Santoro: Purdy’s Super Bowl journey could have been Carson Strong’s

Former Nevada quarterback Carson Strong had a record-setting career for the Wolf Pack, but went undrafted after the 2021 season.

Former Nevada quarterback Carson Strong had a record-setting career for the Wolf Pack, but went undrafted after the 2021 season.
Photo by Thomas Ranson.

Sports Fodder:

When you sit down to watch Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday in the Super Bowl, take a moment and say to yourself, “There, but for the grace of the football gods, goes Carson Strong.”

The biggest difference between Super Bowl quarterback Brock Purdy and Reno High assistant coach Carson Strong, after all, just might be a pair healthy knees.

The 49ers chose Iowa State’s Purdy with the last pick of the 2022 draft over (among others, of course) the Nevada Wolf Pack’s Strong. Strong, in the year leading up to the draft, was at times considered a likely first-round pick. Purdy, at least outside Ames, Iowa, was rarely mentioned among the top quarterbacks available in the draft.

Here we are, less than two years removed from that draft in Las Vegas, and Purdy is about to play in the Super Bowl (in Las Vegas, no less) against the Kansas City Chiefs.

A week ago, Strong officially announced his retirement as a player and will be the Huskies’ offensive coordinator this fall.

In the end, it seems, it was five knee surgeries that kept Strong from being drafted and ultimately forcing his retirement as a player a little more than two years after his final game for the Wolf Pack.

Strong gave it the good fight even as his knees betrayed him. He even spent last season as a Wolf Pack assistant coach, at times running the scout team’s offense at quarterback. “I can hang up my cleats knowing I pushed my knee as far as I possibly could,” Strong wrote on Twitter (X) last week. “The knee can take no more ball.”

What if Strong’s knees didn’t betray him? What if the 49ers made Strong, a Bay Area kid from Vacaville, Calif., the last pick in the 2022 draft? What if Strong, who played in the first college game at Allegiant Stadium on Halloween 2020, completing 21-of-27 passes for 350 yards and two scores in a 37-19 win over UNLV, was about to play in the first Super Bowl at Allegiant Stadium this Sunday?

We’ll never know. What we do know is that the Football gods aren’t always so kind.


It is easy right now (and a bit unfair) to say that any comparison between Purdy and Strong is ridiculous. Purdy, after all, is headed to the Super Bowl where he will decide between throwing to George Kittle and handing off to Christian McCaffrey. Strong, by comparison, will likely be headed to a Super Bowl party where he will decide between chicken wings and pizza.

But that would be forgetting and ignoring how Strong and Purdy were viewed before that 2022 draft. Strong was being mentioned along with Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder, Malik Willis and Sam Howell as the best quarterbacks available in the draft. Purdy was thought of as a guy who would have to sign a free agent deal once the draft was completed to avoid a fate as a high school coach.

Yes, of course, we all know what really happened. Strong was the free agent and never threw a pass in an NFL regular-season game. Purdy is a win on Sunday away from being mentioned with Joe Montana and Steve Young in the same breath.


How can we legitimately compare a Big 12 quarterback with a Mountain West quarterback?

The two right-handed quarterbacks (Strong is about two inches taller than Purdy) had two common opponents during their final (2021) college season, each playing UNLV and Kansas State and performing in remarkably similar fashion.

Strong was 37-of-49 for 417 yards and four touchdowns against UNLV on Oct. 29, 2021, at Mackay Stadium in a 51-20 Pack win. Purdy was 21-of-24 for 288 yards and three touchdowns in a 48-3 Iowa State win over the Rebels at Allegiant Stadium on Sept. 18, 2021.

That very same day (Sept. 18, 2021) Strong faced an opponent from Purdy’s Big 12 Conference and was 27-of-40 for 262 yards and a touchdown at Kansas State on Sept. 18, 2021, in a 38-17 loss. Purdy was 22-of-25 for 208 yards and a touchdown at Kansas State a month later on Oct. 16, 2021, in a 33-20 win.

Keep in mind that Purdy had Big 12 teammates around him in those games while Strong had his Mountain West friends. Had Strong played behind a Big 12 offensive line and wasn’t required to pass the ball 35-plus times every game in the Air Raid offense, maybe his knees wouldn’t have forced his retirement last week when Purdy was celebrating his upcoming Super Bowl assignment.

Maybe Strong would have been Mr. Irrelevant in 2022 and headed to a Super Bowl and Purdy would now be retired.


It is obvious now, however, that Purdy should have been the first quarterback drafted in 2022 and not the ninth and final one picked. The first eight right now (let’s call them Eight Men Out) will be in the same situation as Strong on Sunday, choosing between pizza and chicken wings, while Purdy hopes to make NFL history.

Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder, Malik Willis, Matt Corral, Bailey Zappe, Sam Howell, Chris Oladokun and Skylar Thompson, the eight quarterbacks taken ahead of Purdy two years ago, will never even sniff a Super Bowl.

Purdy’s story, without a doubt — especially, if it includes a Super Bowl win on Sunday — is one of the more remarkable tales in NFL history.

The road from Mr. Irrelevant to a possible Mr. Super Bowl MVP is not simply because Purdy has had two healthy knees. The young man, whose brother Chubba might attack all of Strong’s Wolf Pack records this fall for the Wolf Pack, is an inspiration for every college quarterback who has been deemed too small, too slow and too ordinary.


Purdy, though, is not as ordinary as the NFL media wants you to believe. He did, after all, start for four years at a Power Five school. He was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Arizona coming out of high school. He chose Iowa State over offers from Nick Saban at Alabama and Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M.

He was 29-17 at Iowa State and did throw for 12,170 yards and 81 touchdowns. He even ran for 1,177 yards and 19 scores.

The differences between Purdy and Patrick Mahomes are also not as vast as you will likely hear this week. Mahomes is, without question, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL. Nobody will likely ever say that about Purdy. A win on Sunday will keep Mahomes on pace to eventually eclipse Tom Brady as the most successful Super Bowl quarterback (seven rings) in history.

Mahomes has a better arm, is a better athlete and is more accomplished as an NFL quarterback than Purdy. Quarterbacks coming out of college dream about being compared to him.

But none of that means Purdy isn’t special in his own way. NFL fans, media and, it seems, scouts, have just one vision of what a quarterback should look like. You need to be Superman, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

That’s just not Brock Purdy. But Purdy deserves to be at Allegiant Stadium on Sunday every bit as much as Mahomes. He likely would have taken the 49ers to the Super Bowl last year as a rookie if he didn’t get hurt in the NFC title game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Purdy, an elite leader and competitor, is his own brand of Superman.

Yes, he won’t leap the Chiefs in a single bound and win the Super Bowl all by himself like Mahomes might.

But don’t forget Purdy has already defeated a foe greater than the one he’ll face on Sunday. He beat the nitpickers who were so quick to point out two years ago he wasn’t a Superman.


Lost in all of the Purdy-vs.-Mahomes discussion the last two weeks has been what this Super Bowl means for the 49ers as a franchise.

A victory on Sunday will be the sixth Super Bowl championship in 49ers’ history, moving the franchise into a tie for first with Pittsburgh and New England.

The 49ers were the first to win five but have not won one since Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders and their friends destroyed the San Diego Chargers after the 1994 season.

It’s time the 49ers regain their title (along with Pittsburgh and New England) as the greatest Super Bowl winners in NFL history.

A win on Sunday would make Purdy the third 49ers quarterback (after Montana, Young) to win a Super Bowl. That would give the 49ers the most Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in NFL history along with the Green Bay Packers (Bart Starr, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers), Washington Redskins (Joe Theismann, Mark Rypien, Doug Williams) and New York Giants (Phil Simms, Jeff Hostetler, Eli Manning).

The 49ers were the first to win five Super Bowls in a row. A loss on Sunday will be their third Super Bowl in a row, just one off the record of four by Buffalo and Minnesota.

Did you ever think you’d see the day when the 49ers would be lumped together with the Bills and Vikings when the subject was Super Bowl losses?

The 49ers have a lot at stake on Sunday.


There is also a McCaffrey-Shanahan connection at play on Sunday for the 49ers.

Mike Shanahan was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator and Ed McCaffrey was a 49ers’ wide receiver the last time the 49ers won a Super Bowl after the 1994 season.

Ed’s son Christian is the current 49ers' starting running back; Mike Shanahan’s son Kyle is the current 49ers head coach.

The Shanahan-McCaffrey Super Bowl connection is also attached to another father-son combo of Super Bowl champions.

Bob Griese won Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins while his son Brian won one with the Denver Broncos. Brian won his Super Bowl with the 1998 Denver Broncos, a team coached by Mike Shanahan and quarterbacked by John Elway. Ed McCaffrey was a wide receiver on the 1998 Broncos.

Ed, like John Elway, played at Stanford and were both coached in college (at different times) by John’s father Jack.

What does it all mean? Probably nothing.

But it does beat thinking about which quarterback is better, Mahomes or Purdy.


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