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Brock Purdy, 49ers still too young to win it all

Feb 12, 2024 at 1:36 PM--

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The San Francisco 49ers have nine players who played in the 2019 Super Bowl. Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Arik Armstead, Kevin Givens, George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk, Deebo Samuel, and Mitch Wishnowsky all bore witness - and responsibility - to the 49ers' gut-wrenching loss that night, and the years of grueling effort needed to return to that stage. This was a veteran team.

And yet, on Super Bowl Sunday, the 49ers were the more inexperienced squad. For all their pedigree and all their years of harbored resentment, Patrick Mahomes and co. stepped onto the stage and into a role that fit them like a glove. Travis Kelce made himself simply unguardable in the second half. Steve Spagnuolo's unit made Brock Purdy merely ordinary, forcing the 49ers' offensive machinery to come grinding to a halt. And when each team needed to come up with the drives of their life, Kansas City came up big. San Francisco didn't.

It's the depressing, if not entirely unexpected, outcome of a close game against the defending champions. For all the foibles and misfortune that plagued the Niners, they weren't ripped off or rigged against. Dre Greenlaw's shocking injury, Darrell Luter's punt recovery "fumble," Jake Moody's blocked PAT and an unblocked Chris Jones - these things foiled San Francisco's momentum, but they didn't win Kansas City the game.

The unraveling began with the simple inability to score more than twice in the first half, when the 49ers notched a solid 6.2 yards per play. 46 yards in four plays to start the game pointed to an early San Francisco lead, but McCaffrey fumbled it away. Penalties and negative plays dogged them the rest of the way, thwarting drives before they started and putting the offense in impossible situations. San Francisco averaged ten yards to go on third downs, part of why they went 3-for-12 in those key moments.

From there, a familiar script followed. Three consecutive three-and-outs started the second half, and with points on any of those drives (hell, even a solid handful of first downs), San Francisco probably shaves away enough of the game to win. Even then, Shanahan's offense had the chance to put the game in its hands, facing third-and-five inside the two-minute warning. Converting there almost hands your team a Super Bowl trophy. Purdy threw incomplete, 49ers kicked a field goal, and the rest belongs to Kansas City.

If a devastating offense is who the 49ers are, they sure didn't look like themselves, and therein lies the key to San Francisco's undoing. The Chiefs knew who they were; a young, aggressive defense supporting Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce, a pair of GOATs who could win games all by themselves. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why Kansas City is so intimidating. The 49ers, though, didn't seem to really understand what they were. They lacked an identity. All year, the keys to their success changed, and at the end of the road, they didn't have anything to force open a path to victory.

At the beginning of the season, San Francisco built up leads early and salted away games with McCaffrey. At the end of the season, they leaned on creative, precise dropbacks from Purdy to pull out high-stakes playoff wins. But these methods came from happenstance, rather than as the byproduct of a particular strategy. The 49ers can win a million different ways, but until they have one that they can bet on in any game at any time, they'll be stuck in Mahomes' shadow. It's up to San Francisco to retreat this offseason, do some very cold and calculated soul-searching, and truly understand what their edge is.

That's because even if Kansas City doesn't represent the AFC in the next few years, the Niners may have just had their last, best shot to win a championship under Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch. The offense is top-heavy, and the defense is regressing in subtle but important ways. Despite an All-Pro at every level, Steve Wilks' unit looked abysmal against the run late in the year, all while slipping into questionable coverage patterns. Just like the offense, the defense got caught without an ace in the hole. Early in the season, they produced a ton of value on turnovers against weaker foes, but that value lacked sustainability. After their Week 10 rout of the Eagles, the 49ers seemed to unlock a contain-focused strategy against mobile quarterbacks, but it didn't work against Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, and it only worked so long against Mahomes.

Which makes it more impressive that San Francisco's defense nearly did the impossible by shutting him down. For three quarters, they followed the legacy of their 2019 unit's ferocious pass rush, and subsequent years' more balanced attack. But with their backs against the wall, this defense just kind of… played defense until Patrick Mahomes won. There was little in the way of exotic scheming or daring gambles. The biggest twist was Wilks sending an all-out blitz against Mahomes on third-and-10 early in the fourth quarter. Mahomes picked it up immediately and hit Travis Kelce for a huge gain. Once the "Grim Reaper" started knocking on their door, the 49ers simply didn't have the tools to turn him away.

You can't stick with an old formula against the greats, because they will exploit it time and time again. Just look to the timeout Kyle Shanahan called in the fourth quarter with Kansas City driving. Steve Wilks dialed up a nickel package with every defensive back lined up at the first-down marker, giving KC's receivers about 10 yards of space, immediately after doing so the play before and giving up a chunk gain. Kyle Shanahan burned a timeout to cancel the defensive play call. Read that line again. When something like that happens, you know the team cohesion is broken. Whether that's fair to the coaches or the players, from that point forward, Kansas City scored on every possession until the game was over.

That's what happens when you face Mahomes, who pressures a defense like none other. The evolution in his seemingly unlimited skillset offers a harsh backdrop for Brock Purdy, who couldn't do much to change the game. He looked like a newborn chameleon, trying to blend in to everything at once, and occasionally being very noticeable when he missed the mark. We saw sparks of Purdy's elite traits - he scrambled for a big run in the first half, and threw darts to Jauan Jennings multiple times - but all too often, someone was able to get in Purdy's way and shut him down once he committed to an option. On a 3rd-and-4 that saw Jennings break open for a potential go-ahead touchdown, Purdy couldn't evade Jones long enough to get an accurate throw off. For all of Purdy's actual game-breaking skills, he still has a ways to go to learn how to harness them.

None of this should detract from the entire organization's efforts. The 49ers' leadership has built a juggernaut over the past five years. The players put their hearts and souls on the line, and faced off in one of the greatest NFL games of all time. But in the end, winning a Super Bowl means having something - a player, a skill, a strategy - that the other team just can't beat. And the 49ers don't have that. They have a lot of really, really talented players and good schemes, ones that most teams can't figure out. It took Kansas City five full quarters to do so. But once they cracked San Francisco's code, winning was as easy as a walk-in touchdown.
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