At the worst possible time, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan encountered the QB problem he couldn’t solve

PHILADELPHIA — For all Kyle Shanahan’s genius this season — all the mistakes, confidence, arrogance and victory — the NFL’s laws of averages are suggested there. had be a bottom to his quarterback sack. The only question was whether the San Francisco 49ers head coach could escape the moment, maybe outrun him, trick him or wizard him and keep that unlikely turnover going.

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

Third stringer turned savior Brock Purdy was unable to pitch. Fourth stringer Josh Johnson was unable to play. Running back Christian McCaffrey was outfitted with a quarterback bracelet, and the 49ers were left with only two options: keep Purdy in the game and let him put the ball back, or use his marquee running back as the centerpiece in a Wildcat schema. Either way, the Philadelphia Eagles had a monstrous defense that led 21-7 early in the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game and had the ultimate advantage on a Shanahan offense. Not only was he entirely one-dimensional without any functional quarterbacks, but he also had no options.

Suddenly, the Eagles had beaten San Francisco’s depth chart into unseen territory this season. Two other quarterbacks had snapped, leaving the bottom of Shanahan’s bag with nothing more than a handful of air. It’s the kind of thing that takes a legitimate Super Bowl contender and whittles it down to a roster in collective disbelief, with players staring into the void of two other 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 of them can throw and neither of them is really available. It kind of limits what you can do as an offense.

How limited? Kittle offered a finite number: 15 games, more or less. With virtually all featuring some sort of racing element.

“There’s not much you can do,” Kittle said. “As soon as Purdy came back they put six guys on the line of scrimmage and they loaded the box. It’s not like we can do gameplay actions or anything, so we just had to bump into that.

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

This game was a huge Eagles story, of course. One of many, in fact. It was a defense that never got as much hype as it deserved and a top rusher in Haason Reddick who is arguably the most underrated game disrupter of the season. 2022. It was a quarterback in Jalen Hurts who appears to be injured and a general manager in Howie Roseman who masterfully rebuilt his second Super Bowl team with a different head coach and quarterback.

These are the stories that will drive the next two weeks into Super Bowl LVII. The 49ers ultimately won’t, undermining one of the best defenses to miss out on the NFL’s biggest stage. Not to mention Purdy’s storybook rookie season ending, going from the final pick in the 2022 NFL Draft to a legitimate contender to start the franchise next season.

It is perhaps a remarkable testament to Purdy that the 49ers offense faltered so badly in his absence, following a Reddick hit on San Francisco’s first practice that ultimately forced a fumble from Purdy. and changed the trajectory of the game. While the precise nature of the injury remained unknown on Sunday evening, it was serious enough to require an MRI next week. It’s a reality that was apparent to the quarterback almost instantly, as he pulled away from the sideline and told Shanahan the worst possible news: he couldn’t throw anymore.

“It was just like really a lot of shocks everywhere, from my elbow to my wrist in [the] back [of my arm]”, Purdy said. “Just pain, all over. … I told him right away [after the Reddick hit]’If we’re running a game, 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 match progressed. Which he did, despite McCaffrey forging a 7-7 tie in the second quarter on a 23-yard TD run. It was only a matter of time before an elite Eagles defense came through and turned the tables on a 49ers team that had beaten opponents all season. Finally, when Johnson was lost early in the third quarter to a concussion – while trailing by 14 points – the only option left was to put Purdy and his severed throwing arm back in play to pass and hope for a miracle that never came close to materializing.

Just like that, the rookie quarterback who commandeered San Francisco’s offense to a level worthy of a Super Bowl run was gone. And with it came Shanahan’s comfort of opening up his entire playbook against a fierce opponent. It was a moment that was one of the strangest and probably one of the most disappointing in Shanahan’s history, taking his place alongside a Super Bowl loss as offensive coordinator with the Falcons. Atlanta, then another as head coach of those 49ers. Neither looked as toothless as this one.

It was a visible bitterness as Shanahan walked off the pitch on Sunday, in agape silence alongside his team. His eyes were fixed on a forward gaze, never recognizing the individuals around him who passed and offered discreet nods. It was the kind of trade one would expect when a head coach makes three NFC title games in four years but still hasn’t cracked the math needed to win a Super Bowl. A guy who will get Coach of the Year votes and could even win the award for the first time in his career, largely for finding a way out of quarterbacking messes throughout the season. .

“Guys are pretty low in that,” Shanahan said after the loss. “We were really excited for today. … I wish we had a better opportunity than today.

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan walks off the field after the NFC Championship loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.  It's the second straight season the 49ers have come close to winning the Super Bowl.  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan walks off the field after the NFC Championship loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s the second straight season the 49ers have lost a win before qualifying for 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 crappy, to be honest.

For most, the one-sided nature of the loss will remove some of the doubts that might have arisen had the game been closer. A 24-point loss tends to numb questions about penalties, depth chart decisions and blocking patterns (like the one where tight end Tyler Kroft was trying to block Reddick when Purdy’s hit happened) . At some point, the nature of injuries can bury a team and it’s fair to say that’s what happened to the 49ers offense.

But that won’t eliminate the question of where that defense would have settled if Purdy hadn’t been hurt, or what this edition of the 49ers might have been capable of. It is destined for change now, as all NFL teams are at the end of their season – losing players and assistant coaches and front office staff. San Francisco will be no different, with the offseason turning to contracts and the future of defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Not to mention questions about the significance of Purdy’s arm injury and what it means for future quarterback competition with Trey Lance.

Eventually, that will be the goal of this franchise. But only after getting past the guesswork: what if Purdy’s arm had survived Sunday’s hit? What if Jimmy Garoppolo had been healthy enough to return to the backup spot? What if Johnson had a real chance to see if Shanahan could engineer something with his fourth flagger of the season? Eventually, the franchise will have to overcome these issues, and the coaching staff and roster will have to return to that same journey again.

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

“Assumptions kind of ruin our entire lives if we don’t achieve our goals,” he said. “I try not to look at what would happen if. It happened. How are you going to answer it?

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