SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Brock Purdy has been a revelation that no one in the NFL could have predicted.
Except for maybe neuroscientist Brandon Ally, who saw it before Purdy was taken with the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft … a pick referred to as irrelevant yet has saved the San Francisco 49ers season.
Ally is a PhD in neuropsychology and the vice president of S2 Cognition, a Nashville-based company that tests people in a variety of areas from law enforcement to military to sports. Since 2014, the company has tested roughly 20,000 athletes in nine different sports, including approximately 3,500 NFL players.
Among those are 120 quarterbacks. Among all of NFL players and specifically the quarterbacks, Purdy tested in the top 3 percent. His results rate with the likes of Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, and, in a particularly important way, with Drew Brees.
Or as Ally put it, Purdy’s scores were “otherworldly,” which is commensurate with how he has played so far. According to the data Ally’s company produced, Purdy’s cognitive ability projects to him having a career passer rating of better than 90 and approaching 100. That would put Purdy’s among the league’s all-time greats.
There is, of course, Ally’s caveat that “there’s a lot more to it than just the test results.” Size, strength and arm talent can’t be ignored. There are requisite measurables which are questionable for Purdy. His listed height and weight of 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds are dubious. Through hard work and dedication, he has improved the limited arm strength he had in college, but it still crops up. On Sunday in Las Vegas, he tried to make a throw from left to right off his back foot and the toss ended up looking like a lazy pop up.
But those issues seem to be falling by the wayside amid a series of overwhelming stats that back up the data from S2 Cognition. The 49ers are 5-0 since he took over after the first drive of the Dec. 4 game against Miami.
The 49ers have scored at least 30 points in four of those five games after reaching that mark only three times in the first 11 games with 2021 No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance and veteran starter Jimmy Garoppolo leading the way. They have gone from average 22.6 points in the first 11 games to 32.6 in the five since then. In 45 drives that Purdy has been able to lead, the 49ers have scored 18 touchdowns, kicked eight field goals and missed two.
His ability to process plays both before and after the snap is freakish, seemingly ranking with the likes of Dan Marino and Peyton Manning. In the 49ers locker room, tales of surprising plays and preternatural understanding of the game abound.
On Wednesday, six different players were asked to come up with their favorite Purdy moment. They all came up with something different, such as wide receiver Ray-Ray McLeod recalling how Purdy adjusted a play-action fake when the defense didn’t react the way it was expected. Purdy played out the fake a little longer and then spun the opposite way of the original design of the play before completing the pass.
Offensive lineman Mike McGlinchy talked about how Purdy handled numerous blitzes in his first game against Miami without having prepared for the game because Garoppolo was the starter. Fullback Mike Juszczyk recalled how on a screen play that was designed to go to Christian McCaffrey, the defense took away the play and forced Purdy to escape to the right. However, Purdy didn’t just throw the ball away and risk an illegal man downfield penalty. He ran up field and took a short sack rather than take the penalty yardage.
“It’s the stuff that we don’t cover in practice that he comes up with an answer for because you can’t cover everything,” Juszczyk said, comparing Purdy to veteran quarterbacks who have been around for six to 10 years. “He just knows what’s happening.”
Some people generalize that as the “It Factor” of sports. It is some mystic quality that can’t easily be understood.
S2 Cognition tries to evaluate that factor as a cognitive ability to see and react (or not react) to what happens on a field or court. Ally and co-founder Scott Wylie, a fellow PhD in neurosciences, were doing research on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's disease at Vanderbilt roughly a decade ago when they came up with this idea.
The test is broken up into nine disciplines that measure things such as the ability to transfer what can be seen on an iPad into the spacial environment of the playing field. There’s also the ability to focus under moments stress and distraction, such as when a defensive linemen are either throwing their hands up in the air to distract a quarterback’s field of vision or a quarterback is getting hit along the back of the leg.
“In that way, Brock was off the charts in a way that was similar to Drew Brees in his ability to stay focused,” said Ally, whose company worked with six NFL teams last year before the draft. The New Orleans Saints are one of S2 Cognition’s clients and Saints executive Jeff Ireland has endorsed the company’s work.
How exactly did Purdy develop that skill? Or is it a natural ability that has been highlighted over the years as he was raised by a father who is a former pro athlete (Shawn Purdy pitched at the University of Miami and then in the minors) before starting for four years at Iowa State.
For his part, Purdy said his parents didn’t do anything special.
“Just play and practice, doing reps and reps and reps,” he said.
At the same time, that doesn’t account for the ability to improvise and either make a play or averting disaster. On Sunday at Las Vegas, Purdy did just that. With 4:08 remaining in the game and the score tied at 27, Purdy faced a first-down blitz. Purdy missed the hot read to McCaffrey and quickly had a free blitzer coming at him from left.
Purdy gave a head-and-shoulder fake as if he would sprint left, then did a spin back to the right. As he turned around and started to look up field, Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby was bearing down on him. Purdy had just enough time to fire the ball away and out of bounds to avoid a potentially devastating sack.
The play was nothing breath-taking or stunning, but it allowed the 49ers to stay out of trouble. On the next play, Purdy hit Brandon Aiyuk for 23 yards. Two plays after that, Purdy was blitzed again and this time hit McCaffrey for a screen that turned into a 38-yard gain that set up a touchdown.
Those big plays don’t happen without the ability to recognize and get out of the first play. It’s a cognitive ability that few understand, but may now be measurable.