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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

“Tough way to go out”: 49ers reflect on brutal end to magical season

Jan 29, 2023 at 10:08 PM--

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All things being equal, the San Francisco 49ers probably had a decent chance to compete against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, possibly earning a return trip to the Super Bowl. All things didn't end up being equal, though.

The Niners entered the NFC Championship Game with Brock Purdy at quarterback. Purdy entered the regular season as QB3. However, an ankle injury to Trey Lance in Week 2, and then a foot injury to Jimmy Garoppolo 11 weeks later, left the 49ers turning to Purdy, a relatively unknown rookie to casual NFL fans, to finish out the season.

It turns out Purdy might have been exactly what the 49ers needed. First, he won that December 4 contest against the Miami Dolphins, replacing Garoppolo. Then he proceeded to win the seven starts that followed, including two playoff games.

Unfortunately, Purdy's impressive run ended at Lincoln Financial Field when his arm was hit in the first quarter on a pass that eventually ruled a lost fumble. Deep down, 49ers fans knew at that moment that their season might be over.

The 49ers looked capable of overcoming anything this season, even poor fortune cast down by the football gods. Purdy's story captivated the NFL. The quarterback wasn't just a rookie. He wasn't just a seventh-round pick. He was the last overall pick—No. 262—in the 2022 draft. That's what made his journey so intriguing. Once labeled as "Mr. Irrelevant," Purdy proved himself to be anything but, and the 49ers were lucky to have him.

Everyone's luck ran out on Sunday.

"He's the reason we even got to this game," linebacker Fred Warner said after the game. "When Jimmy went down against the Dolphins, we didn't even know what our season was going to be. He came in and did a heck of a job. He's the reason we're here right now."

For the 49ers, it was a magical season that ended too abruptly. It didn't seem fair. They had overcome so much and looked like a formidable opponent for the top-seeded Eagles, capable of pulling off an upset. Of course, that depended on having someone who could throw the football.

Purdy could not. His replacement could not. Josh Johnson, the only other active quarterback on game day, exited with a concussion.

Jimmy Garoppolo was potentially close to returning. There was a slight chance he could have returned to practice this past week. He did not. There was a slightly better chance he could return during the upcoming week as the 49ers prepared for the Super Bowl. Of course, that all depended on Purdy and the 49ers beating the Eagles.

Maybe things would have been different if Garoppolo had been just a bit healthier, just a bit more ahead of schedule.

"I wish I had a helmet," Garoppolo told NBC Sports Bay Area after the game.

On Sunday, everyone, even Garoppolo's harshest critics, probably wished that too. Anything Garoppolo could have mustered would have probably been better than an injured and ineffective Purdy, incapable of throwing the football further than 10 yards and likely unable to throw it fewer than 10 yards accurately. Purdy, re-entering the game after Johnson's exited, tossed just one pass after the injury, finishing the game 4-of-4 for 23 yards.

This loss was tough. Not just the defeat itself but how everything ended.

"Tough way to go out," defensive lineman Arik Armstead wrote via Twitter. "Congrats to the Eagles. [T]hey are a good team but I don't think anyone wanted to see the game go that way. That's just life…."

Head coach Kyle Shanahan has been a part of some tough defeats. He's now failed in back-to-back NFC Championship Game appearances. All losses hurt but this one was different.

"Losing feels awful," Shanahan said. "Yeah, this one was harder. This one was harder. This one was a lot harder, I thought."

Maybe tight end George Kittle summed it up best, acknowledging that losing is one thing. But losing the way the 49ers lost on Sunday is another.

"How does that feel to lose an NFC Championship Game because I don't have a [healthy] quarterback?" Kittle asked, repeating the question from a reporter. "Pretty sh-tty, to be honest."

Understandably, the emotions from the loss were apparent in the locker room after the game. It had been a long time since the 49ers lost a game. They won 12 consecutive games entering Sunday.

"When you win for so long, you forget how losing feels," linebacker Fred Warner admitted, blaming self-inflicted wounds on the defeat.

"It just wasn't our day," the All-Pro defender added.

The 49ers felt they had a solid game plan but were never able to execute it properly because of the circumstances. Purdy's injury was devastating for a team that had already fought through so much on the way to the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

"Guys were pretty down in there," Shanahan admitted. "We were really excited for today, and we really wanted an opportunity to play that team. They played great, and they did good things, but we wish we had a little bit better opportunity than we did today."

The coach wasn't sure what to say to his players after the game, knowing that nothing could immediately heal the sting of this lost opportunity.

"There's not much to say right now," Shanahan said. "It was kind of tough to talk in there right after the game, for everybody. I've got more love for these guys than I possibly could have, and they've got it for each other. I was proud of how they fought out there. Our guys didn't shy away from anything.

"I thought they got dealt a pretty tough card today—or a tough hand. I just hurt for those guys. We felt really good about this game, and it was a tough one, some tough circumstances. We should have done a few things better, but I'm really proud of the group in there and excited to talk to some of them on the plane."

The 49ers looked like a team destined to do something special, hoping to help Purdy become the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to start a Super Bowl. It fely like something worthy of a Hollywood script. Instead, the 49ers will watch the Eagles battling the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs from home.

Like last offseason, Niners will spend this offseason wondering what could have been. What might have happened if their impressive young quarterback had been healthy enough to finish the game?

"You can only do so much if the ball doesn't bounce our way," Kittle said. "That's football. That's life."

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