Last month, when analysts were taking turns suggesting that 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy was just a product of a system — in the middle of a loaded roster, running a favorable scheme, taking advantage of a good thing — head coach Kyle Shanahan blasted the assessment as “ridiculous.” General manager John Lynch later doubled down, labeling the evaluations as nothing more than “haters … hating.”
One three-game skid later — and a spate of Purdy turnovers — neither has wavered in their support of their quarterback. But there’s little doubt that Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars is an important moment for the 49ers’ brain trust and Purdy. Not just to hang onto hopes for the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed, but to keep from injecting an adrenaline shot into Purdy’s critics, who are now questioning whether he can maintain a high level of play despite injuries on the roster and scoreboard deficits on the field.
The three-game losing streak against the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals has a lot to do with the latest questions — mostly fueled by six Purdy turnovers in that trio of losses. It’s a rough patch that Shanahan pinned on Purdy trying to make plays late in games when he was forced to be more aggressive with throws. It was also noteworthy that Purdy’s play also appeared to fall off dramatically against the Vikings after he sustained a concussion that wasn’t ultimately diagnosed until after the game.
Of course, it’s unlikely those circumstances are going to silence Purdy’s remaining doubters across the league. If anything, they were waiting to see how he responded to genuine on-field adversity after starting his career with a 10-game regular-season winning streak. A measurement that is still a work in progress is answering questions about Purdy’s ability to shoulder a heavy passing load to get the 49ers back into a game, as well as how he would respond to the kind of three-game slide he’s currently experiencing.
All of this puts a sizable microscope onto Sunday’s road game against the 6-2 Jaguars, who are leading the AFC South and in the midst of a five-game winning streak. That’s not to mention carrying some defensive momentum that has seen them force 11 interceptions this season, which is currently tied for second most in the NFL.
If Shanahan believed Purdy was facing ridiculous analysis and Lynch thought the haters were simply hating on his quarterback nearly a month ago, another subpar performance against another playoff level team could take it to another level, especially coming out of a bye week that should have offered a chance to refocus and potentially get some key injured players back onto the field, like wideout Deebo Samuel and offensive tackle Trent Williams.
For his part, Purdy addressed the turnover issues that have popped up, sending a message after the Bengals loss that he’s got to find a way to be better.
“[My message was] just owning up to turning the ball over — how hard everyone puts their time and effort into this whole thing,” Purdy said. “The organization, the coaches, the players, everyone plays hard. There’s no question, no doubt about that. I just wanted the team to know and hear from my own mouth, face to face, I’ve got to be better. I own up to the mistakes that I’ve made.”
“There’s a fine line of being aggressive, anticipating a throw, anticipating a window, and then being able to hold it back and being smart with the ball,” Purdy said. “That’s stuff that I’ve had to be real with myself with the last couple of weeks, just watching the games and stuff. I’m an aggressive kind of quarterback in terms of anticipation, where my guys are supposed to be, I trust them and let it rip. But there’s times where I’ve got to be smart with it and be willing to take the check down. Depending on the point in the game and where we’re at — the scenario, the situation — all that comes into play, so I have to be better at that for sure.”
Of course, Purdy isn’t the sole focus when it comes to fine-tuning some of the 49ers’ problems. Shanahan made it clear this week that the running game hasn’t been anywhere near its ceiling this season, largely because of injuries to Samuel, Williams and running back Christian McCaffrey, who was knocked out of the second half in the loss to the Browns and has only 38 carries in the past three games. Shanahan has also moved defensive coordinator Steve Wilks from the booth to the sideline for the Jaguars game so he can have more face-to-face communication with both individuals and defensive position groups.
What’s clear with that Wilks change, the addition of defensive end Chase Young, and the cross section of injuries on offense and turnovers by Purdy is that the 49ers are self-scouting a brand of football that isn’t nearly as clean as the 5- 0 start. Getting Williams and Samuel back on the field will be paramount to balancing out the offense again, which will take some of the pressure off Purdy in late-game situations where he’s had to put the team on his back.
For now, the problems have been little more than the most recent three-game window. But given Shanahan’s history with his quarterbacks, it would be a mistake to think Purdy isn’t also under an examination inside the building. As hopeful as the 49ers have been about him growing into their cornerstone leader at quarterback, he still has a grand total of 16 starts under his belt, including last season’s trio of playoff games. While that means there could (and should) be exponential growth left on the table for him, it also means he still has an opportunity to undermine Shanhan’s confidence through the rest of this season.
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If the three-game skid and rash of turnovers are contained and the 49ers right themselves against the Jaguars, it will be taken as an example that Purdy is capable of hitting a low and then responding with resilience. But if it turns into a trend that ultimately creates a problem for a roster that’s built for a Super Bowl run, we could very easily be looking at a looming quarterback question hanging over the franchise. And it would be occurring in an offseason when Kirk Cousins will be a free agent — although also coming off an Achilles surgery.
The bottom line: The 49ers are coming out of a bye with three games in a 12-day span. Two of them are on the road against teams in the thick of a playoff hunt (the Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks). The current three-game losing streak could get appreciably worse for San Francisco and Purdy if the mistakes continue. And that’s something that even Purdy can see.
As he said this week, “We just need a win. We need a win [to] have that feeling again of winning and then get on a streak and roll. The second half of the season is huge.”
For the 49ers, for Purdy and for the long future the two are hoping to have together.