Thompson: Brock Purdy finally struggles in close loss to Browns

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The perfectionist in Brock Purdy will have a busy week considering how far he was from perfection.

The inevitable arrived Sunday in Cleveland. One of the league’s best, most aggressive and most physical defenses combined with Midwest conditions and key San Francisco 49ers injuries to rob Purdy of the quarterback paradise he has enjoyed. The offense that rolls out of bed and gets 30 points, and had just easily put up 42 against the Dallas Cowboys, was praying for 20 against the Cleveland Browns. The signal caller who has been behind the wheel of a luxury-vehicle offense found himself banging on the steering wheel of a scraper that wouldn’t start.

This is the struggle everyone’s been waiting for — when the magic dust wore off and we’d get to see what Purdy’s really got. It took a while to get here, much longer than expected for a fourth-string quarterback thrown suddenly into the fire, but after 13 games of near flawlessness under Purdy, the Browns delivered the adversity he hadn’t yet run into.

“We’re dragging them down in the mud with us,” Fox Sports’ Tom Rinaldi said Browns coach Kevin Stefanski told him at the half, smiling.

Deebo Samuel went down early. Christian McCaffrey later followed. The Browns’ defensive front was dominant, stuffing the 49ers run game, snatching away the quarterback’s security blanket and forcing Purdy to beat them under pressure. A combination of dropped passes, missed throws, botched assignments and penalties prevented any offensive rhythm after the first drive.

Finally, Purdy looked like the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. He finished Sunday with several lows as a starter: passing yards (125), completion percentage (44.4 percent) and yards per attempt (4.6).

Still, what you wanted to see from Purdy was visible. Obviously, he wasn’t good. This was his worst performance as a pro. But he was game. He wasn’t broken. And when it was time to win, Purdy dug deep and found enough. Even then, he wasn’t lights out, by any means. But he did eventually get the scraper moving.

He marched the 49ers 52 yards in 91 seconds. When it had to happen, Purdy summoned the moxie necessary to overcome his waywardness and make something happen. When he walked off the field, he’d done his job. The 49ers were in a position to salvage a win. If rookie Jake Moody had made what should have been a gimmie, Purdy would have had his second career game-winning drive (the first coming against the Las Vegas Raiders last season).

In that sense, Sunday’s 19-17 loss to the Browns has a silver lining, as gray as it might appear in the moment. It’s already clear how good Purdy is at his best. The unknown was how he’d hold up in the rougher times, which were always coming. And the Browns just provided a blueprint for the rest of the league to copy, so we’ll learn even more about his constitution and ability to adjust in the weeks to come.

Purdy was under pressure, off his game, ineffective and frustrated. But you learn a lot about a quarterback in those times. It’s good for Purdy to learn what this feels like now.

This was probably a predictable day for the struggle to arrive considering the 49ers were facing a Browns defense run by Jim Schwartz. Kyle Shanahan’s offenses always struggle against Schwartz. Since becoming an offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans in 2008, Shanahan has put his offense against a defense featuring Schwartz 10 times. (Note: In 2021 against the Tennessee Titans, Schwartz was the senior defensive assistant. In every other meeting, he was the defensive coordinator or head coach.) Shanahan’s team has lost nine consecutive matchups against Schwartz, the last three as head coach and play caller of the 49ers. Schwartz’s defenses have held Shanahan’s offenses to 20 points or fewer every time and to an average of 14.8 points in the 10 meetings.

Schwartz’s having Shanahan’s number was just another thing Purdy had working against him Sunday. The windy and wet weather bothered Purdy, too. His fifth fumble on the season came when the ball slipped out of his hands on a third-down pass.

That’s been the knock on Purdy. He’s succeeding because he has everything going for him. Sunday, it felt like nothing was. He was off-target more than we’ve seen from him, including a throw so wide on a slant to Brandon Aiyuk that it hit trailing Browns cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. in the chest. Against the Browns, Purdy’s scrambling felt less like a comfort zone and savvy counter to pressure and more like a frightened motion doomed to end in disaster.

Even on the final drive, his first two throws felt like the moment was too big. He was behind Jauan Jennings on first down and was almost picked off. He overshot a covered Aiyuk on second down. But on third-and-10, Purdy made a good throw to Jennings on an out route; it looked to be on the money if Jennings hadn’t been held. Purdy took advantage of the new life from the penalty. Aiyuk turned Purdy’s quick pass into a 25-yard gain. Then, after missing a throw outside to Jennings, Purdy hit Aiyuk in stride for another slant pass.

Arguably his biggest throw of the night set up the game-winning field goal attempt. On third-and-2 with pressure in his face again, Purdy lobbed a precise pass outside the numbers to Jennings. It was the kind of touch and ball placement we’ve come to expect from him.

Indeed, the 49ers were in that position because of Purdy’s dud. Certainly, it contributed to Shanahan’s eagerness to get to the field goal and get out of Cleveland. Under the circumstances, it was the right call. But if Purdy had been playing better, maybe the best option, on the road, might not have so overwhelmingly felt like the rookie kicker who’d already missed one.

Still, Purdy kept getting off the mat. He kept slinging it, never getting so gun-shy that he wouldn’t attempt the throws he knew he could make. That’s not nothing.

This week, he’ll learn how it feels as a pro to watch the film brutally call him out. He’ll know the sting of one of the reasons his team lost. He’ll get experience at turning the page and moving on to the next week. And we’ll see how he responds in another hostile environment against a team that could use a huge win over the NFC’s best.

The bar for Purdy is much higher than it is for most rookie quarterbacks. The 49ers don’t need him just to be good. They need him to lead them to a Super Bowl. They’ll need him to be good against the best defenses with the biggest stakes against another stud quarterback on the other sidelines. Purdy is the chosen one to end the 49ers’ title drought.

That’s going to take some strong intangibles from him, the kinds that are fashioned in struggles like Sunday’s.

(Photo of Brock Purdy attempting a pass while being pressured by Ogbo Okoronkwo: Jason Miller / Getty Images)

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