SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The play that arguably prompted another San Francisco 49ers to face an NFC championship game was off-script. That’s about as fitting as it could get for this edition of the franchise.
With just over 5 minutes left in the third quarter and the score tied against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy bootlegted to the left and cocked his arm. Every option out there designed being open about the piece was not. And it probably would have been pulled dead, except for a giant white glove in the air that belonged to George Kittle’s tight end, which inexplicably leaked the field into empty space.
If you watched Purdy the previous seven games, he would have been a little different here in the quarterback spot. A man who can move, stretch, “run around and do stuff,” as head coach Kyle Shanahan once put it — even if that meant getting in over his head and doing something that wasn’t quite advisable until it worked .
Most of the time he should have leaned on the abundant talent around him to make up for a game. And suddenly here was his star tight end, eyes wide open like dinner plates, with his baseball glove-sized hand in the air. Purdy would have to plant and throw a little across the field, on a game that had run long and had no safe options left. The kind of thing that poses a risk to seasoned veterans and is virtually impossible for a rookie.
So, of course, Purdy pitched it. That’s what he does. That’s what this whole team is doing, going places that, if you look far enough back, you weren’t supposed to.
What happened next was highlights and advanced physics. Purdy let go at his own 14-yard line, then watched Kittle move his right hand at the 39… from his facemask at the 40… to his left fingertips at the 41… and finally, in both hands of Kittle as he dove at the 47 – just as Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs missed a crushing hit by inches. The 30-yard gain thrilled the crowd, as it was part of a 10-game, 91-yard drive that ended with a touchdown and a lead the 49ers never relinquished in a 19–12 victory over the Cowboys.
“I’m literally not even in the reading [on the play]Kittle said after the 49ers win. “I just saw some kind of space and he hadn’t thrown it yet, so I just went out on the field. He gave me a catchable ball and I just tried to be dramatic. It’s for TV, man. Trying to be a little dramatic, increase the ratings. That is all we are here for.”
Well, maybe it isn’t all the 49ers are here for this. Another Super Bowl berth is on the table, with San Francisco now heading to face the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title game next weekend. Kittle and Purdy created a circus catch that now comes full circle and takes the 49ers, one of last season’s biggest soap operas, to the place that seemed less likely as the season drew closer.
Listening to Kittle on Sunday and watching the team tremble with energy enter their locker room after the win over Dallas, that drama seemed so far away. And maybe that’s remarkable evidence for teams that have talent, but also a spate of off-season dysfunction. something that suggests that even when so much seems uncertain or sideways, time or talent or coaching (or all three) can bring it all back together.
Lest we forget, it wasn’t that long ago that Kittle was making the media rounds last June to do promotional work for his Tight End University venture, when seemingly every other question came out of a storm cloud. Wideout Deebo Samuel had called for a trade and some believed he had played his last game for the 49ers. Jimmy Garoppolo was still recovering from shoulder surgery and somehow still on the roster – while at the same time being told to stay away. No one had any idea if sophomore quarterback Trey Lance was capable of being an accurate passer, let alone living up to the ransom of change spent to acquire him. Wunderkind offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel had left for the Miami Dolphins and brought his brilliant run-game blueprints with him. Free agency had been largely silent and the draft class had no first-round picks, but plenty of jokes were made about taking a quarterback (Purdy) with the ‘Mr. Irrelevant” last choice. And once the season started, the well-known injury bug arrived just in time.
By the end of Week 7, the 49ers were 3-4, Lance was ready for the season, and Garoppolo was once again the starting quarterback. Even trading for Christian McCaffrey’s running back seemed optimistic at best and desperate at worst. But that’s the funny thing about this season for the 49ers. They’ve been written off as “big picture” dead several times in the past year. From the Lance-Garoppolo drama to the early injuries, from a sputtering start to having to turn to Purdy after Garoppolo got hurt, the 49ers somehow seemed to float above the mess, if not inexplicably fail .
Of course we’d find out what we didn’t know a year ago, or six months ago… or even eight weeks ago. That defensive end Nick Bosa and his surrounding unit would come to health and turn into a deadly tool at the hands of Coordinator DeMeco Ryans. That McCaffrey would be a perfect fit for an offense that got deep, sane and in sync at the right time. That some of the other NFC contenders would begin to fade, providing a path to the No. 2 seed in the postseason and a few home games. Or that most importantly, Shanahan was right in staying with Purdy and claiming he was a viable starter, rather than playing a game for another more experienced castoff at quarterback (like, say, Baker Mayfield).
It’s weird how these things have come together for Super Bowl-winning teams in recent seasons. They go through struggles on the field or make messy roster decisions or injuries – then they click a job in January and everything else is forgotten. Two years ago, we saw it happen with the Tampa Buccaneers and Tom Brady, who were 7-5 and were not written off until mid-December. Last year? History forgets that the Los Angeles Rams came in on December 7 and 4 looking like just another solid team with a shot to make some noise.
No one remembers the drama surrounding those teams or the details that didn’t quite add up. Everyone assumed they had to look perfect and then didn’t notice when both were in the process of getting perfect. That’s how this 49ers team can feel: able to beat the Seattle Seahawks and wear out the Cowboys, and then maybe go out and topple an Eagles team that some still doubt if they can beat it is with a starting quarterback at the helm.
Like the past two Super Bowl winners, this is the off-script path. With a wideout who didn’t want to be in town six months ago, a quarterback who shouldn’t have been in town at all, and a coaching staff who stumbled out of last season’s NFC title game and may have missed a Super Bowl window. If you go back and look back over the past year and every unexpected twist, you can find plenty of reasons why the 49ers shouldn’t come a long way again.
But they go anyway. That’s exactly what this team and this quarterback are doing.