The San Francisco 49ers began the season not planning on Jimmy Garoppolo to play quarterback and certainly not expecting Brock Purdy to ever get in the game.
The third-string quarterback was literally irrelevant — as the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, “Mr. Irrelevant,” to be exact — and yet there he was, thrust into one of the most high-profile matchups of the NFL season in the second quarter Sunday, tasked with trying to outduel Tua Tagovailoa and the high-flying Miami Dolphins.
It was a chance, on paper, for the Dolphins’ defense to finally feast — an untested, almost-undrafted rookie could have been the perfect ailment for an inconsistent group.
Instead, the 23-year-old did enough to beat Miami, 33-17, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, and it was as much because of him as it was in spite.
Purdy went 25 of 37 for 210 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, and the pick actually netted San Francisco 20 yards of field position because it came on fourth down.
“They pretty much stuck with the offense,” defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “They did a little more quick passes, short passes, things like that, probably just to get their quarterback going in a rhythm, but respect to him. He did a good job stepping up.”
As much as the Dolphins’ offense struggled against the 49ers, it wasn’t totally unexpected, given San Francisco’s standing as the top defense in the NFL. This was poised to be a game for Miami (8-4) to win with defense and it couldn’t capitalize.
At the end of the game, the Dolphins had their chance. After Miami failed a fourth-down conversion at the 49ers’ 36-yard line with six minutes remaining and the Dolphins down 23-17, Miami could’ve given its offense one more chance to win by stuffing Purdy and San Francisco, and couldn’t. On a run-heavy victory-clinching drive, Purdy went 2 for 2 for 12 yards, including a third-down conversion to star tight end George Kittle.
Purdy did exactly what he needed to do in relief of Garoppolo: He managed the game, set up his stars to succeed and made timely throws.
He came in with a lead and never let it go. He leaned on star running back Christian McCaffery and star wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who combined for 209 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown. Most importantly, he and the 49ers (8-4) went 8 of 19 on third downs, and Purdy went 11 of 13 for 81 yards, a touchdown and an interception in those situations.
“He made some plays,” defensive tackle Zach Sieler said. “He was mobile back there and kind of ran around a little bit.”
Added safety Jevon Holland: “We’ve just got to pick up those plays we left on the field.”
One of the turning-point moments happened right at the end of the first half, when Purdy was still fresh in the game and the score was still knotted at 10-10. In a two-minute situation, Purdy was near flawless and converted a third-and-10 by firing a strike to Kittle across the middle of the field, putting San Francisco across midfield with 51 seconds left. He then picked the Dolphins apart with checkdowns, getting 19 yards on a completion to 49ers wide receiver Jauan Jennings, 18 on a throw to McCaffery and finally a go-ahead, 3-yard touchdown on third-and-goal with four seconds left to send San Francisco into halftime up 17-10.
No one in the locker room was ready to call it a missed opportunity, though. The 49ers, multiple defenders said, didn’t do anything differently when Purdy replaced Garoppolo, who is now out for the season with a foot injury.
“They kept running the ball, featuring their go-to guys,” Holland said. “Players made plays. That was really it. ... We’ve got to make the plays in front of us.”