Photo: David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire
As of this moment, Brock Purdy has the best odds to win MVP at -200. Mr. Irrelevant has had a meteoric rise to being Shanahan’s second MVP-caliber quarterback this decade, and is now the preferred candidate among 49ers fans, aging sportswriters, and Disney adults. And as fun as that narrative arc may be, it should be met with some skepticism (as we pointed out last week). Let’s go even deeper in our analysis today.
Americans love a good sports underdog story – which is really just a toxic masculinity fairytale, if you think about it – but hate participation trophies, and MVP awards are not participation trophies. They’re given to outstanding players with impressive production who considerably elevate their team, and although Purdy has outplayed his draft slot, he does not fit that bill. But, any good-faith attempt to reconcile his production with his individual skill is met with circular references back to his stats, so let’s dig into those.
His dropbacks have indeed been very efficient from an EPA perspective, let’s just get that out of the way. A positive play rate of 55% is comfortably first in the league, and, if the season ended today, 0.26 EPA/dropback would be the second-best season in the SIS era behind only 2016 Matt Ryan, which is very interesting considering who called plays for them. He would even rank first in EPA/dropback and yards/attempt this year if you took out his throws past the line of scrimmage, as originally pointed out by Steven Ruiz of The Ringer.
But, these numbers belong to the 49ers passing offense as a whole, and not just Purdy. There are a lot of good players on that unit. Trent Williams, Christian McCaffrey, and Deebo Samuel are All-Pros, and Brandon Aiyuk – who is currently 2nd in first down percentage, 2nd in yards/route run and 3rd in Total Points/route behind only Tyreek Hill and Samuel – should join them come awards season. Furthermore, they have a pretty good young guard tandem in Aaron Banks and Spencer Burford; Kyle Juszcyk is as valuable as fullbacks can possibly be in the modern NFL; and, to top it all off, they have arguably the best offensive coach in the league in Kyle Shanahan.
The 49ers do not need, and have never needed, Purdy to be a Top 10 quarterback, and he isn’t. They just need him to not screw things up, and he hasn’t.
There’s a lot of mythmaking surrounding Purdy’s game, but it is fair to say that he’s accurate. He’s 80th percentile in xOnTgt +/- among qualifying quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts, which is pretty good. But, all this fluff about how he’s such a good processor and manages the game so well is just flat-out embellishment.
His turnover-worthy throw rate (3.5%) is pretty bad – 26th percentile – and he doesn’t get the ball out particularly quickly, either. His expected snap to throw +/- (xSTT+/-), which approximates how quickly the quarterback should throw the ball based on his drop (among other factors), is 47th percentile. It’s not horrible, but it’s also not great.
The fairest comparison here might be another Shanahan-adjacent quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa, who ranks third in xSTT+/- at a full two-tenths of a second faster than Purdy. In fact, you could make the case that Tua predetermines throws and shoots first and asks questions later, but even then, his turnover-worthy throw rate (3%) is 47th percentile – a bit better than Purdy’s.
However, you don’t need to be an elite processor when you get to make so many gimme throws. Purdy’s attempts have been contested at the second-lowest rate in the league this year at 22%. And, if you’re wondering how that might affect his EPA numbers: contested throws are a terrible value proposition.
The average EPA on such throws this season has been -0.38. Purdy, meanwhile, is averaging -0.09 EPA on those throws. So, not only does he get to make more easy throws, he’s losing about 25% of the value most quarterbacks do on the difficult throws he does make. That seems very fortunate!
Some of that is probably just pure luck, but the 49ers receivers deserve a lot of credit in this regard. They rank 7th in contested catch percentage (39%) and 1st in both average yards after catch (6.9) and yards after contact (2.2). In fact, the difference between San Francisco and the next-best receiving corps in average yards after contact, is as big as the difference between the 2nd and 28th ranked teams. And if the season ended today, their average yards after catch would be the 3rd-best we’ve ever recorded, just behind the 2018 Chiefs and the 2018 49ers, and just ahead of the 2021, 2022, and 2019 49ers.
Which brings us to the next point; a common rebuttal to the notion that Purdy is largely a beneficiary of an excellent playcaller and a star-studded supporting cast, is that Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t perform at this level. Interestingly enough, though, Jimmy G was actually never good.
Among 49 quarterbacks with at least 500 attempts from 2020-2022, Garoppolo ranked 38th in turnover-worthy throw rate (4%), and 31st in On-Target Rate Over Expectation (xOnTgt +/-). He was also 30th in Passing Total Points/play while getting hit.
Purdy is tougher and more willing to stand in against the rush, ranking 6th in passing Total Points/play while getting hit this season. He’s also more accurate, ranking 6th in xOnTgt +/-, and those are the big distinctions between the two. The difference we’re seeing is the difference between a warm body and Tom Brady’s sleep paralysis demon. That’s it.
We could go on and on about splits. EPA/play on third downs is extremely volatile – with Patrick Mahomes being the only player who’s proven the ability to sustain high performance year-to-year – and Purdy’s 0.30 EPA/play on 3rd down is 12th out of 294 quarterbacks with at least 50 3rd-down attempts since 2016, just behind 2018 Nick Foles. His EPA/play on play action is the highest in the league since 2016 and 5.5 times the average EPA on play action during that span, and it’s already a cheat code.
All this to say, Kyle Shanahan is doing parlor tricks again. Our wins above replacement (WAR) has Purdy 5th – just behind Tua Tagovailoa – at 2.7, and even that might be generous. He’s a decent player capable of functioning within an extremely efficient ecosystem, but that’s not what this award is about. It’s about recognizing players who stand out from all their peers – not just stand out from Jimmy Garoppolo.