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The Brock Purdy Question
Brock, Draymond and why it's so hard to overcome "draftism"
Ever since I watched Draymond Green’s rise from second-round afterthought to hall-of-fame dynamo, I’ve been fascinated by draftism. Back then, I didn’t call it “draftism,” a term coined by Bay Area radio host Mark Willard. I probably referred to initial diminishments of Green as “incumbency bias,” or some other flabbier description, but I knew what it looked like. When you’re drafted low, and your success flies in the face of everyone’s Bayesian priors, it can take a long while to be considered good on your own merits. Even then you’ll likely be nagged with pundit hypotheticals about other teams where you’d be a nobody. You can thrive for over a decade and never quite escape the suspicion that your surprise career is someone else’s production.
With Draymond, I always found that line of thinking funny because he gatecrashed the Warriors and grabbed a role that was never promised. No system was ever perfectly fit around him. He didn’t win some raffle to be the guy running pick and roll with Steph Curry. Draymond was just too hungry, too versatile, and ultimately too good to be denied his fate as pillar for an all-time team.
With that in mind, I’m inordinately fascinated by the rise of Brock Purdy, the 49ers starting quarterback and famously the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. It’s just a great story for the most basic reasons, and discussion of his relative ability powers about 30 percent of the sports talk in my region. Recently, the Purdy Question has seeped into the national discourse, becoming a regular fixture on Fox Sports’ First Things First, among other TV sports talk shows. Friend-of-pod Nick Wright ranks Purdy lower than his cohosts might, leading to many arguments about value, fit and individual success.
It’s not just Wright who’s made waves as a Purdy skeptic. Steven Ruiz of The Ringer has become a punching bag over Bay Area sports radio on account of ranking Purdy 25th among quarterbacks, five spots lower than currently flailing Mac Jones. This ranking came the week after Purdy completed 20-of-21 passes in yet another win (Purdy is 9-0 lifetime in the regular season, and his only playoff loss happened in the game where he tore his UCL), and Ruiz appears to be pretty dug in on the take. San Francisco’s KNBR clipped him saying that the 49ers can’t win a Super Bowl with Purdy and that he’ll quit the sport if it happens.
While admittedly not a football expert, I strongly disagree with these guys and a great many other Purdy doubters. I’m slightly wary of declaring this before Purdy steps into a hyped game against a ferocious Dallas Cowboys pass rush, but all the better to risk some small measure of take embarrassment. It helps set up a Sunday night that has exactly what I want in sports: A big leverage moment in a player’s career, one where you can sense his station rising or falling with every play.
If I’m running with the premise that Purdy is good, then what’s his secret? How did this teenage-looking guy overcome having less-than-elite size and arm strength? And no, I don’t believe his edge is simply “accuracy.”
It’s all captured in this exchange, prompted by Grant Cohn, House of Strauss guest and (perhaps former?) Purdy doubter. Cohn asked the following good question of Brock, ahead of the 49ers’ Week 2 game vs. the Rams:
Cohn: The more success you have, the more you sort of force people to reexamine what makes a quarterback successful in the NFL and what traits are most important?
Purdy: That’s a loaded question in a sense. I think it comes down to decision-making, being able to make decisions quick, the right decision and just being smart with the ball. I feel like if you can just do those things and do what the play caller is asking of you, and not doing too much, then I think you can help put the team in a successful position. That’s something that I’ve tried to remind myself of, and not trying to do too much, not trying to be a superhero, and do everything but, make the right decision every single play, and so, I don’t necessarily know if that’s something that people now are like, asking themselves if they’re going to go draft a quarterback in late rounds and whatnot but that’s sort of how I do it and I guess it works.
Loaded question, really interesting answer, and the perfect setup for what ensued that week. Why the perfect setup? Because that Sunday was a) Purdy’s worst game as a pro thus far and b) an efficient 17-of-25, 206-yard performance.
How can that be? How can you play poorly and still produce efficiently? A common explanation would refer to surrounding talent, but there’s a bit more going on here. Week 2 was considered Purdy’s worst game because he missed on three deep passes, a couple of which were pretty open. These misses were highlighted by media members a bit more than the average quarterback’s would be, likely on account of the Purdy Question being such a fertile topic.
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan was not nearly so critical, at least publicly:
The main thing he did today was protect the ball. Besides those three misses, which, none of them were easy, but, he took care of the football and didn’t give them a chance to touch it and when he was under duress, he was smart.
To summarize, Brock Purdy repeatedly made the correct throws, but missed a few of them. All three failed deep passes were sound decisions, choices that, if you believe enough in Purdy’s talent, will work out better over time. More to the point, the absence of bad decisions kept the ball away from the opponent, an outcome that Shanahan highly desires. You might watch the game and lament those uncharacteristic misses, but what’s most important is making the right play. There are guys who’ll throw with touch and accuracy … right to the other team.
As with card counting, making the correct decisions, repeatedly, tilts the game in your favor over time. When I’ve watched Purdy skeptics compare him unfavorably to bigger or stronger-armed quarterbacks, I think this point can get lost. As sports observers, we value what we can see. As football watchers, we usually can’t see which player the quarterback should have thrown to; we see only the outcomes. In the case of Purdy, the outcomes have been great, but production alone isn’t enough to dispel the notion that he’s a product of Kyle Shanahan, Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, and Trent Williams.
I’m a fan for sure, I think he’s doing some great things. I think people always have to have some sort of caveat, like Kyle’s such a good play-caller and he’s got CMC and Deebo and Kittle and all these guys. At some point, I think some of that’s going to die down, they’re going to realize that Brock’s a pretty damn good player.
Rodgers delved more deeply into his assessment (while offering a dash of Tony Soprano’s, “You’ve got no fuckin’ idea what it’s like to be number one; every decision you make affects every facet of every other fuckin’ thing.”:
Brock has done some great things. At some point people are going to be like, okay, maybe it’s not just that Kyle’s a great play-caller and he’s got these weapons. You’ve still got a guy who’s got to pull the trigger every single time and make decisions. And I watched the game a couple weeks ago and I thought he made three or four really high-level throws, back-shoulder throws, tight-window throws, a couple look-offs. So, I’ve got nothing but praise for Brock and respect for the way he’s played.
I could get into some nuances here about how Purdy has underrated mobility and how he’s taken to using that mobility less recklessly than in last season’s games. But ultimately, this is a simple story so far. Purdy has started 11 games in his career, over which he’s thrown only two interceptions. Some of that is luck that’s due for mean regression, and some of that is a scheme that’s friendly to YAC (Yards After Catch). It’s also too efficient over too long a period to be random.
Why is it happening? For a multitude of reasons, including the 49ers’ touted talent. But Trey Lance, drafted No. 3 overall in 2021 to be the 49ers’ future, looked shaky when flanked by those big names. In football, a quarterback can get help, but nobody can do the job for you. You’re still the guy “who’s got to pull the trigger every single time,” so the team rises and falls on the basis of your decisions.
Decision-making is what can get overlooked in a draft. Draymond Green was a tweener with a normal body, who couldn’t create his own shot. His super power was an ability to think quicker than the other guy. Similarly, in the same market but a different sport, Purdy’s overcome having a less than imposing figure with his ability to make the right read.
The conventional wisdom initially has trouble with the arrival of a guy like this, but perhaps it shouldn’t. Neither player, Green or Purdy, would have had a prayer of being drafted in the first place if not for their decision making powers. If a dude’s body type overtly doesn’t fit in the league, he’s obviously bringing something else to the table. Instead of being aghast by an unexpected success, it makes more sense to just realize that an ability that brought a player to the scene has since allowed him to triumph within it. Draymond and Brock think fast and the ironic byproduct is that many are slow to adjust their priors to this reality.
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