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He was picked last in the 2022 draft. Now he's key to the 49ers' Super Bowl hopes

Brock Purdy, the San Francisco 49ers' rookie quarterback, led his team to a win over the Dallas Cowboys last weekend in the NFL playoffs.
Lachlan Cunningham
Getty Images
Brock Purdy, the San Francisco 49ers' rookie quarterback, led his team to a win over the Dallas Cowboys last weekend in the NFL playoffs.

One of these things is not like the others.

Of the four starting quarterbacks left in the NFL playoffs, three of them have gilded pedigrees: There's Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, the phenom who has redefined the ceiling for quarterback play in the NFL. There's Joe Burrow, the Heisman-winner-turned-#1-overall-pick whose cool play and attitude has transformed Cincinnati football. And there's Jalen Hurts, the Alabama-to-Oklahoma standout whose 35 total touchdowns helped keep the Philadelphia Eagles at the top of their conference all season long.

Then there's Brock Purdy.

Nine months ago, Purdy — a middle-tier college prospect from a middle-tier program — was picked dead last in the 2022 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers, who had the idea that he could perhaps make a decent backup quarterback.

But since a series of injuries to other players made him the team's starting quarterback in December, the 23-year-old Purdy has won every game he's played, helping to lead the 49ers to a 12-game winning streak.

Now, as his team prepares to face the Philadelphia Eagles in this weekend's NFC Championship Game, Purdy is looking to become the first ever rookie quarterback to lead his team to the Super Bowl — and doing so as the seventh-round draft pick infamously known as "Mr. Irrelevant."

It is an unlikely journey that has captured the imagination of the NFL world as the season winds down. "He's definitely the most poised rookie I've ever had. He's been like that since he's gotten here," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said in December.

Taken as the last pick in the draft, AKA "Mr. Irrelevant"

Ahead of each NFL draft, top-tier quarterback prospects are invited to private workouts. They do in-person interviews with head coaches and general managers. They attend the draft in person, dressed in brand new suits, shaking hands with the commissioner.

That was not Purdy's draft story.

Despite a productive college career in which he appeared in 47 games for Iowa State, set 32 passing records and helped lead the Cyclones to four straight bowl games, along with their first and only Top 10 finish — Purdy was viewed as, at best, a career backup in the NFL.

At just barely over six feet tall, he was on the short side. He didn't have a big arm, and wasn't seen as capable of making big, game-changing plays. His main pre-draft contact with the 49ers was a Zoom interview with the team's quarterback coach.

In April, on draft day, he was not on stage in Las Vegas; he was at home in Arizona with family. And instead of a pre-stitched Purdy jersey, his pick was announced with a joke jersey stitched with the number 262 and the name "Mr. Irrelevant."

"Honestly, I feel like not necessarily I had to prove people wrong but to prove myself right. I've always played above my shoulders, no matter what the level was, whether it's high school or college. Now it's at the professional level," Purdy, a Arizona native, told the Arizona Republicbefore the draft in April. "I feel that's the story of my life. But I'm fine with that. It excites me."

Late picks in the draft are usually fringe talents who are, at best, a coin toss to make a team's roster, let alone earn a starting spot.

Perhaps the most famous exception is Tom Brady, who was drafted in the 6th round by the New England Patriots in 2000, although it wasn't until his second season that he started for the Patriots and won his first Super Bowl.

Two injuries put Purdy in charge of the 49ers' season

In San Francisco, the expectations for Purdy this year were minimal. Even after he made the final roster as the team's third-string quarterback, it was conceivable that he wouldn't see a single snap all season.

The 49ers, after all, had begun the year thinking 2022 would be the start of a new era, led by their exciting young quarterback Trey Lance, for whom they traded up in 2021 to take #3 overall.

But a season-ending ankle injury to Lance in Week 2 left the 49ers turning to backup Jimmy Garoppolo, their six-year veteran with looks out of central casting but who always seemed to get outplayed on the biggest stages.

Then, in December, Garoppolo was injured, too. Who was left but third-string quarterback Brock Purdy?

The rookie came in and calmly led the 49ers to a win over the Miami Dolphins that day — and every other team in every game since.

"I remember getting home that night and all of us being pretty down about losing Jimmy," Shanahan later recalled. "As I was going to bed, it kind of hit me that [Purdy] definitely didn't play like a third-stringer today."

A 7th-round quarterback (Brock Purdy) and a 6th-round quarterback (Tom Brady) congratulate each other after a game in December.
Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images
Getty Images
A 7th-round quarterback (Brock Purdy) and a 6th-round quarterback (Tom Brady) congratulate each other after a game in December.

Since then, Purdy has outperformed any reasonable expectation of a seventh-round rookie third-stringer. After taking over in Week 13, Purdy has thrown for more than 1,800 yards, 16 touchdowns and only three interceptions as the 49ers have steamrolled their way into the playoffs, looking like perhaps the best and most complete team in the NFL.

"I mean, he's got some balls out there. Forgive me for saying it that way," Shanahan said in December.

For any normal team, losing a starting quarterback would derail playoff hopes. Losing their backup would be the nail in the coffin.

But San Francisco was uniquely positioned for this moment. Where other NFL teams have relied on elite quarterback play for success, the 49ers have made an art of putting premium players around a mid-tier quarterback who isn't asked to move mountains, but rather to merely execute Shanahan's scheme.

On any given play, Purdy can hand the ball off to star running back Christian McCaffrey, or, as he enjoys the pass protection of star lineman Trent Williams, he can survey the field for a pass to star tight end George Kittle or star wide receiver Deebo Samuel. The team's defense is also, of course, star-studded.

For the 49ers, then, there's no need for Purdy to produce highlight reel heroics. Rather, the 49ers need him to find the open man, make the safe throw and not turn the ball over.

And to Purdy's credit, he's getting the job done well.

In a way, playing for the 49ers has been easier than playing at Iowa State, Purdy said earlier this month. "I've got so many playmakers around me," he told reporters. "I feel like I don't have all the weight of the world on my shoulders to make something up or make plays."

Sunday will be Purdy's biggest game yet

On Sunday, Purdy will face his biggest test yet when the 49ers take on the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.

No NFL team finished with a better record this season than the 14-3 Eagles, who dominated the New York Giants in the divisional round this weekend. The 49ers will come into Philadelphia as 2-point underdogs.

"If you want to sit and think about all of the outside stuff, I'm sure you could psych yourself out," Shanahan said this month when asked about advice for Purdy ahead of his historic playoff run. "Once you get on the field, there is absolutely nothing different. So whether it's a playoff game, whether it's a Super Bowl, all you can do is control the athletic sporting event that you're involved in. Don't make it more than that."

If the 49ers win, Purdy will become the first rookie quarterback to start in the Super Bowl, and only the fourth Mr. Irrelevant to play in one at any point in his career.

Still, Purdy hasn't seemed too stressed. In fact, his attitude might be the most extraordinary trait he's shown in his 8-win run: the quiet, calm confidence of a guy who's already seen it all.

Last week, he was asked to reflect on his remarkable stretch of victories. "It's just been football, man. I don't try to make it more than it is," he answered.

"I don't look at football like it's literally everything, like it's do or die, or something like that. It's a game. And it's my job, for sure, and I take it very seriously. But at the end of the day, I know I'm not defined by the wins or losses as a person," he said.

At a press conference after Sunday's win, Purdy played the quarterback part by acknowledging the hard work of his teammates.

Then, he finally took a moment to acknowledge the improbability of his chance to play on such a big stage.

"It's pretty cool to see the clock at zero, and then you see the Niners over the Cowboys – that's pretty sweet, in the playoffs," he said. "For myself, when I take a step back, it's pretty cool. I'm very thankful."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.