It wasn’t supposed to be Brock Purdy.
Champion of the NFC after leading the San Franscisco 49ers to their second Super Bowl in five years – that was meant for someone else.
As the confetti rained over Levi’s Stadium, amongst the glitter one could glimpse flashes of another timeline, one in which a different man soaked in the adulation.
Perhaps that man would have been Trey Lance, the highly touted quarterback prospect that the Niners moved up to take with the third pick in the 2021 draft.
It might have been Jimmy Garoppolo, the veteran who had flourished in the Bay and guided them to the Super Bowl in 2019.
Whoever it was, the Niners’ hopes weren’t intended to rest on the 24-year-old shoulders of Mr Irrelevant – a title given to the very last pick in the NFL draft.
And yet there he stood.
When the 49ers selected Purdy with pick 262 in the 2022 draft in the deepest depths of round seven – nobody was thinking of Tom Brady.
While entirely unheralded, Brady was still taken a full 63 places above Purdy.
His and the Patriots’ subsequent successes were a miracle among miracles, lightning that couldn’t possibly strike twice.
The most the Niners dared to hope for with Purdy was some emergency insurance in the battle between the untested Lance and injury-prone Garoppolo.
When Lance was lost to a broken ankle in Week 2 of the 2022 season, all eyes turned to Garoppolo’s steady hand.
Under Garoppolo, the Niners accrued a record of eight wins and four losses, entering Week 13 against the Miami Dolphins looking like an unstoppable offensive team.
Then Garoppolo broke his foot in the first quarter, and hopes for the season limped off the field with him.
Just like that, a man described as “not a very good athlete” by one of the 31 teams that declined to draft him took the field.
The Niners won that game.
Purdy threw for two touchdowns in the 33-17 victory, becoming the first Mr Irrelevant to ever throw a touchdown in an NFL regular season game.
For his first career start the following week, Purdy again recorded two touchdowns, this time against Tom Brady himself in a 35-7 demolition of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Seattle Seahawks were the next to fall, then the Washington Commanders, then the Las Vegas Raiders, then the Arizona Cardinals.
Come season’s end, the Niners had a record of 13-4 and Purdy had yet to lose a game.
There were echoes of Garoppolo’s arrival back in 2017, when he rattled off five straight wins to give hope to a franchise that looked dead in the water.
More than that, there were echoes of Brady.
A previously unnoticed quarterback being thrust into the starting role after an injury to well-known starters experiencing phenomenal success?
That was Brady back in 2001, and suddenly all anyone could think about was whether it might be Purdy in 2022.
Brady led those underdog Patriots to one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets in history, ushering in the most successful dynasty the NFL has ever seen.
For Purdy, there would be no such fairytale, at least not yet.
The Niners cruised through those playoffs, dispatching the Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys to set up a mouth-watering clash against the Philadelphia Eagles.
It was not one for the ages, as Purdy tore a ligament in his elbow early on, effectively rendering the Niners toothless.
The Eagles ran riot to the tune of 31-7 and the hottest arm in the league was unable to complete a throw longer than ten yards.
His season was over, and a long, painful rehabilitation process lay ahead, but neither of those was the worst thing Brock Purdy faced that offseason.
Most excruciating of all was the knowledge that no one believed him.
To all but the most hard-core Niners faithful, he was a fluke.
A flash in the pan.
He had to prove to everyone, all over again, that he was both the present and future of the San Francisco 49ers.
So that’s what he did.
For Purdy it wasn’t really anything new, just the same underestimation that had followed him his whole career.
He said: “I’ve never been the biggest, the fastest, the strongest, or any of that.
“I feel like I’ve always had to sort of fight for what I get and work for what I get.”
In 2023, the 49ers won 12 of the 16 games that Purdy started in, earning the NFC’s top seed and a first-round bye.
Purdy threw for 31 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions.
He led the entire NFL in passer rating and yards per attempt.
His 4,280 yards were the most any 49ers quarterback had passed for in a single season. Ever.
Yet to many he remained a cog in the machine made better by those around him, unlike the truly elite quarterbacks who make those around them better.
Besides, none of it would mean anything if he couldn’t deliver in the playoffs.
For the third time in his nascent career, Brock Purdy had to defy the weight of expectation.
Everyone on his own team, including All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, could see how unfair a burden that was.
McCaffrey said: “All he’s done since he’s been here is play at an elite level.
“Everything starts with him.
“We’re lucky he’s our quarterback.
“He takes a lot of heat for absolutely no reason.”
In the Divisional round versus the Green Bay Packers, Purdy engineered a game winning drive with just two minutes left to play.
In the NFC championship versus the Detroit Lions, the Niners came from behind to win 34-31.
Purdy was exceptional.
As tackle Trent Williams succinctly put it: “He’s the reason we’re headed to the Super Bowl.”
Now all that remains is a single match against the best player on the planet.
Win this, and there can be no more questions.
Win this, and any suggestions of game management will pale into insignificance.
Win this, and lightning strikes twice.
It wasn’t supposed to be Brock Purdy.
Except maybe it always was.
Featured image courtesy of Jar Lar under Creative Commons 4.0