stafford, Jalen Hurts and specificallyDak Prescott, among others.

Despite the offseason work, Lance struggled to regain the form he'd shown early in his first camp. Prepared to deal with some growing pains, the Niners gave Lance the starting job to begin 2022.

A broken right ankle suffered in Week 2 scuttled those plans, leaving Lance in need of game reps and the Niners with little idea of what he can be two years after drafting him.

As one source who has worked with Lance on the field during this time pointed out, Lance's injuries created multiple issues. He was simultaneously attempting to build strength in his arm, working to get fully healthy and addressing his changed mechanics.

Solving all three issues at once proved an arduous task, leading to a lack of consistent accuracy and, more importantly, preventing Lance from playing.

A healthy and reinvigorated Lance spent some of this offseason working with quarterbacks coach Jeff Christensen. Christensen also tutors Patrick Mahomes, which was part of the draw for Lance, according to a source close to him. Lance could work alongside Mahomes and get tips, correction or reinforcement in real time.

Mahomes' ability to make plays inside and outside the pocket was considered an aid to Lance. Also, the source highlighted Lance's need for a change and a new set of eyes after a challenging two years.

"I learned a ton," Lance said. "Being able to be around Patrick was awesome. Just pick his brain, learning about just the type of guy he is, how he spends his free time, offseason and then more about his in-season schedule as well."

In the spring, Lance shared first-team reps with Darnold and flashed a reconfigured throwing motion with a quicker, smoother release that has left Lance and the Niners feeling better about his chances of making a leap in Year 3.

That's important given the Niners must decide on Lance's fifth-year option next offseason.

"I really feel like I'm having fun playing football again," Lance said. "It was hard those first years. ... I finally feel like I'm able to just have fun and enjoy it again."

Those feelings don't offset this harsh reality: Lance, the quarterback San Francisco moved up nine draft spots to acquire, giving up multiple high draft picks, has played 262 offensive snaps through two NFL seasons, casting a pall over his raw but promising upside. While Lance was working his way back, the 49ers found inspiration from an unlikely source -- the 262nd pick in the 2022 NFL draft.

Mr. Irrelevant finished with a late-season flourish the 49ers' brain trust couldn't ignore.

ENTERING THE 2022 draft, the Niners were ready to install Lance as the starter. They had also brought back veteran Nate Sudfeld and were still planning to trade Garoppolo. With Garoppolo's expected departure, they sought to add a quarterback with one of their later picks, hoping he could develop into a reliable backup on a cheap contract.

Purdy quickly emerged as a top candidate. Despite a San Francisco scout attending Iowa State's 2020 season opener against Louisiana in which Purdy struggled in a loss, the Niners saw enough to use the final pick of the draft on him. Purdy's objective entering training camp was to convince the 49ers to keep a third quarterback or, potentially, push Sudfeld for the No. 2 job.

That changed just before the regular season when the Niners, unable to find a trade partner for Garoppolo, brought him back at a reduced salary to serve as a safety net for Lance. But Garoppolo never participated in training camp practices, leaving the door open for Purdy to make an impression.

Will Hewlett, Purdy's independent quarterbacks coach based in Jacksonville, Florida, recalled hearing buzz about Purdy's camp performance, which didn't surprise him.

Purdy turned out to be an easy fit in Shanahan's scheme, voraciously consuming the playbook and flashing an understanding of nuances, like how to force a safety to open his hips at the right time. Above all else, Purdy quickly won over teammates and coaches with his unbridled confidence. It showed up often in practices, in which linebacker Fred Warner took notice of the rookie's fearless approach facing a defense that would end up ranked first in the league.

"The difference with Brock is he has an inner belief in himself," Hewlett said. "He has the [physical] mold of a backup, but he's a dog. He knew as soon as he got a chance, he would take it. ... Even with just talking through how teams were viewing him [before the draft], part of him was like, 'I'd love to be an NFL quarterback, but I don't plan on being on the bench.'"

Purdy quickly usurped Sudfeld, whom the Niners released in the final round of cuts in August. What followed was even more stunning.

"I don't think you can say anybody saw him playing as well as he did as early as he did," a 49ers source said.

When Garoppolo, who had replaced Lance when he broke his ankle in Week 2, suffered a season-ending broken left foot against theMiami Dolphinson Dec. 4, Purdy stepped in and guided San Francisco to a victory.

At the controls of an offense loaded with talent, such as receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Samuel, tight end George Kittle and running back Christian McCaffrey, Purdy led the Niners to a 7-1 record through the end of the regular season and the postseason, with the loss coming in the NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles in which he injured his right (throwing) elbow in the first quarter.

As the starter, Purdy threw for 1,667 yards with 14 touchdown passes and two interceptions, finishing third in the NFL in QBR (68.8), fifth in completion percentage (68.5%) and first in yards per attempt (8.9). And while Purdy didn't have eye-popping rushing numbers (13 yards on 22 carries with a touchdown), his ability to extend plays caught the 49ers by surprise.

More than anything, though, Purdy checked the biggest box for Shanahan.

"He does what you coach him to do and puts the ball where it needs to be," a Niners personnel source said.

And as a separate personnel source pointed out, Purdy's surprise play probably affected Lance's standing more than anything Lance did right or wrong: "It's hard to put that back in the bottle," the source said.

Had Purdy finished the season healthy, Shanahan has indicated there wouldn't be much discussion about the team's starting quarterback. But Purdy tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow when Eagles edge rusher Haason Reddick hit him as he attempted a throw in the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game.

After a slight delay for swelling to go down, Purdy had surgery on the elbow March 10 and began a prescribed throwing program in late May.

Upon completion of the offseason program, Purdy returned to Jacksonville this summer to work with Hewlett and orthopedic specialist Tom Gormley as he progressed through the throwing program.

While Purdy is working on a "pitch count" early in camp, Shanahan has indicated the hope is he'll be cleared without restriction in mid-August. That would mean Purdy is all the way back a little more than five months after his surgery. That's on the shorter end of the timeline, but it would not be unusual for a quarterback who underwent a UCL repair to return in that time.

Of course, handing the keys of a championship-caliber roster to someone who's started eight career games comes with risk, but the Niners' top decision-makers say Purdy can build off his rookie season. And if Purdy can't return to form, the 49ers don't have big dollars tied up. He carries a salary cap hit of $889,000 in 2023 and isn't eligible to negotiate an extension until after the 2024 season.

"He's done it for part of one year," Lynch said. "Not just that he did it but the way he did it, I think, gave a lot of confidence to everybody in our building. Is there room for growth? Absolutely. But he has left us all with a lot of confidence that he's a real guy."

AFTER FINISHING THE NFC Championship Game without a single healthy quarterback, the 49ers entered the free agent market looking for another veteran.

According to Shanahan, Darnold was high on San Francisco's board in early evaluations before the 2018 draft. But he ceased to be an option after the Niners traded for Garoppolo in October 2017 and finished with a five-game winning streak. Darnold went No. 3 to the New York Jets.

Since then, Darnold has bounced from the Jets to the Carolina Panthers, struggling to gain traction. His QBR of 41.8 ranks 36th among 38 quarterbacks with at least 13 starts, and his 55 career interceptions are tied for fifth most since he entered the league.

Still, the Niners believe they can help Darnold reach his potential. When Darnold hit free agency in March, the 49ers saw a talented player harmed more by his circumstances than his ability.

They pounced, signing Darnold to a one-year, $4.5 million deal that could be worth up to $11.5 million if he meets playing time, wins and passer rating incentives. Others around the league immediately took notice.

"I bet he's going to play meaningful snaps for them at some point," an AFC executive said.

A general manager added: "Kyle's system is a perfect fit."

The combination of Shanahan's system and a talented group of skill-position players easily exceeds the situations Darnold had in New York and Carolina.

In 2022, 49ers quarterbacks had the highest open-throw percentage in the NFL, with 25.4% of attempts going to players with 3-5 yards of separation from the nearest defender when the pass arrived.

The Niners finished in the top five in the NFL in offensive efficiency, expected points added and yards per play. They were one of nine teams with four players (Kittle, Aiyuk, McCaffrey, Samuel) to amass 750-plus scrimmage yards and one of three teams to have at least three players (Kittle, Aiyuk and McCaffrey) post that much yardage and score at least eight touchdowns.

"He'll have clearly defined plays where he can get the ball out quickly and utilize his athleticism in play-action," an NFL personnel evaluator said. "And talent all around him. If he plays, that's why I think he'll be successful."

Darnold wasn't concerned with money so much as the chance to play somewhere that could help him rehab his value.

"Being in a really good organization was a priority for me," Darnold said. "Being with really good coaches and really good personnel as well. Those were kind of the top things."

Some league execs have lamented that Darnold hasn't had sufficient talent around him. In all five of his seasons with the Jets and Panthers, the offenses ranked no higher than 28th in total yards. Darnold did, however, play a pivotal role in the struggles, with his 55 interceptions through his first 56 games serving as one of the worst clips in the league.

WITH TRAINING CAMP underway and the opener at the Pittsburgh Steelers scheduled for Sept. 10, the clock is ticking for the 49ers. Purdy's situation looms largest because he's the expected starter. He's practicing but has hurdles to clear to be all the way back.

If Purdy has no issues, trade rumors surrounding Lance and, perhaps, Darnold could bubble to the surface. The Niners took calls on Lance in the spring, but Lynch maintained it would take something substantial for the 49ers to deal him.

The parallels between this preseason and last are easy to see, only with Lance in Garoppolo's role. Like Garoppolo then, Lance holds more value for the Niners than any other team because San Francisco has needed multiple capable quarterbacks in each of the past three seasons.

And with the NFL rule change allowing teams to carry three quarterbacks on the game-day roster, the Niners will be more inclined to keep their trio around.

Still, a training camp trade can't be ruled out, especially if another team has an injury that creates quarterback desperation.

Before any of that can happen, though, the Niners must be certain Purdy is ready to go and can play at or above the level he reached last season. Until then, Lance and Darnold will compete for the backup job behind him while making the case that they could be more than a No. 2 if needed.

That's no small task, though, considering they'll be going against a defense that was No. 1 in the NFL last year every day in practice. The flip side to that, a 49ers source said, is if either quarterback fares well in practice, it reflects better on them given the competition level.

San Francisco's nearly three-decade quest for a sixth Lombardi Trophy has coincided with an almost 25-year search for a franchise quarterback. The belief is if the Niners can find the latter, it will bring them the former.

The 49ers are well aware that their championship window is open now, and it doesn't really matter which quarterback leads them through it.

"These are really good football players, and as a coach you're always trying to bring the best out of guys," passing game coordinator Klint Kubiak said. "But when you put good guys around each other, they bring the best out of each other more than your coaching can."

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