Kurtenbach: The 49ers needed a big play on their final drive. They turned to… Chris Conley?

Kurtenbach: The 49ers needed a big play on their final drive. They turned to… Chris Conley?

SANTA CLARA — The Packers’ defense had softened, and the 49ers’ constitution needed to harden.

Standing on the Packers’ side of the oval mid-field logo with 3:05 to play in the fourth quarter, trailing by four points, the Niners’ offense needed a big play.

Kyle Shanahan knew precisely what to call — a classic zone-beater concept.

Brock Purdy knew who would be open and where the ball needed to go.

On what was likely the 49ers’ final offensive drive of the game, with the season on the line, the 49ers called a play for Chris Conley.

Wait… who?

You know, Chris Conley, the journeyman wide receiver who was a practice squad player most of the year, playing 67 offensive snaps in the Niners’ first 17 weeks of the season.

That Chris Conley.

So of course it worked.

Conley ran a good route — a 15-yard out route to the sideline amid the space vacated by the Packers’ zone defense.

Purdy delivered a ball that, seemingly for the first time all game, was on time and on target.

The 17-yard completion was the longest play of what proved to be a drive for the ages.

And as Conley tapped his toes before being knocked out of bounds, the entire football-watching world racked their brain for any information they had on No. 84.

Who was this guy? And what on Earth was he doing in the game at that moment?

Conley is one of the countless professionals that make the NFL go. Cut five times throughout his career — including by the 49ers before the start of the 2023 season — he’s a behind-the-scenes player who helps run the scout team, plays special teams, and hopes that all that grinding will pay off with an opportunity to make an on-field impact.

That opportunity came for Conley on Saturday.

With Deebo Samuel knocked out of the NFC Divisional Round game with a shoulder injury, the 49ers scrambled to find a replacement for one of the game’s most unique players. With so much of the Niners’ offensive game plan built around Samuel, the job was anything but plug-and-play.

“It changes a lot of stuff, especially when you have wristbands and things like that,” Shanahan said. “It is a huge challenge.”

Conley is no Samuel, but he puts the “study” in understudy. He was Shanahan’s man.

“We have complicated game plans, and my job is to study everyone else’s job,” Conley said. “When things are complicated, they call on me to do it, because they know that I know it.”

And things were unquestionably complicated against the Packers.

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Most of Conley’s 25 snaps Saturday featured him doing yeoman’s work: running decoy routes and blocking. He provided a key block to help spring Christian McCaffrey for a 39-yard touchdown in the third quarter. His downfield sprints — “He does it at 100 percent effort every single time,” said tight end George Kittle — softened the defense for Purdy to hit guys like Kittle underneath the coverage. The Niners’ quarterback connected with them roughly half the time Saturday.

That’s all the Niners had ever asked of Conley: do the little things right.

Conley did just that on the 49ers’ practice squad — far away from the cameras and expectations that came with being the No. 76 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and a starting wide receiver for the Chiefs, Jaguars, and Texans. And because he kept doing the little things right, he was called up from the practice squad to the Niners’ game-day roster four times this season.

“He’s just [the] ultimate grinder. That’s what you want on your football team,” Kittle said.

On Dec. 9, the Niners decided to stop bouncing him around and moved him to the 53-man roster.

Six weeks later, he was on the field for the most important drive of the season.

And seven plays into that drive, he was called upon to make the big play.

“Shout out to [general manager] John [Lynch] and Kyle. When they called me to come here, they were very transparent about what my role would be,” Conley said. “You have incumbent starters… My job is to help them prepare and be prepared myself to play any position. Today was one of those days.”

When Conley was a free agent this past offseason, teams weren’t blowing up his phone, looking to sign a 31-year-old receiver with 66 total receptions in the prior three years.

“Huge thanks to them. They believed I can still play the game,” Conley said of Lynch and Shanahan.

But between an Achilles tendon tear in 2017 and years of bouncing from team to team and later practice squad to practice squad, there were moments where Conley questioned his belief that he could play the game.

“I definitely had to grapple with it. I had a lot of people tell me it was time to move on or do something different. But when I came here, I just asked for an opportunity to compete and do anything,” Conley said.

But no one imagined “anything” would have included something like Saturday’s catch.

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It speaks to Conley’s professionalism that Purdy was so willing to overlook a superstar like McCaffrey, who was open on a check-down route, standing 10 yards in front of the Niners’ quarterback, and rip one to the guy who had three catches this season — all on passes from backup quarterback Sam Darnold.

“With the limited reps we have, we [built] a great relationship,” Conley said of Purdy, whose locker is an arms length away. “He’s a tremendous leader… He trusts his guys.”

Conley might be called upon again in the NFC Championship Game. Samuel’s playing status will likely remain murky until close to kickoff.

Saturday might also be the only time the ball finds Conley this postseason. It might even be his last catch in a game that counts in his NFL career.

But when the moment was most harrowing, the 49ers turned to a true professional.

He did his job — what he’s done every day since arriving in Santa Clara, no cameras or notoriety needed.

And because he did his job, the Niners have another week to play, and he’ll be a part of 49ers lore for years to come.