PHILADELPHIA – This 49ers’ season was bound to go down in franchise lore for its shuffling of injured quarterbacks, and that harrowing theme defined Sunday’s closing act in the NFC Championship Game.
Brock Purdy, the once-unbeaten rookie phenom, injured his throwing elbow on the 49ers’ opening possession in what would drag on as a 31-7 loss to the top-seeded Eagles. Once backup Josh Johnson departed in the third quarter with a concussion, Purdy re-entered to soldier through a hamstrung comeback bid for Kyle Shanahan’s vanishing offense.
The 49ers didn’t just run out of quarterbacks. Their defense was off-kilter from the get-go, allowing four touchdown runs and stacking up penalties in the unfriendly confines of Lincoln Financial Field.
Alas, the 49ers lost in the NFC Championship Game for a second straight season, and unlike last year’s defeat at Los Angeles that came down to a fourth-quarter collapse, this one looked doom from the start and will cast quite a dark cloud for the offseason.
This ending did come with drama, in the form of left tackle Trent Williams’ ejection for tugging Eagles safety K’Von Wallace to the ground to escalate a brawl, and officials order both teams to the sideline. That mayhem led to both players being ejected with 3:51 remaining.
So, now what?
That defense, presuming NFL sack king Nick Bosa signs a record extension, likely will rebound next season under a new coordinator, if DeMeco Ryans leaves as expected for a head-coaching gig with the Houston Texans if not the Denver Broncos.
The 49ers’ offense will return with heavy questions at quarterback, an annual storyline as their Lombardi Trophy drought has hit the 28-year mark. Those questions: Will Purdy’s elbow require significant surgery? Will Trey Lance fully recover from two procedures on his right ankle? Will Jimmy Garoppolo indeed seek asylum elsewhere or are those aforementioned health issues enough to merit yet another encore?
Well, to quickly recap a season that featured 15 wins and a fatal fifth loss:
*Lance, the 49ers’ 2021 top draft pick, broke his right ankle in the home opener, and he had follow-up surgery only a month ago.
*Garoppolo, banished to a side field during his training camp limbo, revived his just-win-baby stock, until a Dec. 4 fracture to his left foot.
*Purdy, the 262nd and final pick as the draft’s “Mr. Irrelevant,” produced eight wins and needed just one more to become the first rookie to make the Super Bowl.
*Johnson, 36, looked every bit the veteran journeyman as he struggled in emergency duty before getting dazed and concussed by a Ndamukong Suh hit, only 2 ½ minutes after halftime.
That’s when the 49ers found themselves down 14 points and four quarterbacks, at least until Purdy was thrust back into the game in what everyone expected would be a comeback attempt built around run attempts and short throws.
With five minutes to go, the 49ers deployed running back Christian McCaffrey at quarterback for a trick play that resulted in a harmless incompletion with no 49ers in the vicinity and encapsulated the struggles of the day.
The Eagles built up their 21-7 halftime lead via a trio of touchdown runs, giving them the type of cushion that paved their way to an 8-0 start to the season and eventually the NFC’s No. 1 seed with home-field advantage.
That vociferous crowd was not as much a deciding factor as Eagles’ sack leader Hasson Reddick. On Purdy’s sixth snap, his arm was bent by Reddick while attempting a pass from midfield. Riddick had beaten Tyler Kroft’s block, and a subsequent replay ruling reversed the original call of an interception. Purdy got charged with his first career fumble, but losing the ball was trumped by the loss of their hot-shot quarterback to an injury.
Ironically, the only other time these teams met in the playoffs, the 49ers’ starting quarterback got hurt to torpedo their championship aspirations. That was Steve Young, who broke his ribs in a 14-0 wild-card win over the visiting Eagles in 1996, and that injury forced Young to make a quick exit in their ensuing loss at Green Bay.
Before Johnson got sent off with a concussion, his relief appearance wasn’t pretty. It included three delay-of-game calls, two sacks, and a fumbled shotgun snap, the latter coming between two Eagles touchdowns in the final 96 seconds before halftime that broke open a tied game. He was 7-of-13 for 74 yards, in only his third appearance this season, having played 22 snaps in mopping up wins against Tampa Bay and Arizona.
It was Christian McCaffrey who pulled the 49ers into a 7-7 tie, with No. 23 pounding his way 23 yards and breaking four tackles for a touchdown 8:29 before halftime. That capped a six-play drive which saw him make a pair of 9-yard catches, along with a short-yardage conversion run.
It marked the ninth straight game McCaffrey found the end zone, and no score could compare to the morale boost as this one. More scores were needed to keep pace with the Eagles and MVP candidate Jalen Hurts.
The Eagles retook the lead 1:36 before halftime, with Sanders scoring on an untouched 13-yard run to cap a 14-play, 75-yard drive that was enhanced by three 49ers penalties (Jimmie Ward, pass interference; T.Y. McGill, illegal use of hands; Charvarius Ward, illegal contact).
That left enough time for a 49ers drive – and an inexcusable turnover by Johnson, who fumbled a shotgun snap that the Eagles recovered at San Francisco’s 30-yard line.
Just when it appeared the Eagles might settle for a field goal, Dre Greenlaw committed a facemask penalty as running back Boston Scott headed out of bounds, and it was Scott who scored the next snap on a 10-yard run with 16 seconds to spare before halftime.
Hurts’ 1-yard touchdown run in the final minute of the third quarter made it a 28-7 lead.
The 49ers staked the Eagles to a 7-0 lead by allowing a touchdown drive on the game’s opening series. Miles Sanders scored in untouched fashion on a 2-yard run past Javon Kinlaw and Jordan Willis, and that came two plays after the Eagles converted on fourth-and-3 with DeVonta Smith’s 29-yard, one-handed catch down the left sideline against Jimmie Ward.
A replay showed that Smith didn’t make a clean catch, and after he immediately signaled for a quick ensuing snap, Shanahan strangely did not challenge the play. The 49ers allowed a third-down conversion pass earlier by Hurts, who was 5-of-7 for 54 yards on the drive, and his only scramble (out of bounds) was officially recorded as an Arik Armstead sack for no yards.
Consider that the first signal the 49ers would not be heading to their eighth Super Bowl, having lost their past two appearances, in the 2019 season to the Kansas City Chiefs and 10 years ago to the Baltimore Ravens.
Purdy thus joined a fraternity of four other rookie quarterbacks who failed to win a conference championship and make the Super Bowl, which will be held Feb. 12 in Glendale, Ariz., roughly an hour from his hometown of Queen Creek. His predecessors on this stage: Shaun King (1999 Bucs), Ben Roethlisberger (2004 Steelers), Joe Flacco (2008 Ravens), Mark Sanchez (2009 (Jets); none scored over 20 points in those defeats.
The 49ers fell to 2-6 in conference-championship games on the road, and this was their most lopsided defeat, bearing little resemblance to last season’s 20-17 exit in Los Angeles.
And the road is where the 49ers’ struggled most this season, going 5-4 with losses at Chicago, Denver and Atlanta in three of their first four games away from Levi’s Stadium. After opening last season’s playoffs with road wins at Dallas and Green Bay, this postseason began with home triumphs over Seattle and Dallas.
It ended in Philadelphia. It ended with emergency quarterbacks, undisciplined defense and an empty feeling of another lost shot at Super Bowl glory.