PHILADELPHIA — The biggest game of the season wasn’t much of a game. The 49ers never stood much of a chance.
It had nothing to do with their opponent, the Eagles.
It had little to do with the 49ers, either.
No, this failure had everything to do with fate.
If the 49ers used any magic or good fortune to reach the NFC Championship Game, it didn’t make the flight to Philadelphia.
And the NFC Championship Game — slated to be an incredible showdown of the conference’s two best teams — proved only to be a slow-marching coronation for the Eagles, and an endless series of misadventures for the Niners.
Philadelphia won 31-7. The difference felt larger than 24 points, though. The Eagles didn’t even play a particularly good game, but everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong for San Francisco.
The Eagles will play in the Super Bowl in two weeks. The Niners won’t play again for eight months.
“I wish we had a little better opportunity than we did today,” Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I was real proud of how [the team] fought out there. Our guys didn’t shy away from anything. I thought they got dealt a tough hand.”
It’s ok to be frustrated, perhaps even angry, if you’re a Niners fan. Sunday was another opportunity to win the franchise’s long-sought six Super Bowl that was squandered near the finish line.
But blame the football gods for the result. The Niners played their fourth-string quarterback for the first half of the game, and then a one-armed quarterback (whose working arm wasn’t his throwing arm) for the second.
Third-string, rookie quarterback Brock Purdy guided the Niners to eight straight wins and the doorstep of the Super Bowl. Sunday, he injured his throwing arm at the end of the Niners’ first offensive drive of the game. His game should have been over.
“My arm just felt like it stretched out,” Purdy said of defensive end Hassan Reddick’s hit of his arm. “[I] felt a lot of shocks all over, from my elbow down to my wrist, front and back. Just pain, really, all over.”
According to ESPN, the Niners fear Purdy tore his ulnar collateral ligament, which connects his humerus to his ulna. It’s an all-too-common injury for baseball pitchers but a rarity in the NFL. If he did, indeed, tear his UCL, it’s a months-long rehabilitation process, jeopardizing his 2023 season.
Three quarterbacks started games for the 49ers this season. All three suffered season-ending injuries.
And the Niners’ season ended the moment Purdy exited the game.
Yet there were still three-and-a-half quarters to play Sunday.
Such is the cruelty of the NFL.
In came Josh Johnson, an Oakland Tech graduate, who has been on 16 different teams in his professional football career. He’s done stints in the United Football League, the XFL, and the Alliance of American Football. The Niners are one of 13 NFL teams he’s played for, and this is his fourth stint with the team.
Johnson was signed by the Niners in December because he’s a good guy, a seasoned pro, and someone who could help the young Purdy behind the scenes while Jimmy Garoppolo, the team’s second-string quarterback, rehabbed a foot injury.
Johnson was not signed to play in the NFC Championship Game.
And yet there he was, tasked with quarterbacking the Niners to the Super Bowl.
The Niners scored once with Johnson at quarterback — running back Christian McCaffrey gained 44 of the 46 yards on a second-quarter scoring drive, capped by a spectacular 23-yard touchdown run, where he jumped over safety Marcus Epps and then broke three more tackles en route to the end zone.
But after a Johnson fumble set up the Eagles to take a 21-7 lead into halftime, it was clear that the veteran was no Purdy.
And then Johnson was injured.
The veteran was concussed on the Niners’ first offensive drive of the second half and ruled out of the game.
The Niners considered making McCaffrey the quarterback, nearly outfitting his helmet with the quarterback’s radio receiver. Instead, at the last second before the Niners’ seventh possession of the game, the Niners opted to re-insert Purdy.
The final score told you that his return was not the continuation of his incredible story.
“He couldn’t throw,” Shanahan said. “When he came in, we had to decide what he could throw, and there weren’t too many options.”
“I’d been throwing after the hit occurred, on the sideline, just to see where I was at,” Purdy said. “But even with those throws, it was painful.”
How important is having a quarterback who can — in the most literal sense — throw the ball more than 10 yards down the field?
Well, the Niners only had 47 yards of total offense on 21 second-half plays, as Philadelphia knew every play was a run or a super-short pass.
“One-dimensional,” wide receiver Jauan Jennings said of the Niners’ offense. “This is the NFL. It’s not high school football.”
“I’ve been a part of [games] with no linemen… that sort of thing, but you lose a quarterback? It’s pretty tough to play football,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “And that’s what happened today. It’s very unfortunate. It’s all you can say about it. But that’s football, that’s where the ball bounces and it sucks.”
The 49ers’ didn’t stand a chance in the second half. The offense couldn’t move the ball, and the defense was tasked with not only shutting down the Eagles’ offense — a tough enough challenge — but scoring itself. It did neither.
The end of the Niners’ season was inevitable, and it was processed during the contest. Offensive lineman Trent Williams lost his cool, threw an Eagle to the ground, and was ejected in the fourth quarter. Shanahan tried one trick play with McCaffrey at quarterback, but ultimately decided to expedite the proceedings by keeping the clock running with relatively basic runs.
The Niners the media met in the post-game locker room were clear-eyed about what had happened Sunday.
The way the team sees it, the team’s 12-game winning streak ended because of factors outside of their control.
And the football gods were so heavy-handed about it, many Niners could do nothing but shrug and laugh.
Star defensive end Nick Bosa found the perfect summation to the game in an inch-deep gash in his right leg — the byproduct of an Eagles player’s cleat.
Bosa wasn’t even on the field when he was punctured. No, he was standing on the sidelines on a punt, and the Eagle was blocked into him.
Getting hurt on the sidelines? Said Bosa: “It was a kind of a sign of a rough day.”