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49ers' Brock Purdy is no longer 'Mr. Irrelevant'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. Eight teams will play football this weekend in the NFL's divisional playoffs, all eyeing a spot in the Super Bowl. The San Francisco 49ers, who play the Cowboys Sunday, are led by a rookie quarterback, Brock Purdy. He's making history and inciting joy on his team. Matt Barrows covers the 49ers for The Athletic and joins us now to talk about all of this. Welcome.

MATT BARROWS: Thanks for having me on.

CHANG: Thanks for being on. OK, so Brock Purdy, this guy - as we say, he's a rookie. Tell us more about him.

BARROWS: Well, he's not just a rookie. He's what they call Mr. Irrelevant in the NFL, which means that he was the very last guy picked in the NFL draft. So you can sort of picture being on a playground as a kid, and you're the last guy picked for the team. And by last guy, I'm talking he was the 262nd pick.

CHANG: Wow.

BARROWS: So the fact that he's had so much success not only as a rookie but as the last guy chosen in the draft...

CHANG: Yeah.

BARROWS: That's what made him such a big story in San Francisco.

CHANG: And can you tell us, like, how exactly the story happened? Like, how did the last pick in the draft wind up starting for a Super Bowl favorite?

BARROWS: Well, it's a story of injuries. The 49ers had two big injuries to their top two quarterbacks, which usually means that the season is sunk. Like, a team cannot overcome that challenge. And so the 49ers were doing very well. They were in the midst of a winning streak. And their second quarterback, a guy named Jimmy Garoppolo, breaks his foot. And so you thought at that moment that, oh, boy, this is the death blow. They're not going to be able to overcome this. So in came Brock Purdy. He's kind of small, doesn't have a big arm. Nobody had any big expectations from him. And he was good from the get-go. And he's kept that streak going. And now the 49ers look like they're, you know - if not the top team in the National Football Conference, they're one of the two top teams in that they may be contending for a Super Bowl.

CHANG: I love it. I love the storyline of how a guy that nobody initially had faith in is now a star. Can you say that someone like Brock Purdy is defying the conventional wisdom about rookie quarterbacks?

BARROWS: Yeah, for sure. And not just rookie quarterbacks, but height is usually something that these teams are seeking. He doesn't have what they call a big arm. You know, he's not flinging the ball 55 yards down the field. He's defying the conventional wisdom of what makes up a great quarterback. His really special ability is between the shoulder pads. It's his brain. And he's very calm. He hasn't been rattled at this point. It's been one challenge after another. His biggest one is coming up on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. But he's risen to every challenge to this point. It's been impressive to watch.

CHANG: So what will you be watching for in Purdy's game on Sunday as they try to beat the Cowboys?

BARROWS: Well, the Cowboys are coming off their own big win. They went into Tampa Bay, and they beat Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. And that offense looked really good. So the question is whether Purdy and the 49ers can keep pace with the Dallas Cowboys in this game. And it could be a very high-scoring game, a game in the 30s or maybe even higher than that. And so the question is whether he can sort of have the same offensive output as his counterpart with the Cowboys.

CHANG: You're actually making me maybe tune in to a football game this Sunday.

BARROWS: See; we've created another NFL fan. My job is done here.

CHANG: Matt Barrows of The Athletic. Thank you so much.

BARROWS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.