They’re laughing in Ames, Iowa, this week. They’re laughing because they’ve seen the best of Brock Purdy at Iowa State. They’ve seen the worst, too. That means, no matter what happens Sunday in Super Bowl XVIII, he’s still theirs.
And that’s so Iowa State. It’s the kind of place that embraces a babyfaced kid from Gilbert, Arizona, almost no one initially recruited, making him one of their own. His 23-15 record as a starter, including a school-record nine-win season and a Fiesta Bowl victory, is a good place to start.
But there’s more. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback met his fiancé in Ames. The toast of Las Vegas this week came back during the 49ers bye week and … fished. Before he was Mr. Irrelevant — also so Iowa State — Purdy was always going to be a Cyclones legend.
But a “game manager?” That’s personal and borderline derogatory. Purdy is not that. Not in the places that matter most to him this week — Gilbert, Ames and San Francisco. Not the guy who went for five total touchdowns and beat a ranked Oklahoma State team on the road before his first career start. In the same 2018 season he blew up, Purdy was in a battle to be the Cyclones’ third-string QB.
For the second straight season, Purdy led the 49ers in the NFC Championship. This year, they’ve advanced out of it and into the Super Bowl after two much-scrutinized comeback wins against the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.
A narrative emerged then as one of the main (read: annoying) Super Bowl talking points that threatens to cancel what Purdy really is. They’re laughing in Ames mostly because the pundits, podcasters and posers obviously don’t know a game manager from a rack of ribs at Hickory Park.
“I’ve been chuckling at that,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell told CBS Sports, sticking with the theme. “That would be the furthest thing I would label Brock as. I took my whole family out to the Green Bay game. … Then it starts. I’m thinking, ‘I’ve watched this so many times.’ It’s the scramble. It’s the big throw. It’s the confidence when things go bad. He’s got this unbelievable, uncanny ability and belief he creates for himself.”
So much so that a humble land-grant school in central Iowa and a Bay Area franchise longing for its for first championship in 30 years are united this week in their narrative.
Game managers don’t rally their teams down 17 points like Purdy did against Detroit in the NFC Championship. Game managers don’t put their heads down to pick up a first down instead of getting down to avoid tacklers with the season on the line. Game managers don’t throw four interceptions on Christmas night, either, especially before leading game-winning second-half drives in two playoff games.
Purdy was Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Arizona. Twice he was an All-Big 12 first team selection. At one point, he was even in the discussion for NFL MVP this season. Things happen along the way.
“The world loves you,” Purdy concluded this week. “You lose some games, the world hates you.”
Lately, that background noise has taken over. Everybody wants a piece of Purdy, a chance to characterize him. Cam Newton may have been the first to jump on him. During his December podcast, the former NFL QB and Heisman Trophy winner applied the dreaded “game manager” label to Purdy.
“They’re not winning because of him,” Newton said. “He’s managing the game.”
Former Arizona State coach Herm Edwards, now back as an ESPN analyst, said recently that he recruited Purdy before the quarterback went to “Iowa.” (Wrong school, and for the record, Campbell said only Boise State was speaking with Purdy when Iowa State found him. Purdy was reportedly recruited only as a preferred walk-on by ASU.)
“Brock definitely plays the position better than I did in 2000,” UAB coach Trent Dilfer said.
That was the year Dilfer was singled out as perhaps the original “game manager.” To this day, the NFL veteran, former ESPN personality and state championship high school coach is best known as the QB of the defense-dominant Ravens, which won the Super Bowl that season despite Dilfer.
He has worn the label for the last 24 years like a comfortable pair of slippers.
“That year in Baltimore, I was a guy who was not going to go out and put the team on his shoulders and win a game,” Dilfer said. “I was going to make sure I was part of the reason we won, not [be] the reason we lost. If they want to call that a ‘game manager,’ I’ve owned that since the year 2000.”
“Where things gets screwy is when people run out of words and don’t have the proper vocabulary to properly explain quarterbacks,” Dilfer added. “And they use this [label]. Brock Purdy can go win you a game. He’s not asked to do it a lot, but when asked to do it, he can do it.”
You know who was a good game manager? Tom Brady. Watch the AFC Championship: Patrick Mahomes was a heck of a game manager against the Ravens. Mahomes was aware of his offense’s limitations in a game where the Chiefs defense dominated.
Nick Saban won national championships with so-called game managers at Alabama. What else would you call Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron?
There is no shame in any of that, only rings.
Perhaps the wonder of Purdy is summed up in this clip.
Niners teammate Nick Bosa is seen at Purdy’s locker after the NFC Championship asking him, “Did you think you’d be this good?”
“Honestly,” Purdy replied, “I could do better, bro.”
Picked 262nd (last) in the 2022 NFL Draft, Purdy eventually got his chance after both Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo went down with injuries. Following a 35-7 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 14 last season, Purdy became the first QB, making his first career start, to beat Brady.
Try to remember, if you can: Skylar Thompson, Chris Oladokun, Sam Howell, Bailey Zappe, Matt Corral and Malik Willis were all selected ahead of Purdy, making a combined 32 starts between them. Purdy has 26 himself with a 21-5 record, consecutive NFC Championship appearances and a chance now to win a Super Bowl.
That makes Purdy the ultimate “Mr. Irrelevant.” The odds of a Super Bowl player being a quarterback drafted 250th or later is 1 in 24 million, according to CBS Sports research.
In both college and the NFL, Purdy rose from third string — not like a phoenix but as a plucky kid from metro Phoenix.
It was at Perry High School in Gilbert that Purdy got mononucleosis and missed three games as a junior. He wasn’t necessarily physically imposing. At the time, Campbell wasn’t sure whether he was going to recruit a quarterback. Kyle Kempt, a former walk-on, wasn’t sure he would get a sixth year of eligibility in 2018, so Campbell took a flier on Purdy.
“I asked the recruiting staff, ‘Find me the best quarterback in the country who’s available right now,” the coach recalled. “We sat down and we watched Brock’s tape, and I said, ‘This kid is incredible.’ We had just got done that year playing Baker Mayfield [at Oklahoma]. I made them pull up Baker Mayfield’s senior video. I’m telling you, it was verbatim — how they released the ball, arm angle, escapability [was the same].”
Purdy had his coming out party in that 2018 win against Oklahoma State. There were four touchdowns passing (five total) and 84 yards rushing in a 48-42 win. Iowa State entered the game last in the Big 12 offense. Despite receiving that additional eligibility, Kempt had blown out his MCL in the season opener and was out for an extended period.
Long-forgotten Zeb Noland started that Oklahoma State game. The plan was for Purdy to play the second series. He came into the game having played two snaps all season. Everything worked out.
This isn’t a career arc painted like a rainbow, though. A year after that explosive performance, back in Ames, the Cowboys had him dialed in. Purdy emerged from a 34-27 loss having thrown 62 times with three fourth-quarter interceptions ion homecoming.
“I just remember holding him afterwards, saying, ‘We’re going to be fine. He’s going to be fine,” Campbell recalled. “All of a sudden, they’re booing him. I feel like he had to go through that.”
The kid is really too hard on himself. Kempt could have raised a stink after returning from his knee injury. Iowa State was his third school. He had taken his first meaningful snap in 2017, his fifth year. In Year 6, he was a captain. He was the man.
Then Kempt saw the future at Iowa State. As Purdy blew up, Kempt concluded the future didn’t include him. After that injury in the 2018 opener against Iowa, Kempt threw only 10 more passes in his career.
“When I became healthy again — around maybe Brock’s third or fourth start — I didn’t want it to turn into a situation where I wasn’t playing, saying, ‘This is B.S.’ I turned coach and said, ‘You’ve got to ride with this kid. I’m not going to make this about myself,'” Kempt recalled.
“I was going to be the greatest team player I could. … I wasn’t going to make this about myself. For it all to come crashing down, getting injured against your in-state rival that you lose to at their place, I was as low as I could have been.”
Kempt is now an Iowa State offensive quality control assistant. The two remain good friends, and Kempt will be in Purdy’s wedding later this year.
Still, one is in the Super Bowl. The other is still trying to land a full-time assistant job. That selflessness is so Iowa State, too.
The legend has progressed to the point that the Des Moines Register this week was working on a story determining where Purdy ranked all-time amongst Iowans who played in the NFL. Any list of such players includes Kurt Warner and Roger Craig — both Super Bowl winners. Purdy could join that list Sunday at the conclusion of his 27th NFL start.
“Do I think it’s time to pick a new nickname?” Purdy said during Monday’s media availability. “I’m OK with ‘Mr. Relevant.'”