Recently 49ers rookie quarterback Brock Purdy has taken the NFL by storm, leading his team to five straight wins and putting them in a position to possibly take the top seed in the playoffs. This year's Mr. Irrelevant has put the league on notice that it doesn't matter where you're drafted, it's how you seize the moment that matters most. On his way to tying the franchise rookie record for touchdown passes, few have remembered the man who set the record 48 years ago. Like Purdy, Tom Owen was barely drafted, taken in the 13th round of the 1974 NFL Draft. But his experience with the franchise was vastly different. This is his story.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana in September of 1952, Tom Owen's family soon moved to Kansas City where he would grow as an athlete. After starring at Turner High School, Owen earned a scholarship to Wichita State. In his three years on the varsity, the Shockers underwhelmed the opposition, only finishing with a winning record in his junior years of 1972. After a dismal 4-7 senior season, Tom Owen was drafted by the 49ers with the 322nd pick in the 1974 NFL Draft, 120 picks away from being that year's Mr. Irrelevant. Having been picked in a round that no longer exists, the 49ers didn't expect Owen to do much during his rookie year, or maybe even ever. They had no clue that he would be their starter for much of that season and find a way to stay in the league for the next decade.
An Unexpected Opportunity
For the first three weeks of the season, Tom Owen stood on the sidelines, soaking in the atmosphere of the NFL and the long verbiage of the 49ers' offense. He watched as Joe Reed led the team to a 2-1 start and was given his first opportunity to contribute in mop-up duty in a 34-9 loss to the Saint Louis Cardinals. He wasn't very impressive as he completed one pass out of five attempts for nine yards and coughed up an interception.
Two weeks later, he was thrust into the spotlight as Reed went down with an injury. Down 27-0 at the half against the Rams, Tom Owen threw the first touchdown pass of his career to Terry Beasley. A 24-yarder to Wilbur Jackson on the following drive was Owen's second, but the effort proved futile as the 49ers were ultimately blown out 37-14. Shortly after their loss to the Rams and facing the daunting reality that they would be led by a rookie quarterback for the foreseeable future, the 49ers traded for veteran Norm Snead from the New York Giants. For the remainder of the season, Snead and Owen would sporadically trade snaps, creating a miniature quarterback controversy and spurring one to reach the peak of his athletic career.
Owen made his first career start the following week against the Raiders, one of the most talented teams of that era. At that time, the Raiders were in the midst of appearing in five straight AFC title games and were always in the discussion as a serious Super Bowl contender. He opened up the scoring with his third touchdown pass of the season, a five-yard strike to Larry Schreiber, but the Raiders answered right back on a 17-yard run by Marv Hubbard. The game began to slip away from San Francisco in the second quarter as they could only muster a field goal while the Raiders began to find their rhythm, with Ken Stabler throwing a 64-yard bomb to Cliff Branch.
Although they weren't expected to do much against one of the league's premier teams, the 49ers entered halftime only down by four. Sensing an upset, Tom Owen went out in the third quarter intent on proving himself to the world. After Delvin Williams gave the 49ers the lead on a 71-yard run and the Raiders failed to score on their subsequent drive, Owen drove the team down the field and deftly zipped his fourth touchdown pass of the season to Terry Beasley, giving San Francisco a surprising 10-point lead.
But the Raiders had one of the best offenses in the NFL for a reason and they owned the rest of the game, scoring 21 unanswered points the rest of the way. For his first start, Tom Owen completed 15 of 26 passes for two touchdowns and two interceptions, a fairly even-keeled performance. Even though the 49ers lost in convincing fashion, they knew that they had a man under center who had the heart to lead them to victory.
Owen was less than stellar the following week against the Rams, completing just four of twelve passes and finishing the game on the sidelines as Norm Snead led the team to another loss. He didn't start the next game against the Cowboys, but he was back under center in the fourth quarter, tossing a 12-yard touchdown pass to Gene Washington. After his fifth touchdown pass of the season briefly gave his team a one-point lead, they quickly squandered it. After the narrow 20-14 loss, the job was Owen's to lose.
Armed with the knowledge that he was entrenched as the starter -albeit, for the time being- Tom Owens took the opportunity by the reigns and didn't look back. He went off in the first half against the Bears, scoring on a sneak and tossing two touchdown passes, a 68-yarder to Beasley and a 20-yard strike to tight end Ted Kwalick. Scoring runs by Sammy Johnson and Delvin Williams put the game out of reach for Chicago and Tom Owen won his first game in the National Football League. But despite the 34-0 demolition of one of the worst teams in the league, a dark cloud was looming. Even though Tom Owen again went 15 for 26 and accounted for three touchdowns, he still coughed up three interceptions. It's extremely difficult to win in this league while giving up the ball that many times.
The following week, the 49ers dismantled the Falcons 27-0 as Tom Owen connected with Gene Washington for his eighth and ninth touchdown passes of the season in the first half. However, he completed just seven of sixteen passes and coughed up another interception. His rookie season wouldn't get any easier.
The 49ers next traveled to Cleveland. At the time the Browns didn't have much talent either, but they had a quarterback who would one day earn the NFL's Most Valuable Player honor: Brian Sipe. The game itself was a bore as neither team could score the first three and a half quarters. Tom Owen struggled mightily against a fierce Cleveland pass rush, getting sacked five times and subsequently giving up five interceptions. Finally, late in the fourth quarter, Ken Brown rushed for the game-deciding one-yard plunge, giving the Browns a 7-0 win.
The next week, the 49ers played the Packers at Candlestick Park. It was an abysmal game for both parties as neither team could score much. While the Packers kicked a pair of field goals, the 49ers sleepwalked under the guidance of Tom Owen. It appeared that his time as their starter was coming to a close. At halftime, coach Dick Nolan gave Norm Snead a chance to supplant Tom Owen as the starter. It wasn't pretty, but the 49ers ultimately prevailed 7-6.
While Tom Owen stood stewing on the sidelines, it appeared that his time as the 49ers starter was over. However, Nolan decided to give Owen one last chance in the season finale. And Tom Owen delivered.
It was a low-scoring affair for most of the game, with the 49ers owning a 14-7 lead going into the fourth quarter. The final period was a high-scoring palooza. Tom Owen began the festivities by throwing his tenth touchdown pass of the season to Gene Washington. From there the two teams traded punches with two San Francisco defensive touchdowns sandwiching two touchdown passes by New Orleans' Bobby Scott.
The game came to a close with the 49ers on top, winning 35-21. Tom Owen had a decent final start in San Francisco, completing 12 of 22 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown as well as an interception. For his historic rookie campaign, Owen won four of his seven starts, completed 47.8% of his passes, passed for 1,327 yards, threw a franchise-record 10 touchdown passes and gave up 15 interceptions.
17, 549 days after Tom Owen threw the last of his touchdowns in his rookie year, Brock Purdy tied his franchise rookie record. Against a surprisingly fierce Las Vegas Raiders pass rush, 2022's Mr. Irrelavant connected with George Kittle in the endzone.
As the clock wound down on the exciting finish to a so-so 6-8 season, there was a wisp of optimism in the air. For while the team was in the early stages of decline after several years of Super Bowl contention, they still had an excellent coach in Dick Nolan and had the players to make another title run before the decade came to a close.
But alas, fate had another idea. Tom Owen started just once more for San Francisco, a 26-23 loss to the Giants the following year, and left for New England in 1976. In four years on the active roster, Owen started just once for the Patriots. By 1982, he was in Washington, winning a Super Bowl as a backup on the Redskins. After sitting on the bench in New York in 1983, Tom Owen retired as a Giant.
Perhaps Brock Purdy will go on to be a superstar in the NFL. Perhaps he will go on to have a career as a serviceable backup like Tom Owen. But no matter what happens with this year's Mr. Irrelevant, he's already surpassed expectations. The same could be said of his predecessor.