Can Brock Purdy be the first rookie quarterback to win the Super Bowl?

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In the 2022 NFL season, there have been few stories as remarkable as that of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, who heads into the postseason with a golden opportunity to become the first rookie quarterback to lead a team to Super Bowl glory.

Purdy has been a revelation since being thrust into the spotlight as the starting quarterback in the wake of the fractured foot suffered by Jimmy Garoppolo in the Week 13 win over the Miami Dolphins.

This was supposed to be Trey Lance's team in 2022, but with the third overall pick in 2021 removed from the equation with a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2, there are pertinent questions asking if it is now Purdy's for the long term, and they are merited given how he has performed in an extraordinary start to his career.

Belying his status as the last pick in the 2022 draft, Purdy has confidently piloted one of the best offenses in football, with the 49ers averaging a league-leading 33.6 points per game since he became the full-time starter.

In addition to Purdy ensuring the 49ers beat the Dolphins following Garoppolo's first-quarter departure, he has since won each of his first five starts, helping the NFC West champion Niners finish the regular season on a 10-game winning streak.

With the 49ers' win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 18, in which he threw three touchdowns, Purdy became the third rookie quarterback to win his first five starts, following Ben Roethlisberger (won first 13 starts in 2004) and Mike Kruczek (first six in 1968).

He is the third player in NFL history with at least two touchdown passes in each of his first five starts, joining Dan Marino and Billy Volek, while he is only the second rookie with at least two touchdown throws in six consecutive games. The other was Justin Herbert in 2020.

Purdy's passer rating over his first five starts of 119.0 is second only to Kurt Warner (131.4) in 1999. Though Warner was not a rookie, he went on to lead the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title, winning Super Bowl MVP in the process.

The support system for Purdy as he looks to make league history is excellent. San Francisco's offense is stacked with playmakers, with the addition of Christian McCaffrey to a group that already included Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle having a transformative impact on Kyle Shanahan's attack.

San Francisco's plethora of weaponry is a significant reason why Purdy went into Week 18 ranked fourth among quarterbacks with at least 100 plays in expected passing situations in Efficiency Versus Expected (EVE). Prior to the blowout of the Cardinals, Purdy was averaging 1.47 yards over expected in anticipated passing situations.

With a defense led by Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner Nick Bosa establishing itself as the NFL's best, the 49ers went into Week 18 ranked first overall in EVE.

By that measure, the 49ers are the best team in the NFL, but history is firmly against Purdy having success in his quest to guide them to a sixth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.

Nineteen rookies have started in the playoffs in the Super Bowl era, posting a 9-19 record across 28 games.

While no rookie quarterback has lifted the Lombardi, the performances of a selection of those to have entered the heat of the postseason battle in their first season offer a glimpse into what may lie ahead for Purdy, as he prepares to start his playoff career against the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday.

Ben Roethlisberger (2004)

Roethlisberger may be the best parallel we can draw for Purdy given their shared place in the NFL history books.

The Pittsburgh Steelers great enjoyed an entirely different draft experience in 2004, playing the role of frustrated spectator until the 11th pick as the famous Eli Manning-Philip Rivers saga took its course.

Roethlisberger made the San Diego Chargers and New York Giants initially look foolish for not valuing him higher, helping a juggernaut Steelers team to a 15-1 record and the number one seed in the AFC.

Yet his first postseason proved a difficult one for Big Ben, with Roethlisberger completing only 57.4 per cent of his passes for 407 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions, recording a passer rating of 61.3.

Three of his five picks came in the AFC Championship Game loss to the New England Patriots, whose opportunistic defensive performance inspired them to a third Super Bowl appearance – and ultimately a third Super Bowl title – in four seasons.

Purdy has the benefit of having the league's premier defense on his side, and the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles would appear to be the only team in the 49ers' way who possess the capability to pose him problems akin to those Roethlisberger experienced back in January 2005.

The NFL has changed significantly since Bill Belichick's defense denied Roethlisberger a chance at history, but the Steelers' Conference Championship game woes of 18 years ago are a scarcely needed reminder of the value of protecting the football.

Purdy, who has 13 touchdowns to four interceptions, has done a largely impressive job in that sense, and if he continues in the same manner, the 49ers will be excellently positioned for a deep run. If the Niners do fall short, Purdy may take heart from Roethlisberger's second season, which saw him lead the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks.

Joe Flacco (2008) & Mark Sanchez (2009)

Flacco and Sanchez are also decent examples that could be a guide to how Purdy's playoff journey may go.

Unlike Purdy, they were both highly drafted quarterbacks, but they are comparable in that they had the benefit of supporting casts built for January success. Both made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game.

Flacco did not have to do much to get to that point with the 2008 Baltimore Ravens. Across his three postseason games, Flacco completed just 44 per cent of his passes for 437 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, giving him a passer rating of just 50.8.

Yet the Ravens were able to succeed by leaning on a third-ranked defense and a fourth-ranked run game, taking the pressure off Flacco. Indeed, Baltimore gave up just 19 points across the first two rounds of the playoffs. It was only when the Ravens faced a top-ranked Pittsburgh Steelers defense in the title game that Flacco's shortcomings as a rookie proved decisive.

A year later, Sanchez fared better with the New York Jets, hitting on just over 60 per cent of his passes for 539 yards, four touchdowns and a pair of picks, posting a passer rating of 92.7.

Though his numbers were better, the formula was the same, the Jets riding Rex Ryan's dominant defense and a ground attack that led the NFL in yards per game to the Conference Championship.

Flacco went on to enjoy one of the great postseason runs in the 2012 season in leading the Ravens to glory, beating the 49ers in the Super Bowl, but Purdy will have designs on comfortably surpassing Sanchez's achievements following the electric start to his career.

He has thrived throwing the ball to the intermediate area of the field. On throws between 10 and 20 yards, Purdy has a delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball 83.7 per cent of the time. That is second only to Andy Dalton (85.6) among quarterbacks with at least 20 such attempts.

But with McCaffrey, Samuel and Elijah Mitchell giving the 49ers arguably the most versatile backfield in the NFL, one in which both McCaffrey and Samuel are threats to run the ball, catch it out of the backfield or line up in the formation as a receiver, San Francisco can significantly ease the pressure on Purdy by leaning on the ground game and short checkdown throws that always have the potential to be turned into big plays.

On top of that, the defense, which finished the season with the second-best success rate (35.9 per cent) in the league, has consistently shown its ability to put the team on its back despite some signs of vulnerability in recent weeks.

Purdy's early success points to him having a career superior to that of Flacco and Sanchez, but the 49ers could manage him in much similar fashion to how they were handled in the playoffs in his first postseason experience.

Russell Wilson (2012)

One of the best rookie quarterback performances in the playoffs came from a player who was previously the thorn in the 49ers' side with the Seahawks.

Wilson won the Super Bowl in only his second season, but the groundwork for that run was laid during a superb rookie year.

The Seahawks star was excellent in his first postseason, completing 62.9 per cent of his passes for 572 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He posted a passer rating of 102.4, leading the Seahawks to a win over Washington at FedEx Field in the Wild Card round before falling short against the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional round.

Wilson had the benefit of a full regular season under his belt and was a better athlete than Purdy is at that point in his career.

Yet the 49ers will hope the repetitions Purdy has to his name in calmly leading them through the stretch run will be enough for him to perform at a level akin to that of Wilson, albeit with expectations of significantly better results.

Cautionary tales

As the overall record indicates, starting a rookie quarterback in the playoffs typically ends badly. Matt Ryan threw two interceptions in his postseason debut in 2008 and Dalton was picked off three times as he and the Cincinnati Bengals suffered Wild Card round heartache in 2011. Andrew Luck led the Colts to the playoffs in 2012, but his postseason bow saw him post a passer rating of just 59.8.

Robert Griffin III's sole playoff appearance in 2012 ended in a knee injury as he was beaten by Wilson and the Seahawks in a battle of the rookies, while in 2018 Lamar Jackson was confounded by a Los Angeles Chargers defense that frequently deployed seven defensive backs to hold the dual-threat in check and restrict him to a completion percentage of 48.3.

Mac Jones was the last rookie to start a playoff game, doing so last January, but was intercepted twice in trying in vain to help to the Patriots keep up with a Buffalo Bills team that blew them away 47-17.

Even if Purdy maintains his stellar level of play, there is a chance that, in the lottery of the postseason, it still may not be enough.

Indeed, Dak Prescott threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns for the Dallas Cowboys in his playoff debut in the 2016 Divisional round and still came up short as he was outdueled by Aaron Rodgers in a 34-31 thriller.

That game serves as a perfect illustration as to why the playoffs are a different animal. The stakes go up, and the standard can also rise to a point where a player's best is often not good enough. In a Wild Card game against a Seahawks team he had little issue beating in the regular season, it will soon become apparent whether Purdy has what it takes to give this Cinderella quarterback story a fairytale ending.