NFL Rumors: Brock Purdy wasn't 49ers first choice as 2023 starting QB

Brock Purdy has led the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC Championship Game for the second straight year, but Kyle Shanahan may have wanted a different quarterback leading the 49ers.
NFC Divisional Playoffs - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers
NFC Divisional Playoffs - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers / Michael Owens/GettyImages

Quarterback Brock Purdy has led the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC Championship Game for the second consecutive season. San Francisco has a 17-5 record with Purdy under center, good enough to secure the NFC's No. 1 seed in back-to-back years.

During the 2023 NFL season, Purdy led the league in passer rating (113.0) while recording the third-most passing touchdowns (31) and the second-best completion percentage (69.4). Purdy's team won Sunday's Divisional Round game against the Green Bay Packers largely because Purdy avoided the critical mistakes made by Green Bay quarterback Jordan Love.

Despite Purdy's success, accolades and praise haven't come easily. Skeptics have attributed Purdy's success to the brilliance of 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan's scheme or the talented weapons surrounding the quarterback. Former quarterback Cam Newton recently called Purdy a game manager, while a Green Bay player confidently stated that Purdy is easily rattled.

As the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft — dubbed "Mr. Irrelevant" — the national narrative surrounding Purdy isn't surprising. Undrafted or late-round quarterbacks rarely defy the odds. Only nine quarterbacks who began their careers as backups have led their teams to a championship, according to ESPN. That small group includes Hall of Famers such as Kurt Warner, Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw.

Those within the San Francisco organization expressed confidence in Purdy as the future franchise quarterback. That much was made clear when general manager John Lynch traded away Trey Lance, the third-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, for pennies.

During the offseason, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan assured Purdy that he would be the starter during the 2023 NFL season — unless Tom Brady wanted to play one more season for his hometown team.

Kyle Shanahan wanted Tom Brady to be the 49ers quarterback in 2023

"I remember [Shanahan] saying, 'If we can get Tom Brady, we're going to try to get him,'" Purdy said. "And I was like, 'Yeah, he's the GOAT. I get it.'"

The logic made sense to Purdy. He was recovering from a surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right elbow, which he tore during the 2022-23 NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles. There were doubts about whether Purdy would be healthy or able to replicate the success he had in his impressive rookie campaign.

For Shanahan, Brady could have represented redemption.

Growing up, Brady always dreamed of playing for the 49ers. Prior to the 2000 NFL Draft, he attended a workout for local college prospects, but the team brass didn't pay any attention to him. Instead, San Francisco selected quarterback Giovanni Carmazzi, who they viewed as a better athlete. The flawed "high-ceiling athlete" rationale led the 49ers to Carmazzi, which allowed the greatest quarterback in history to walk right out of their backyard.

After two decades, Shanahan had the opportunity to erase the franchise's mistake. According to ESPN's Seth Wickersham, Brady was hoping to sign with the 49ers as a free agent during the 2020 offseason. Shanahan heard of Brady's interest but ultimately decided that the legendary quarterback had declined and wouldn't be a worthwhile upgrade over incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo.

ESPN's Adam Schefter asked Shanahan if he ever wonders what it would have been like if Brady had signed with the 49ers during the 2020 offseason. "Every night when I wake up at, like, two in the morning," Shanahan replied jokingly.

In 2022, Shanahan was asked again whether he was surprised by Brady's success with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I’d like to say of course not,” Shanahan told reporters. “But now like when you watch him that first week in Tampa, you’re like, 'What the hell was anyone ever thinking?' The dude looks the exact same. ... I think he’s playing as good now and throwing the ball as well now as I’ve seen anybody ever do it.”

Luring Brady out of retirement for the 2023 NFL season would have been an opportunity for the 49ers to erase one of the biggest mistakes in franchise history. For Shanahan, it would have been an opportunity to erase his own personal regrets. It was clearly too late, however. This time, Brady got to be the one to decline his beloved hometown team.

For Purdy, the attempt to replace him was a reminder that his job is never safe.

"Something deep down inside me was sort of like, 'Dude, I just showed you that I can play well in this system," Purdy said about being potentially replaced by Brady. "'And we were one game away from the Super Bowl.' ... More than anything, I was like, 'OK, now let's go.'"

The lingering doubt will likely follow Purdy for years to come. That doubt followed Brady, despite winning three Super Bowl championships in his first four seasons. It followed Kurt Warner even after he earned 1999 NFL MVP honors with 4,353 passing yards and 41 touchdowns and led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl championship.

"What do you think people were saying the next year?" Warner said. "'Oh gosh, this guy's a Hall of Famer?' No, they were like, 'OK, was that a fluke? Can you do it again?'"

It's a feeling that Purdy will have to get used to until he can silence his critics. He'll get his next opportunity to do so during the NFC Championship Game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday.

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