Depth Perceptions: San Francisco 49ers’ Quarterbacks
The 2008 season was supposed to be one of promise for the San Francisco 49ers but quickly spiraled out of control, resulting in a midseason coaching change and personnel change to come with it. Former coach Mike Nolan’s 2-5 start led to his dismissal and NFL legend Mike Singletary was tasked with turning around a franchise who’s quarterback of the present and/or future, Alex Smith, was on injured reserve for the year. In his first game as head coach, Singletary put his stamp on the team by replacing starter J.T. O’Sullivan with journeyman Shaun Hill.
The real question entering 2009 is whether or not Hill can be the starter for the long-term. Alex Smith, after all, is the former No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft, a player who showed promise a few years ago. He restructured his six-year, $49.5 million contract so it does not impact the team negatively and showed that he wanted to be a part of the 49er family going forward. Hill has earned the respect of his teammates but Singletary has declared the job an open competition when camp opens next week.
“I believe … at the right time, one of those guys will be the guy that will take us where we need to go,” Singletary said recently. “I feel very strongly that one of those guys is going to take us where we need to go. I have two quarterbacks I feel very confident about. I don’t have one great guy. I have two good guys, and somebody is going to step up.”
Let’s take a look at this important battle and the pros and cons of each player…
Prior to December 2007, very few fans even knew who Shaun Hill was, let alone did they have an idea of how well he would play in NFL action. Having spent time in the now-defunct NFL Europe as well as four years as a backup with the Vikings, he had yet to even throw a pass until pressed into action due to injury and abhorrent play by his QB peers in San Francisco. Even after posting a 2-0 record as a starter in 2007, the job was J.T. O’Sullivan’s in 2008 before Hill received another chance to take the snaps as the No. 1 man for the Niners.
Singletary’s move to Hill appeared to work as it energized a struggling squad and led them to a 5-3 record in the second half of the season. While quarterback was only one of many issues to be solved in San Francisco, the Niners at least found someone on the roster that could potentially lead this team into the following season. Hill’s statistics were also impressive: 62.8 completion percentage, 13 to 8 TD/INT ratio, 2046 yards in just over 8 games, and a 84 QB rating that placed him 12th in the league by season’s end.
While not known for overpowering arm strength, Hill has impressed with his overall athleticism and his ability to put the ball on the money for his receivers to catch in tight spaces. His size and experience are assets as he enters the season as the 49ers potential starter in 2009.
Well, it’s safe to say the bloom is off the rose. No longer is Alex Smith the lone savior of the franchise. His big-time contract has been mostly paid out and ultimately restructured but here he remains in San Francisco, fighting for another chance at the starting job. If nothing else, you have to admire that tenacity, his desire to lead the team that he was asked to lead over four years ago.
No one doubts Smith’s ability to read a playbook; he is by all accounts a quick learner. This will clearly help during all of the offseason workouts dealing with new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye’s system. But, he is coming off another major injury, one that sidelined him for all of 2008.
One can understand the hesitance of a Niners fan to trust the fate of the franchise to Smith again but if he earns it and outplays Hill, then so be it – Singletary will hand him the job. Smith’s size, ability to thread the needle, and cerebral approach are all coveted by NFL teams, but his penchant for overanalyzing, taking sacks, and throwing interceptions are equally unattractive. It should also not be underestimated that the only 25-year old QB may be fighting for his career and trying to make believers of us all.
Very often in the NFL, we see the media try to drum up interest by fabricating ‘legitimate’ positional battles, particularly at quarterback, when it’s essentially been decided before training camp starts. This…is not one of those cases. This QB battle will be wide open because Singletary knows that it will help both players to raise their level of play and will create a competitive environment in training camp that he hopes will become contagious at every position.
Singletary knows changes have been made (hello, Michael Crabtree) that can lift his team to another level especially in a division where the title that has changed hands quite a few times this decade. He was as intense a player as there ever was and you can see he is not in coaching to plod along and improve slowly – he is there to win now.
Unlike the Browns, the Niners’ QB battle could have a big impact on their team’s overall success and affect the playoff picture in the NFC. I think it is fair to say that Hill has the slight edge over Smith going into camp but I genuinely think this is as compelling battle going into next week as will see all summer.