SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — A season filled with quarterback injuries finally caught up to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game.
If San Francisco is going to break through finally under coach Kyle Shanahan and end the franchise's nearly three-decade Super Bowl title drought, keeping the most important player on the team healthy will be paramount.
The Niners made it within one step of a return trip to the Super Bowl despite losing starting quarterback Trey Lance to a season-ending injury in Week 2 and backup Jimmy Garoppolo to a broken foot in Week 13.
But the season ended with no quarterback capable of even throwing the ball past the line of scrimmage in a 31-7 loss in the NFC title game to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
“You dress two quarterbacks and neither one of them can throw and neither one of them is really available," tight end George Kittle said. "It kind of limits what you can do as an offense, kind of limits our playbook to like 15 plays. You can only do so much."
Rookie Brock Purdy went down with an elbow injury on the opening drive that made him incapable of throwing the ball more than 5 or 10 yards.
Fourth-string journeyman Josh Johnson came in and the Niners stayed in the game thanks to a strong defense and running back Christian McCaffrey before everything fell apart in a stretch around halftime starting when Boston Scott gave the Eagles a 14-7 lead on a 10-yard run with 1:40 left in the first half.
Johnson fumbled a snap on the next drive to set up another Philadelphia TD before halftime and then went out with a concussion on the first drive of the second half.
That left the Niners with the choice of putting Purdy back in even though he couldn't throw the ball any distance or play the rest of the game in the wildcat with McCaffrey running the show.
They went with Purdy but had no chance against an Eagles defense that stacked the box with no fear of defending the pass.
The game quickly got out of hand and a Niners team that entered the game full of confidence fueled by a 12-game winning streak went home disappointed.
“I think they got dealt a pretty tough card,” coach Kyle Shanahan said “A tough hand. I just hurt for those guys. We felt really good about this game. It was a tough one. It was some tough circumstances. We should have done a few things better, but I’m really proud of the group in there.”
San Francisco had seasons derailed by serious quarterback injuries in 2018 and 2020 and then were forced to play the NFC title game last year with Garoppolo hampered by injuries to his thumb and shoulder.
Now they head into the offseason with more “what ifs.”
The 49ers invested heavily in Lance when they traded three first-round picks to draft him third overall in 2021, but still don't know if he's the long-term answer. Lance started only four games his first two seasons and has yet to show that he can fulfill the potential San Francisco saw in him coming out of North Dakota State.
The offense was very productive under Purdy before he got hurt Sunday, but he does have physical limitations that led to him being the last pick in the draft and now has to deal with an injury that could impact his 2023 season.
A person familiar with the injury said Purdy tore a ligament in his right elbow. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the team didn't release details of the injury. Purdy will likely miss the entire offseason program and could be sidelined into the season if his needs reconstructive surgery.
Whether the Niners anoint one a starter, have a true competition or bring in a veteran such as Tom Brady remains an open question.
The Niners could lose a key assistant for the third straight season with defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans a strong candidate to get the head coaching job in either Houston or Denver.
Ryans replaced Robert Saleh after he was hired by the Jets following the 2020 season and San Francisco lost offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel to Miami last year.
Finding another top-notch defensive play-caller will be the first priority for Shanahan this offseason.
All-Pro defensive end Nick Bosa is in for a big payday this offseason. Bosa is set to play on his fifth-year option worth nearly $18 million for 2023. GM John Lynch said last offseason that the team would wait until Bosa was entering his final year of his contract to discuss an extension that could be worth in excess of $30 million a year after he led the NFL with 18 1/2 sacks this season.
San Francisco has several key players headed to free agency. While Garoppolo is not expected back with both Purdy and Lance under contract, the Niners have two offensive line starters in right tackle Mike McGlinchey and center Jake Brendel; key defensive linemen Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu and Kerry Hyder Jr., and defensive back Jimmie Ward all ready to hit the open market if they don't get extensions.
With only limited cap room, San Francisco will have to decide which of those players are a priority to keep.
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