SANTA CLARA — All eyes were on Brock Purdy Thursday as the 49ers quarterback went through his warmup throws.
There were fans in the stands, a sizable media contingent and even a news helicopter hovering over Levi’s Stadium and the adjacent practice complex.
OK, it’s possible the helicopter was there to advance the upcoming Taylor Swift concerts and the crowd in the stadium parking lot was there for advance merchandise sales.
But the simple act of seeing Purdy throw a football in public for the first time since his right elbow was shredded on Jan. 29 early in a 31-7 NFC Championship Game road loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was a significant moment for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Even Purdy, a matter-of-fact emotional flatliner in media settings, had a case of butterflies at the mere thought of breaking the huddle with his teammates.
“Last night was like Christmas,” Purdy said. “You’re excited for the next day.”
Anyone who saw up close what Purdy did a year ago as the final pick in the NFL Draft understands what all the fuss is about. When Jimmy Garoppolo fractured his foot in Week 13, the logical conclusion was that the 49ers’ season was over.
Instead, they were picking up steam behind the most unlikely of heroes in an organization famous for franchise quarterbacks. Purdy finished off the win over Miami and won five consecutive starts, operating as coach Kyle Shanahan’s precise and creative point guard. Then he led the 49ers to a pair of playoff wins before Hassan Reddick’s sack tore his UCL.
Purdy was as responsible as anyone for winning an NFC West title and the postseason games over Seattle and Dallas. Yet in some quarters nationally, it was made to sound as if the 49ers could have plugged any quarterback into a loaded roster and accomplished the same result.
Mindful of the way last season ended, the 49ers still have a developing Trey Lance and are embarking on a restorative project in Sam Darnold and even added a fourth quarterback in Brandon Allen.
But there’s little doubt that for the 49ers to be at their best, the state of Purdy’s throwing arm is a major factor. The 49ers can be very good without Purdy, but can be great with him.
Forget whatever inaccuracies were on display during Thursday’s first practice. Included was an interception return for a touchdown by Tashaun Gipson and a few other misfires. Two of them were go-route overthrows of Jauan Jennings and Deebo Samuel. Purdy’s critics claim he didn’t have enough arm strength before the surgery, and here he was throwing the ball too far on his first day back at practice.
“I haven’t thrown a go-ball to them all offseason,” Purdy said. “Being out there for the first day, I wanted to let it rip and all that, but the ball felt good coming out of my hand. I just need to get more reps.”
Purdy threw tight spirals and put sideline routes on a line. His velocity looked the same.
It smacked of doubletalk when general manager John Lynch said Tuesday that Purdy was “full go with no restrictions” but was “on a pitch count.” Yet Purdy left little doubt that barring setbacks, he’ll be ready to go in Pittsburgh on Sept. 10, and that Shanahan can use anything in the playbook.
“When I got back here with Shanahan, I told him, ‘I feel good enough and confident enough that if I got in an 11-on-11 situation I can make every throw,’ ” Purdy said. “They gave me the green light.”
Purdy rejected the idea that his recovery since surgery on March 10 has been ahead of schedule. Rather, Purdy has stuck to a precise timeline designed by his medical team which is as methodical and effective as the way he approaches his profession on a daily basis.
“We sat down and had a plan and just stuck to it and it was just to get better every single day,” Purdy said. “Once we started throwing it was, ‘Here’s the set of throws we’ve got, here’s the volume, here’s the intensity’ and then just work your way up. See how you feel and then just go from there.”
First-practice overthrows aside, it’s not as if Purdy excelled because of his arm strength. Playing quarterback in the NFL requires so many other skills, many of which are making decisions in a split second based on endless film study and preparation.
There’s also an intuition which can’t be taught and is a quality Purdy appears to have in abundance.
For a franchise that counts Joe Montana as its all-time icon, the traits Purdy possesses to be a big-time quarterback are familiar. With his arm good to go, there’s every reason to believe he can be even better in 2023.
As left tackle Trent Williams said, the biggest leap in production should be from Year 1 to Year 2. And what Purdy did in Year 1 was the stuff dreams are made of.
“He got some priceless experience in some key games,” Williams said. “He played fantastic.”
Purdy artfully dodged the question of whether he’s been told by Shanahan he’s the starter if healthy.
“We haven’t had any conversation like that,” Purdy said. “What we put on tape last year was great and all, but there are still a lot of areas where I have to grow and get better. That’s where we’re at. We’re not trying to get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Maybe so, but after getting a first look at Purdy Wednesday, looking ahead got a lot easier.