At the worst possible time, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan ran into the QB problem he couldn’t fix

PHILADELPHIA – For all Kyle Shanahan’s genius this season – all the mistakes, confidence, arrogance and winning – the NFL laws of averages presented there had being a bottom for his quarterback bag. The only question was whether the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers could evade the moment, perhaps outsmart it, trick it, or conjure it away and keep this improbable roll going.

But when the end finally came, the moment was as cruel as it was final.

Rookie third-stringer-turned rescuer Brock Purdy couldn’t throw. Fourth stringer Josh Johnson was unable to play. Running back Christian McCaffrey was equipped with a quarterback wristband, and the 49ers had two options: keep Purdy in the game and let him deliver the ball, or use the running back marquee as the centerpiece in a Wildcat plan. Regardless, the Philadelphia Eagles had a monstrous defense leading 21-7 early in the third quarter of the NFC championship game and having the ultimate advantage over a Shanahan offense. Not only was it completely one-dimensional with no functional passing quarterbacks, but it also ran out of options.

Suddenly, the Eagles had rammed San Francisco’s depth chart into territory unseen this season. Two more quarterbacks had broken, leaving nothing more than a handful of air in the bottom of Shanahan’s bag. It’s the kind of thing that takes a legitimate Super Bowl contender and reduces it to a roster in collective disbelief, with players staring into the void of two more quarterback injuries and wondering what is going on?

“I think everyone did [think] that,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said after Sunday’s lopsided 31-7 loss to the Eagles. “You dress two quarterbacks and neither can throw and neither is really available. It kind of limits what you can do as an offense.

How limited? Kittle offered a finite number: play 15, give or take. Almost all of them have some kind of run element.

“There’s only so much you can do,” Kittle said. “As soon as Purdy came back in, they put six men on the line of scrimmage and loaded the box. It’s not like we can turn it into game actions or anything, so we just had to run into it.

Brock Purdy (13) was severely limited as a quarterback on Sunday due to an elbow injury. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

This game, of course, was a huge Eagles story. One out of many, in fact. It was about a defense that has never received as much hype as it deserved and an edge rusher in Haason Reddick who is arguably the most underrated game disruptor of the 2022 season. It was about a quarterback in Jalen Hurts who looks like he’s struggling through injury and a general manager in Howie Roseman who masterfully recreated his second Super Bowl team with a different head coach and quarterback.

Those are the stories that will go into Super Bowl LVII for the next two weeks. The 49ers ultimately won’t, undermining one of the best defenses to fail to make the NFL’s biggest podium. Not to mention ending the storybook rookie season of Purdy, who went from last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft to a legitimate contender to start next season for the franchise.

Perhaps it’s a remarkable testament to Purdy that the 49ers’ offense faltered so badly in his absence, after a hit by Reddick on San Francisco’s first drive that ultimately forced a Purdy fumble and changed the trajectory of the game. While the exact nature of the injury remained unknown Sunday night, it was serious enough to require an MRI next week. It’s a reality that rang in the quarterback’s ears almost immediately, as he went to the sidelines and told Shanahan the worst possible news: he couldn’t throw anymore.

“It just felt like a lot of shocks, from my elbow to my wrist [the] back [of my arm]Purdy said. “Just pain, everywhere. … I told him there [after the Reddick hit]’When we put on a play, I can’t throw deep.’”

And that was it. With all due respect to journeyman Josh Johnson, the balance of momentum seemed destined to slip as the game progressed. Which it did, despite McCaffrey forging a 7-7 tie in the second quarter on a 23-yard touchdown run. It was only a matter of time before an elite Eagles defense forced itself upon itself and turned the tables on a 49ers team that had battered opponents all season. In the end, when Johnson was lost to a concussion early in the third quarter—while trailing 14 points—the only option left was to bring Purdy and his clipped throwing arm back into play to hand off and hope for a miracle that never came. close to materialization.

In that way, the starting quarterback who had claimed San Francisco’s offense to a level worthy of a Super Bowl run was gone. And with him, Shanahan’s comfort in opening his entire playbook against a ferocious opponent. It was one of the strangest and probably one of the most disappointing moments in Shanahan’s history, taking his place alongside a Super Bowl loss as offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons and then another as head coach of these 49ers. Neither felt as toothless as this one.

It was a visible bitterness when Shanahan left the field on Sunday, jaw clenched next to his team. His eyes were steeled in a forward gaze, never recognizing the people around him who passed him and nodded subduedly. They were the kind of exchanges you’d expect when a head coach plays three NFC title games in four years but still hasn’t managed to crack the calculus it takes to win a Super Bowl. A man who will garner votes for Coach of the Year and maybe even win the award for the first time in his career, largely because he’s worked his way out of the quarterback mess all season.

“Guys are pretty down there,” said Shanahan after the loss. “We were really looking forward to today. … I wish we had a slightly better chance than today.”

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan leaves the field after losing the NFC Championship to the Philadelphia Eagles.  It is the second consecutive season the 49ers are one win short of making the Super Bowl.  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan leaves the field after losing the NFC Championship to the Philadelphia Eagles. It is the second consecutive season that the 49ers are one win short of making the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Kittle added, “How does it feel to lose an NFC championship game because I don’t have a quarterback? Pretty shitty, to be honest.”

For the most part, the one-sided nature of the loss will dispel some of the doubts that could have set in had the match been closer. A 24-point defeat tends to numb questions about penalties, depth chart decisions, and blocking schemes (like the one where Tyler Kroft tried to block Reddick when the Purdy hit happened). At some point, the nature of injuries can bury a team and it’s fair to say that’s what happened with the 49ers offense.

But that doesn’t stop you from wondering where this defense would have landed if Purdy hadn’t been hurt, or what this edition of the 49ers would have been capable of. It is now destined for change, as all NFL teams are when their season ends – losing players and assistant coaches and front office personnel. San Francisco will be no different, with off-season contracts and the future of defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Not to mention the questions about how serious the injury to Purdy’s arm is and what that means for future competition in the quarterback spot with Trey Lance.

Ultimately, that will be the focus of this franchise. But only after it’s past the what-if: What if Purdy’s arm had survived Sunday’s hit? What if Jimmy Garoppolo had been healthy enough to go back to the backup spot? What if Johnson had been given a real chance to see if Shanahan could come up with something with his fourth signal caller of the season? Ultimately, the franchise will have to overcome those questions and the coaching staff and roster will have to get back on the same journey.

Kittle summed it up Sunday night, speaking for a franchise that finally ran out of quarterback answers in the 2022 season.

“What-if issues pollute all of our lives in a sense, if we don’t achieve our goals,” he said. “I try not to look at what-ifs. S*** happened. How are you going to respond to it?”

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