The backup blueprint: What 49ers’ Brock Purdy must do to join championship QB fraternity
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Moments after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo broke his left foot in a Dec. 4 win against the Miami Dolphins, general manager John Lynch’s phone pinged.
The message was from Tony Dungy, one of Lynch’s mentors and his former coach from his time as a safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dungy’s message: “You guys are in good shape, just like in ’99.”
That text offered Lynch a reminder that all was not lost without Garoppolo (or the previously injured Trey Lance, for that matter), that replacing their first two starters with rookie third-stringer Brock Purdy doesn’t mean the Niners are incapable of going on a Super Bowl run.
That 1999 Bucs team also had Super Bowl aspirations. Then it lost starting quarterback Trent Dilfer to a broken collarbone in late November. Tampa Bay turned to rookie quarterback Shaun King. And while those Buccaneers ultimately came up short, falling to the then-St. Louis Rams and previously unknown backup quarterback Kurt Warner in the NFC Championship Game, Dungy’s point remains.
“We’re not gonna use the two quarterbacks being hurt as an excuse,” Dungy said. “Now what do we have to do to thrive in this situation?”
In this, the year of the backup quarterback in the NFL — 68 quarterbacks started at least one game, the second most in a season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research — Purdy is the only one tasked with leading a top-four seed in either conference into the postseason.
Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, nine backups (defined as quarterbacks who took over as the primary starter before the Super Bowl) have led their teams to championships. It’s a small group that includes those who went on to Hall of Fame careers such as Warner, Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw and Tom Brady, one who revitalized his career in Jim Plunkett and those who didn’t reach such heights again such as Dilfer, Jeff Hostetler, Doug Williams and Nick Foles.
Those backups who’ve been under center for championship squads have formed a kinship, and they’re watching Purdy and the 49ers and rooting for him to join their exclusive club.
If he does, Purdy, the 262nd and final pick in the 2022 NFL draft — he will be the lowest drafted rookie QB to start a playoff game … by 110 picks — would become the first rookie starting quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl appearance, let alone win it. His quest starts Saturday, when the 49ers host the Seattle Seahawks in an NFC wild-card game (4:30 p.m. ET, Fox).
It’s a big ask for anyone to become the first to do something, but it’s not lost on Purdy that he’s steering a ship that has set course for one destination with no acceptable substitutes.
“I feel like I sort of sensed it just from the jump,” Purdy said. “I was like, ‘Man, there’s something different about this place.’ I could tell they have one mission, everyone’s hungry to win the whole thing and it hasn’t changed.”
Through five NFL starts, Purdy has passed every test. He has won every game, has thrown at least two touchdown passes in six straight games (one off the NFL record for a rookie) while showing poise and toughness beyond his 23 years. But how will Purdy fare in the moments that matter most?
With Purdy about to embark on the ultimate playoff test, some of those who have come before him, such as Warner, Hostetler, Williams and King, have provided ESPN a blueprint for Purdy to follow. They’re offering tips on what to expect, how to handle the postseason pressure and, if all goes well, become the next pledge in their fraternity.
Step 1: Match urgency
WHEN DILFER WENT down against the Seahawks on Nov. 28, 1999, King’s first test was finding his helmet. But because Dilfer’s injury came on third down, it bought him time to locate it before going in for the next series.
Once King entered, he was confident he could take the Bucs where they wanted to go. He had been a second-round pick in that year’s draft and, while there was pressure for Tampa Bay to finally win a Super Bowl, he didn’t feel it because he’d never failed at the NFL level.
King knew he had the talent around him and the confidence to make the most of it. What he wishes he’d known was that the window for winning a Super Bowl is small, and success enjoyed as a rookie doesn’t guarantee anything in the future.
After nearly becoming the first rookie starting quarterback to reach the Super Bowl, King started every game for the Buccaneers in 2000 but only three more after that before his career ended following the 2004 season.
“That’s the thing,” King said. “That’s what I’ve learned post that period, not during it. They’re trying to make sure they’re ready to do their job. … Everybody’s kind of got their own little thing going so they don’t really have time to babysit you. Like you’re paid, you are a pro. You gotta be able to do your job.”
King says one of the most important things for Purdy to understand is that he is surrounded by teammates who have reached the Super Bowl and NFC Championship Game in two of the past three seasons and need him to meet their level of urgency to get over the hump.
“This might be their last shot,” King said. “That’s a hard league. It’s hard to win a championship. San Francisco has had the best roster in the NFL outside of quarterback for the last four years. They haven’t won it yet.”
Purdy’s early recognition of the urgency around the Niners undoubtedly served him well after taking over for Garoppolo. It’s why he regularly spent time after practice running plays by himself well before he became the starter or even the top backup.
“I think he’s a guy who’s probably always been counted out and he is always trying every day to prove people wrong,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “And so, I think his urgency I bet has always been there.”
Step 2: Have your ‘wow’ moment, then settle in
AS HOSTETLER BROKE the huddle for the first snap of his first playoff start and fifth career start of any kind against the Chicago Bears in the 1990 NFC divisional playoffs, he looked across the line of scrimmage.
Staring back at Hostetler was legendary middle linebacker Mike Singletary. Hostetler, who was taking over a Giants team that had started 10-0 but lost three of four before he replaced the injured Phil Simms, immediately knew the stakes had been raised.
“I’m in the middle of my cadence, and I look across and I see Mike Singletary looking right at me,” Hostetler said. “And I said to myself, ‘Wow, his eyes really are that big. Look at that.’ And, and it was, it was like everything else had just stopped. And it, I was just amazed standing across from him, and it was like, the only thing I could think of.”
Hostetler didn’t take long to get things under control after seeing (and being seen by) Singletary. He threw for two scores and ran for a third in a 31-3 win and left Giants Stadium convinced he was ready for further playoff tests, which he proved by leading the Giants past the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game and the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV.
Hostetler said he was warned the game speed picks up in the postseason and even more so in the Super Bowl. But getting that first “settle in” moment out of the way helps ease some of the inevitable nerves.
For every player, that moment looks different. Purdy said he felt at home in his first regular-season game after taking his first hit. It was a bit easier for Warner than most, as his first playoff pass went for a 77-yard touchdown to receiver Isaac Bruce in the 1999 NFC divisional playoffs against the Minnesota Vikings.
“So often football is football, and so once you start playing, the nerves and all that stuff kind of disappear,” Warner said. “A big part of that is making a play. … I think that’s huge for every quarterback in difficult moments.”
Step 3: Embrace external doubt and internal support
LONG BEFORE PURDY came along, another little-known backup quarterback wearing No. 13 who played his college football in the state of Iowa replaced a handsome, injured No. 10 for an NFC West team and enjoyed instant success. It was Warner who took over for Trent Green after he suffered a season-ending left ACL injury in the 1999 preseason. Unlike many of the other backups who went on to win Super Bowls, Warner led a team that had few outside expectations.
The Rams had been an NFC West laughingstock, missing the playoffs every season since 1989 and going 4-12 the previous year. Then they underwent significant offensive changes in that offseason, trading for running back Marshall Faulk, drafting wideout Torry Holt, signing Green and hiring Mike Martz as offensive coordinator.
According to Warner, any outside hope was based on how the Rams looked with Green in short preseason cameos, which meant there wasn’t much pressure on Warner to meet any lofty expectations.
“It kind of felt like we were playing on house money,” Warner said. “Nobody expects us to win it all.”
It was an advantage Warner had that many of the others didn’t.
For Hostetler, skepticism of the Giants had already set in and only grew when he stepped in. In the league’s largest media market, Hostetler couldn’t avoid the questions about his ability to lead the Giants. Instead, he embraced them.
“Everybody jumped off the bandwagon,” Hostetler said. “Everybody that says that you can ignore it, you can’t ignore it. It was absolutely everywhere. And I used it. … When people shortchange you and don’t really know you, it gives you fuel to your fire.”
What mattered more to the likes of Hostetler, Warner and Williams was the support they received from inside their locker rooms. In St. Louis, Faulk told Warner immediately the team had his back, Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks did the same for Hostetler and the famous Washington offensive line, known as “The Hogs,” did so for Williams.
“I didn’t have any reservations from my teammates,” Williams said. “They saw me every day in practice throwing the football. And they know who should be the man. All athletes know that the defense knew him, the offense knew it. … Everywhere I played, my teammates wanted to play with me.”
Purdy has benefited from similar buy-in from the Niners’ locker room. After Purdy replaced Garoppolo and led the Niners to a win against Miami, linebacker Fred Warner stepped to the podium and expressed no surprise at how Purdy handled himself.
After all, Warner had seen Purdy every day in practice and admired how quickly the final pick in the 2022 draft adapted.
“That’s a credit to him already with what he’s done since he came here and obviously being ready for the moment when his number was called,” Warner said. “He’s continued to be the same guy throughout, and I think that’s what has contributed to his success.”
Step 4: Be yourself
WILLIAMS HAD 67 starts under his belt with the Buccaneers when he replaced Jay Schroeder in Washington in 1987. He’d also started four playoff games. That experience made it easier for Williams to keep a starter’s mindset when serving as the backup.
More than that, though, it gave Williams the knowledge that when Joe Gibbs named him the starter after a Week 16 win against Minnesota that he didn’t have to try to do too much.
“Just do your job,” Williams said. “Do your part. I think that’s the most important thing. When you’re sitting in that room and you think about the people that you are playing with or who you are around, you don’t have to do anything extraordinary to make it happen.”
When talking about handling the job, each of the backups mentioned conflicting objectives. Warner and King noted the importance of “making the layups,” the easy throws that will inevitably come up because they’re surrounded by talented players and playcallers.
On the flip side is the repeated insistence to be unafraid of making mistakes. Because Purdy is leading a talented team, there’s a margin for error. As Williams pointed out, a quarterback who is afraid to mess up is more prone to make errors.
All of it comes back to the No. 1 piece of advice everyone had for Purdy: Be yourself. It’s the mantra Bill Parcells hammered home to Hostetler and every other Giant. And what Martz emphasized to Warner.
“That’s gonna be a huge part of it with Brock is, knowing who you are and playing to that,” Warner said. “I think that’s the biggest part is that anybody that comes in as a quarterback, you want to just be able to be you. You don’t want to have to live up to some other expectation or you don’t wanna find yourself in a situation where you’ve got to play differently than who you are.”
Purdy has just begun to show the NFL world who he is, but NFL legacies are forged in the crucible of the postseason. A deep 49ers playoff run with Purdy leading the charge would go a long way in determining how the Niners handle the quarterback position long term.
But, as King points out, that’s the gift and the curse of Purdy’s situation. Fair or not, he’s on a talented team with massive expectations but one slip can erase all the good he’s already done.
One way or the other, Purdy will have plenty of support from those who came before him.
“It’s almost like an underdog position,” Williams said. “You pull for a kid like that. … The stage doesn’t get any bigger than this.”