SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Kyle Shanahan speaks clearest and most profoundly with his play calls and game plans. The 49ers’ offensive heart, soul and conscience are all bared right there, every weekend, through his headset and onto the field. There is no hiding from that, and Shanahan doesn’t want to hide from that.
And what happened in the 49ers’ playoff opener Saturday against a Seattle defense clearly geared to stop the run? A lot happened. Everything important happened if you want to understand what’s going on with this team as it charges toward next weekend’s divisional round and beyond.
Shanahan called for rookie Brock Purdy to throw a pass on the first play (wild incompletion with a wet ball), the second play (19-yard completion) and the fourth play (incompletion), called for Purdy to throw a long lateral on the fifth play (7-yard gain) and throw a pass on the sixth play (incompletion) on the 49ers’ way to a field goal for the first points of the game. Then Shanahan kept calling pass plays — 19 in the first half alone, compared to just nine runs.
It wasn’t dominant right away, but the tone of this 41-23 wild-card-round victory at Levi’s Stadium was set. The evidence was inescapable. This is the way for the 49ers right now, in this postseason and maybe for a lot longer than that. They’ll face either the Vikings (if they win Sunday) or the winner of Monday night’s Tampa Bay–Dallas game (if the Vikings lose). And whoever it is, the team that plays the 49ers will know they’ve got to figure out how to beat Brock Purdy.
It’s not that Shanahan will ever abandon the run, and in fact, things got balanced pretty quickly in the second half (the 49ers ended up with 33 runs and 30 passes). But now the 49ers can go to a full-tilt air attack if they want to. And they kind of want to.
In Purdy’s first playoff game and just his sixth NFL start (and this became the first playoff victory for a rookie QB since Russell Wilson in 2012), Shanahan put the game in his hands and was quite happy to stay with that for a long while. Because it was working, especially against a Seahawks defense that was stacking the line of scrimmage.
“I think they were trying to take away the run, but we came out firing,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “And definitely some meat left on the bone, but still just explosive plays all day. I understand what their plan is, we’ve got a rookie quarterback and we’ve got a heck of a run game. I’m sure they’re trying to make him throw the ball. I’m sure that’s everybody’s plan.
“But I think he’s proven that’s fine. We can make some big plays in the pass game.”
— NFL (@NFL) January 15, 2023
This is the way now for the 49ers because Shanahan has so much faith in Purdy, who missed a few throws early (when it was raining lightly) but kept hitting plays all game, including seven pass plays of longer than 15 yards. On the day, Purdy was 18-for-30 for 332 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 131.5 passer rating; he also ran four times for 16 yards and a TD.
“It would be easy for (Shanahan) to say, ‘All right, let’s keep trying to run the ball, let’s get 3 or 4 yards and just manage this thing,’” Juszczyk said. “I think he has that confidence in Brock that he can make plays himself.”
Of course, Shanahan famously let Jimmy Garoppolo throw it only eight times in the 49ers’ NFC Championship Game victory over the Packers in January 2020. Before that, Garoppolo threw it just 19 times in the divisional-round victory over the Vikings.
This isn’t a knock on Garoppolo; the 49ers won those games, that’s what mattered. But the point is, this is a whole new thing here. Purdy has proved he can handle more responsibility than Shanahan has trusted to any 49ers QB in six seasons, and it’s only building.
“Felt that way from the beginning, once he got into that game versus Miami, when we didn’t have the luxury to sit there and worry about stuff the way the game was going,” Shanahan said. “We just had to call plays to try to win the game, and he did such a hell of a job. And he’s done it every time since. Got a lot of confidence in him and gives us more and more confidence each week.”
And Purdy keeps doing a little more each week. He’s displayed impressive elusiveness over the six games he’s played since coming in after Garoppolo’s injury in that Miami game. But on Saturday, the performance expanded exponentially — Purdy zigged and zagged away from pressure a handful of times, leading to huge plays, a couple of TDs and, most importantly, zero terrible losses or turnovers.
“A couple of those touchdowns, I think it’s something I’ve done my whole life in terms of finding a way when it’s not there,” Purdy said.
Purdy’s best improvisation actually came on an incompletion in the fourth quarter, when he ran almost to the left sideline and then raced the full width of the field, pump-faked a Seahawks defensive lineman and then threw a laser to Brandon Aiyuk in the end zone. Aiyuk couldn’t corral the ball, but it was quite the exclamation point.
Yeah, his teammates have noticed.
“It’s great to see the things he does back there, his little slitheriness getting out of stuff,” wide receiver Deebo Samuel said. “It kind of makes us a little tired; we’ve gotta run around, too, try to get open. But it works.”
Last week, in a game against the Cardinals, Shanahan watched Purdy run around and into a 17-yard sack that took the 49ers out of field goal range and said he was yelling at him almost immediately about it.
Kyle, you just saw it really work in this game, are Purdy’s extended scrambles OK now?
“No,” Shanahan said with a deadpan shake of his head.
“He was great on some,” Shanahan said. “That last one was very close, it was unbelievable the throw he made to BA in the corner. I know he just missed that. But he’s got a feel for it. He definitely makes me nervous on some of it. But he did a hell of a job getting away. He knows his body … tries to never give up on a play. And he’s been very smart with the ball so far.”
It was all enough to catch the attention of a rather notable NFL fan.
PURDY GOT GAME!!!!!!!!!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 14, 2023
“LeBron said that?” Purdy said when he was told of the tweet, looking genuinely thrilled. “Aw, that’s great.”
Said offensive tackle Trent Williams: “I love the fact that Brock is getting the attention he deserves. He is a good player, man. And I think anybody who watches football can see that. I’m not saying that he’s the next Aaron Rodgers or Pat Mahomes, but he does everything that we need him to do and more. I think we can continue to win with him, obviously.”
It didn’t all go perfectly. But the 49ers’ veterans liked everything they saw from Purdy, when things were damp and slightly disappointing in the beginning and then when they scored 25 consecutive points to start the second half.
Typically, Purdy mainly blamed himself for the 49ers finding themselves down 17-16 going into halftime despite outgaining the Seahawks 249-176 to that point. That happened because the 49ers had to settle for two short field goals on drives into the red zone, and a few defensive breakdowns suddenly gave Seattle a lot of life.
“Coming into halftime, Kyle was straight up, he was, ‘Hey man, the plays are there, the opportunities are there; we’ve just gotta keep it simple and get it to the guys,’” Purdy said.
The response: The 49ers went on 13-play TD drive immediately after getting the second-half kickoff, concluded by Purdy himself on a 1-yard sneak. Then Charles Omenihu stripped the ball from Seattle QB Geno Smith on the next possession and Nick Bosa recovered. And the rout was suddenly on.
In middle of that spree, Purdy maneuvered around and found Elijah Mitchell wide-open in the right flat for a 7-yard touchdown. Purdy’s first read was Aiyuk on his left, but Aiyuk was covered. Then Purdy got some pressure, rolled to his left, felt more pressure, so he stepped back to the middle and flipped it to Mitchell in the right flat. Easy TD.
Then came this:
341 total yards. 4 total TDs.
— NFL (@NFL) January 15, 2023
At the time, it almost looked like Purdy started throwing it to Mitchell before he even turned all the way toward him. Which Purdy basically confirmed. Instinct, both ways. Which is why he said he was celebrating so uproariously.
“Just a broken play,” Purdy said. “I was trying to go left to BA and go through my progressions from there. It just broke down. Elijah did his job in terms of staying in protection, and if he had time he could get out. He was my last read. Front side just broke down. When I scrambled, Elijah was where he needed to be.
“And that’s why I was excited. I had that trust in him to be here, and same for him in myself. Just a huge part of the game, to create momentum, just a big play for everyone and a big moment for everyone.”
The moments are getting bigger for the 49ers. Their rookie QB sure isn’t shrinking. If anything, he’s getting better. It’s right there on the field. It’s happening.
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(Photo: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)