SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The play that arguably sparked another San Francisco 49ers run in an NFC Championship Game was off-script. That’s about as fitting as it gets 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 hacked to his left and raised his arm. Every option that was designed being open about the game was not. And it probably would have resulted in some deaths, save for a giant white glove in the air belonging to tight end George Kittle, which was inexplicably leaking down into the empty space.
If you had watched Purdy the previous seven games, that was where he was a little different at quarterback. A guy who could move, stretch plays, “run and do things” as head coach Kyle Shanahan put it – even if that meant getting in over his head and doing something that wasn’t not entirely recommendable until it works.
Usually that involved relying on the great talent around him to play well. And suddenly here’s her star tight butt, eyes wide like plates, with his baseball glove-sized hand in the air. Purdy should plant and throw lightly across the field, on a play that had gone long and run out of safe options. The kind of thing that is a risk for seasoned veterans and practically irrelevant for a rookie.
So Purdy threw it, of course. That’s what he does. That’s what this whole team is doing, going places that, if you look back far enough, they weren’t really supposed to go.
What happened next was the highlights and advanced physics thing. Purdy let go on his own 14-yard line, then watched as Kittle swung it with his right hand at 39…from his face mask at 40…to his left fingertips at 41…and finally, in both Kittle’s hands as he dove to 47 – just as Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs missed a crushing blow by inches. The 30-yard gain electrified the crowd as it was part of a 10-play, 91-yard drive that ended with a touchdown and a lead the 49ers never surrendered in a 19-12 win over the Cowboys.
“I’m literally not even into 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 was just going up the field. He gave me a catchable ball and I was just trying to be dramatic. That’s for TV, man. Trying to be a little dramatic, upping the ratings. That’s all we’re here for.
Well, maybe it’s not all the 49ers are here for that. A Super Bowl berth is once again on the table, with San Francisco now heading to the Philadelphia Eagles on the road in the NFC title game next weekend. Kittle and Purdy created a circus take that now comes full circle, delivering the 49ers, one of the biggest soap operas of the past offseason, to the place that seemed less likely as the season approached.
Listening to Kittle on Sunday and watching the team buzz with energy in their locker room after the win over Dallas, that drama seemed so far away. And that is perhaps a remarkable testament to teams that have talent but also a series of dysfunctions during the offseason. something to suggest that even when so much seems uncertain or sideways, time, talent, or coaching (or all three) can bring it all back together.
Let’s not forget that not so long ago, Kittle was making the rounds in the media last June doing some promotional work for his company at Tight End University, when seemingly all other questions fell from a cloud. of storm. Wideout Deebo Samuel had asked for a trade and some believed he had played his last game for the 49ers. Jimmy Garoppolo was still recovering from shoulder surgery and was somehow still on the list – while being told to stay away. No one had a clue if second-year quarterback Trey Lance was capable of being an accurate passer, let alone worth the capital project ransom that was spent to acquire him. . Wunderkind’s offensive coordinator, Mike McDaniel, had left for the Miami Dolphins and taken his brilliant game plans with him. Free agency had been mostly quiet and the draft class had no first-round picks, but plenty of jokes about taking a quarterback (Purdy) with the “Mr. Final choice unimportant. And once the season started, the familiar injury bug arrived just in time.
By the end of Week 7, the 49ers were 3-4, Lance had finished the season, and Garoppolo was the starting quarterback once again. Even trading for running back Christian McCaffrey 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 multiple times over the past year. From the Lance-Garoppolo drama to the early injuries, from a spitting start to having to turn to Purdy after Garoppolo was injured, the 49ers somehow seemed to be floating above the mess if not inexplicably failing.
Of course, we would 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 regain their health and turn into a deadly instrument at the hands of coordinator DeMeco Ryans. This McCaffrey would be perfect for an offense that got deep, healthy and in sync at the right time. That some of the other NFC contenders would start to fade, offering a path to the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a pair of playoff games at home. Or most important of all, that Shanahan was right when he stuck with Purdy and claimed he was a viable starter, rather than making a play for another more seasoned trailblazer at quarterback (like, say, Baker Mayfield).
It’s weird how these things have come together for Super Bowl-winning teams over the past few seasons. They go through difficulties on the pitch or messy line-up decisions or injuries – then they click a track in January and everything else is forgotten. Two years ago, we saw that happen with the Tampa Buccaneers and Tom Brady, who were 7-5 and were written off in mid-December. Last year? History forgets that the Los Angeles Rams came in Dec. 7-4 and looked like another solid team with a shot to make some noise.
No one remembers the drama around those teams or the details that weren’t quite there. Everyone assumed they had to look perfect and then didn’t notice when the two were getting perfect. That’s how this 49ers team might feel: able to crush the Seattle Seahawks and wear down the Cowboys, then maybe hit the road and topple an Eagles team that some still doubt be beatable with a rookie quarterback at the helm.
Like the last two Super Bowl winners, it’s the off-script path. With a wide that didn’t want to be in town six months ago, a quarterback that wasn’t supposed to be in town at all, and a coaching staff that stumbled in the NFC title game of the season. last and might have missed a Super Bowl window. If you go back and trace the past year and every unexpected turn, you can find plenty of reasons why the 49ers should no longer move within striking distance.
But they go anyway. That’s exactly what this team and this quarterback are doing.