Two Backup Quarterbacks and the Relentless N.F.L. Narrative Machine

SEATTLE — The National Football League, perhaps more than any other American sport, fuels its popularity from the deep and unbending power of story. Thursday night’s matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers showed this in spades.

This was more than a matchup between two teams jostling for the playoffs, with San Francisco needing a win to wrap up the N.F.C. West division title. At another level, this game was a tale of two quarterbacks: Seattle’s rise-from-the-dustbin veteran, Geno Smith, versus San Francisco’s overlooked (until now) rookie, Brock Purdy.

Their journeys, a combined chronicle of perseverance, added an extra level of intrigue to what otherwise would have been a relatively routine affair. Together, they provided yet another showcase for how the N.F.L.’s constant stream of narratives excites and obscures the league’s dark troubles.

The league has plenty of ignoble faults. Brain-damaged, broken-down former players. Racism. Homophobia. Misogyny. The owner of the Washington Commanders. The quarterback of the Cleveland Browns.

Yet the N.F.L. somehow always thrives, so embedded in the culture that it seems destined to always be America’s most-watched sport.

It helps to be a near pitch-perfect product for fans to consume through their screens: the colors, the action, the clamor. It helps that the action centers on violence and aggression, matching the zeitgeist. The league has more players than in other professional leagues, providing more opportunities for new tales to be told.

In his past three games, Purdy has looked like a veteran — and not like an irrelevant rookie.Credit…Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The N.F.L. spits out compelling narratives with a drum machine’s perfected pace. Every week in the short, high-stakes season, there seems to be something new for fans to chew on, obsess over and sink their teeth into. Sometimes it’s awful and ugly. Sometimes it’s uplifting and wrapped in promise.

Purdy, a rookie from Iowa State, is all about promise. The 22-year-old was so unheralded out of college that he was taken last in April’s N.F.L. draft, making him the “Mr. Irrelevant” of the class. The title seemed all too apt.

“Extremely inconsistent,” one analysis said of Purdy before this year’s draft. “He struggles in the limelight. Looks panicked on big stages.”

So far, so wrong.

Purdy never struggled, looked panicked or betrayed inconsistency Thursday night in a 21-13 win over the Seahawks. His 49ers team, despite being dogged all season by injuries, has a unified look and the cocksure feel of a Super Bowl contender.

Purdy played the same confident way he did in last Sunday’s win over Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And the same as he did two weeks ago when he took over after Jimmy Garoppolo broke his foot against the Miami Dolphins. That’s three straight wins. In his two starts combined, he completed roughly 70 percent of his passes, tossed four touchdowns and avoided interceptions.

Time for a new title: Mr. Relevant.

He’s “the most poised rookie I’ve ever had,” said Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers’ coach. “The team had a lot of respect for him before that game, but a lot more now.”

Time for a new title for Purdy.Credit…Joe Nicholson/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Purdy played it cool in a postgame news conference. It’s “definitely not ‘all praise to Brock,’” he said of himself, downplaying his surprising surge and heaping praise on the players around him.

Sorry, Brock, but right now, all the praise going your way is well deserved, even if it’s coming in a bit hot and heavy from 49ers fans, who have already started comparing you to, no pressure here … young Joe Montana.

Purdy’s tale wasn’t the only one worth following on Thursday night. Geno Smith has spent most of his nine-year N.F.L. tenure as a backup. Like his San Francisco counterpart, Smith never listened to the doubters — and there were many.

Not so long ago, prognosticators, fans, N.F.L. executives and seemingly every head coach in the league not named Pete Carroll had given up on the idea that Smith could be a viable starting quarterback again.

In 2014, about to enter his third season for the Jets, still trying to find his footing in professional football, he lost his starter’s job most unusually: a teammate broke his jaw in a locker room fight. It took until this season for Smith to see a serious stretch of playing time again.

A quarterback doing what he has done in 2022 — after sitting on the bench for the Jets, the Giants, the Chargers, and finally behind Russell Wilson in Seattle — is a rare feat. When Smith began this season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he became the first quarterback since the early 1970s to go eight years between opening starts.

Smith has played like an M.V.P.-worthy quarterback this season.Credit…Christopher Mast/Getty Images

Yet there he was against the 49ers, not just starting but, as he has all season, playing at least as well if not far better than this year’s woeful version of Wilson, the Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback who was traded to the Denver Broncos in the off-season (and is not playing like a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback).

Smith, 32, entered the game among the N.F.L.’s best in passing yards and touchdowns. Against a San Francisco team with one of the league’s tautest defenses, he found himself constantly backpedaling but still acquitted himself just fine: one touchdown, 238 yards, no interceptions. He completed 70.5 percent of his passes, just below his league-leading 71.5 percent mark coming into the game.

Geno Smith, an M.V.P.-caliber starter? He’s been just that for much of this season. Who would have thought?

We live in an era of microwave quickness. Seemingly everything must happen instantaneously. In the N.F.L., if a quarterback struggles in his first year, doubt begins swirling around him. Struggling in Year 2 is equivalent to drilling several nails in the coffin — just ask Zach Wilson of the Jets. Don’t even think about not mastering the craft by Year 3. If that happens, the result is almost always the same: You’re done, cast off to the purgatory of the backup role.

Smith puts a lie to the notion that speedy results and quick mastery must reign supreme. (Hopefully, Zach Wilson is taking notes.) Sometimes slow and steady perseverance pays off.

“Patience,” Smith said this week, in the run-up to the 49ers game. “I think all the things we go through in life when you really embrace them become lessons.”

He spoke of how he felt like he had the talent in all those years but faced a glass ceiling. “It’s like something hovering over you. You want to break it so that you continue to go further. I just had to stay patient until I had the opportunity.”

The N.F.L. narrative machine churns on. Will that always be enough to obscure professional football’s dark sides? For most fans, apparently so.

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