The Niners went into their Week 9 bye at a crossroads as a team.
Their once-dominant 5–0 outfit—winning games by an average of 20 points per week—had lost three straight, and fallen out of first place in the NFC West. The excuses were ready for the players. Trent Williams and Deebo Samuel were hurt. They played consecutive road games two and three time zones away, then came back to face the Bengals on a short week. They got everyone’s best shot, with those three opponents recording season-turning wins.
All of it could be explained away. San Francisco could’ve chalked landing in an unexpected midseason ditch up to a million things.
Instead, the Niners looked in the mirror. And in doing so, they saw something familiar.
“If you look at the last couple seasons, we sort of went through a stretch of losing a couple of games and then sort of having to realize, We’ve got to pick this up, gotta have that chip on our shoulder and be hungry again,” quarterback Brock Purdy told me as he headed for the exits at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville on Sunday after a 34–3 win over the Jaguars. “And then it was just going on to finish out the season strong. For this season, [we] lost three in a row going into the bye. For all of us, man, it’s been a sucky feeling. For all of us, a bad taste in our mouth.
“So we got away a little bit, but also came back with a chip on our shoulder again, trying to play the 49er football that we all know.”
Purdy wasn’t around for all the history he cited, but it was right there for him, and everyone else, to learn from. The 2019 teams lost two of three in December, then regained its mojo and got to the Super Bowl. The ’21 team lost four straight, and five of six to fall to 3–5, and got to the NFC title game. Last year’s group started 3–4 and, like the ’21 team, got to the conference championship round.
And the 2023 Niners are, very clearly now, shooting to do more than any of those teams.
So there they were going into the bye, looking at themselves collectively, and individually, and confronting what they didn’t like about where they were on Halloween. The hope, of course, was for a really good team to find its potential.
On Sunday, the red-hot Jaguars felt the brunt of that. And, yes, the beatdown of Trevor Lawrence & Co. was as much about where the Niners are going as it is about where they are as a team.
We’re now more than halfway through the season, and that gives us plenty to dig through in this week’s MMQB, including …
• A look at the Texans’ rise behind C.J. Stroud and DeMeco Ryans.
• More on the incredible, inexplicable 2023 that Joshua Dobbs has had.
• The 10 Takeaways, leading with the tricky spot Patriots owner Robert Kraft is in.
But we’re starting with the league’s darlings of September, who are trying to build toward being a lot more than that in February.
As the Niners dug through their three-game losing streak, one thing stood out—a team whose talent gave it plenty of margin for error was leaning on that margin way more often than it should have been.
That manifested most clearly in turnover margin, with the Niners turning the ball over three times and taking it away just once against the Bengals and Vikings.
“It’s all about the ball,” Purdy says. “It’s the defense getting turnovers and then for us on offense, being smart and not turning the ball over. It’s as simple as that.”
Against the Jaguars, it was that simple.
On defense, the Niners kept the pressure on early, forcing three-and-outs on Jacksonville’s first two possessions with sacks on third down, then coming back early in the second quarter with old-new teammates Nick Bosa and Chase Young (more on that in a bit) meeting at Lawrence, and jarring the ball loose to short-circuit the Jaguars’ first surge into Niners territory.
In the second half, San Francisco wound up smothering the hosts, first with Bosa flushing Lawrence from the pocket and forcing an errant throw into the hands of Talanoa Hufanga. Then it was Ambry Thomas and Dre Greenlaw hitting Christian Kirk from different angles in the low red zone (and Thomas returning the loose ball for a touchdown that’d be called back on a penalty). And, finally, it was Javon Hargrave pressuring Lawrence into a bad toss right at Fred Warner for another pick.
“Defense was on fire—four turnovers,” Purdy says. “It creates momentum for us on offense. Then we go out, and we’re smart with the ball, put up points on the board. That’s how we win. The last three games, I’ve made some crucial turnovers. Defense is trying their best, but, man, is it tough to get a turnover. Then we’re in these close games, and the ball didn’t go our way in some of them. The biggest thing, it was all about the ball for us.”
Of course, Purdy protected it, too. As he intimated, the offense didn’t turn it over once.
But for the quarterback himself, there was a little more to all of this.
After the first two back-to-back multi-interception games of his career, including a stretch of five picks in three games (he hadn’t previously had more than two over any run of three games since becoming a Niner), Purdy did, indeed, look at where how he might’ve gotten a little looser with the ball.
On the flip side, he didn’t want the rut he was in to make him gunshy, meaning he’d have to walk the tightrope between managing situations and making plays.
“The last couple games, we’re in some close games, and then for me, there’s been plays where, not that I’m making them up, but I’m trying to make a good throw or forcing a play rather than playing within the offense,” he says. “It’s playing and learning and having that fine balance of playing within the offense, but also being aggressive. Ripping outside windows, honestly, that’s who I am as a quarterback—I’m aggressive.
“I’ll take shots and give my guys a chance.”
Almost right away, his first such shot would come.
On the Niners’ fourth offensive snap, a first-and-10 from the Jacksonville 13, Purdy booted left, and the Jaguars had the Niners covered. As he hit the perimeter, he flipped his hips, set and feathered a ball across his body into the back of the end zone, trusting that Brandon Aiyuk would get to a throw that, without question, went against some quarterbacking principles and meant assuming some risk. Aiyuk went up for it and paid off Purdy’s bet.
“He was running in the back of the end zone, and I’m just trying to get it to him in some space,” Purdy says. “Looking back on it, is it as smart? Probably not. I could pick up some yards with my legs and be safe in that sense. At the same time, I gotta be a gunslinger in some scenarios.”
And just as that scenario opened the first half up for Purdy, a similar one would unfold at the beginning of the second half.
On the second play after the break, a second-and-inches, Purdy pump-faked in the pocket, and that bought the Jaguars a split second to collapse the pocket right in the quarterback’s lap. There was, really, no space for him to operate, or even see, what was going on downfield. But he had a pretty good idea, based on what he’d already looked at, that another shot would be there for the taking, so he took it.
And 66 yards later, George Kittle was dancing in the end zone, and it was 20–3.
“It was man coverage and the play that we had on was to BA over the middle,” Purdy says. “If [it’s not there], you’re one-on-one with George on the outside. That’s what it came down to, I felt BA covered, felt the safety cut. There were guys in my lap, but having the trust that George is going to be able to go get the one-on-one with the linebacker, I put it up. And he made the rest happen.”
So after all that, the biggest plays Purdy made Sunday were the result of the biggest risks he took.
But the key, for him, was to continue to learn when those risks needed to be taken. On this day, at least, he picked the right spots.
“More than anything, it’s just being smart with the ball,” Purdy says. “I had to learn the hard way the last three games.”
Then, there’s the piece of this that’s even easier—which is simply which players the Niners had out there Sunday.
That starts with the Niners’ franchise left tackle, Trent Williams, coming back after third-year man Jaylon Moore filled in the past three weeks. Moore’s work was solid, for sure, but it also wasn’t a coincidence that the Niners’ run game, the heart of the offense, had its three least productive days of the year without Williams. Or that it rebounded to the tune of 144 rushing yards with Williams returning.
“First-ballot Hall of Famer,” Purdy says. “To have him back, knowing that my blind side is going to be protected, secured, it’s awesome to have him. That’s not knocking Jaylon Moore. Jaylon Moore stepped right in and did a great job. But, obviously, having Trent and his experience is great.”
Samuel also returned, and his impact, even with just 59 scrimmage yards, was felt, too.
“His juice, his energy, his playmaking ability, it’s always fun to be able to dish him the ball and then go watch him do what he does best,” Purdy says. “He does a great job with extending plays and making guys miss. Having him back, being able to get the ball to him, it does electrify us and gets us going when we need it.”
And there was another addition Sunday that wasn’t as expected, with Young coming over from the Commanders to add to the already-loaded defensive line room.
The physical ability Young brings—when healthy and motivated, and he should be both for the rest of the year—is undeniable. It is, of course, why he went second in the 2020 draft. But there was a boost the players got, too, knowing what GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan acquiring a guy like him means about where the team is, and, again, where they think it can go.
“As a player, I’m on the offensive side of the ball, and to see us go and get another key guy on the pass rush and on the defensive side of things, we’re like, Let’s go,” Purdy says. “That’s showing you what our ownership and everyone in the front office is thinking in terms of this team, for us to go do it right now. Add a key piece like Chase Young, we’re all for it. We’re hungry and we’re ready to be able to play our best football to make a run at the whole thing. Yeah, it gives us confidence knowing that defense, they’re stacked.
“They got players across the board. They’re going to make plays. They’re going to get the ball for us. It’s on us as an offense to pick them up and go put points up on the board, simple as that.”
Sunday was like Week 1, in some ways, watching the Niners.
You got to see the potential, again, for where the team could be headed. Christian McCaffrey played like the MVP candidate he is. Samuel, Aiyuk and Kittle all scored. Williams was back. The defense’s best players—Bosa, Hargrave, Warner, Hufanga—were making plays, and a keyed-up pass rush felt the addition of Young. “They were on their A game,” Purdy says. “It was fun being on the same team as them.”
Watching, it was pretty easy to envision all the things that could come next.
But as Purdy processed it all with the bludgeoning of a really good team complete, and a long trip back across the country on deck, he didn’t want to forget the bumpy road that led the Niners to a performance like this one. He, and the rest of the players, know how good they can be. They also got a good reminder, over the past month, that being that good is not automatic, even for a team as talented as the one they have.
“We’re not trying to get too high with things and think too far ahead in the future,” Purdy says. “It can catch you in the butt. It’s still the NFL, and you’ve got guys that are going to show up and give us their best shot every Sunday.
“We don’t want to get too caught up in the future. But we do understand what we have in front of us and the team that we have. I feel like that’s the chip on our shoulder. That’s where we’re at.”
And after a rough couple of weeks, where they’re at is, again, a pretty good place.