49ers QB Brock Purdy is more Rich Gannon than he is Joe Montana or Steve Young
There’s a tendency to compare Brock Purdy to those who came before him on the NFL’s most quarterback-centric team.
I’ve seen Joe Montana and Steve Young in practice and games, quarterbacks who, by the time I was around, were playing for 49ers teams with elite rosters and coaches on their way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But the quarterback Purdy most resembles isn’t going to the Hall of Fame, despite winning a Most Valuable Player award and bringing a dormant franchise out of the shadows and into the spotlight. He did it with a tough demeanor, a high completion rate, few turnovers, and the ability to be a creative point guard capable of enhancing the abilities of those around him.
Rich Gannon was immediately sold on Brock Purdy. Purdy came off the bench after Jimmy Garoppolo broke his foot and led the 49ers to a 33-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
“Honestly, I was just blown away,” Gannon said over the phone recently. “You could see his poise, confidence, decision-making, and accuracy from the first series.” He just appeared to be a natural.”
Purdy had some rusty training camp practices after undergoing UCL surgery on his right elbow. There were a few interceptions on balls that he should not have thrown. Purdy’s short-range passes had enough steam to get the job done, but frozen ropes are not his specialty. Sam Darnold was responsible for the throws that occasionally elicited a low whistle from onlookers.
But practices aren’t the same as games, and they’re not the best way to determine who is and isn’t a viable NFL quarterback.
It was a lesson learned when the Raiders switched from Jeff George to Gannon from 1997 to 1999.
Whatever your thoughts are on George, his arm talent was undeniable and displayed in its purest form in practice. George was like Mark McGwire in the cage, a daily miracle that had to be seen to be believed.
Of course, no one hit George in practice, and he was facing a shaky Raiders defense. Even so, his ability to hit the ball on the money from long distances with a flick of the wrist was impressive.
George was the prototypical Al Davis downfield thrower, but new coach Jon Gruden desired a leader who could change attitudes, move chains, and get everyone involved. Gannon had been a journeyman starter and was regarded as a traditional backup when he arrived at the age of 34.
Practices were less than impressive during Gannon’s first training camp, especially for those of us who were used to watching George’s daily pyrotechnics. Gannon rolled out more and occasionally threw at unsuspecting receivers’ feet or aborted plays with glares when routes weren’t run correctly.
When a Gannon-George comparison was made, Gruden explained that everything was going according to plan. When the quarterback extended a play, Gannon was teaching new teammates how to carry on. Things were not as they appeared.
Every member of the media collectively rolled their eyes. The Raiders had to have made a mistake.
The Raiders, it turns out, were ready for a change. Instead of a disjointed series of quick strikes, the Raiders became an offense with an interlocking system of plays, with one setting up the other, with Gannon at quarterback. In the 25 years since their return to Oakland, the Raiders have had four winning teams. Gannon played quarterback in three of them. He was a two-time All-Pro and the 2002 MVP.
Gannon was the most influential player during the Raiders’ second run in Oakland, despite the franchise’s collective faceplant in the Super Bowl against their old coach and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Gannon was playing at a Hall of Fame level during his first four years in Oakland before injuries struck, even if he never accumulated enough numbers to make it.
Gannon was an extension of Gruden, and that’s what struck me about Purdy and his relationship with coach Kyle Shanahan. He didn’t require Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance as a quarterback. The “oohs” and “aahs” were few and far between for a smallish but experienced leader from Iowa State.
Gannon and Purdy have never met and couldn’t be more dissimilar. Gannon was abrasive and sarcastic. When the offense was struggling, I suggested that they give Marques Tuiasosopo a series or two, and Gannon accused me of smoking crack. The first time I spoke with Purdy, a week before Garoppolo was injured, he addressed me as “sir.”
Gannon had better running abilities, particularly in his first season with the Raiders, when he scrambled for first downs and rushed for 527 yards.
Gannon and Purdy, on the other hand, are kindred spirits when it comes to mentally manipulating a defense and carrying out the wishes of the head coach.
“If you just look at him, he’s never going to be Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes,” Gannon said. “He’s not going to throw it 40 yards across the field or whip it around.” That is not his style. But he is aware of his own strengths as well as his own limitations. He makes good decisions both inside and outside the pocket, doesn’t make many mistakes, and when he does, he quickly turns the page.”
Gannon was in attendance when the Raiders scrimmaged the 49ers in Las Vegas, and he spoke with enough people to get a sense of how highly Purdy is regarded. It has absolutely nothing to do with being Pick No. 262.
“I don’t care where he was drafted. “Set that side, round, and everything,” Gannon said. “I wouldn’t expect any of the kids drafted this year, Bryce Young in Carolina, C.J. Stroud in Houston, or Anthony Richardson in Indianapolis, to go in there and do what he did.” I simply would not.”
Or, for that matter, Trey Lance this year.
“For as much flak as John Lynch and Kyle got about it, it seems like people aren’t giving them credit for identifying a quarterback that a lot of people passed on,” Gannon said. “They liked his DNA, football intelligence, competitiveness, leadership skills, and his ability to be a smooth operator.”
Gannon was never able to deliver the ultimate prize, owing to the Raiders imploding, returning to their former selves, and remaining there ever since, with the exception of one playoff season in 2016 and another in Las Vegas in 2021. There are Raiders fans who will never forgive him.
Purdy has a better supporting cast than Gannon ever had, raising the prospect of proving that being a championship quarterback is as much about being a natural facilitator as it is about arm strength, athleticism, and hype.