Told You So! Why Shaun Hill's Departure Is a Step Forward for the 49ers

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Told You So! Why Shaun Hill's Departure Is a Step Forward for the 49ers
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Vindication is sweet!

Sunday saw the trade of former “anointed” 49ers starting QB Shaun Hill to the Detroit Lions for an officially undisclosed—but widely known to be seventh-round—draft pick in 2011. This followed the signing of 2002 No. 1 overall pick David Carr last Monday, just as I predicted (not that it was a tough call).

Shaun Hill joined the ranks of former 49er “golden boy” QB J.T. O’Sullivan, as the second consecutive season-opener starting QB to be gone from the roster come the offseason. I called both outcomes. The development of the 2009 season was eerily similar to that of 2008, as the 49ers let their fans and the local media talk them into making the wrong call under center to start the year.

OK, J.T.’s selection likely had more to do with offensive coordinator Mike Martz drumming up support for a former backup from his Detroit days. Still, the no-name QB from “powerhouse” collegiate program University of California at Davis got a lot of positive publicity in the local press, with more than one “expert” drawing the elementary but completely irrelevant parallel to how Mike Martz developed then-no-name QB Kurt Warner into a Super Bowl Champion and NFL MVP during his days as offensive coordinator and later head coach in St. Louis.

The O’Sullivan experiment was an absolute failure, of course. In the first eight starts of his career, he went 2-6, averaged just one touchdown a game, threw 11 interceptions, and fumbled 11 times, looking a lot like another No. 14 for the 49ers, Jim Druckenmiller. O’Sullivan’s poor play severely hampered the ability of the 49ers offense to keep the team in competitive range during games, and likely went far toward costing head coach Mike Nolan his job mid-season.

With 2005 No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith injured, Shaun Hill stepped in and managed a 5-3 record in the remaining eight games, though his stats were less than impressive.  

New head coach Mike Singletary advertised the 2009 training camp as an open competition between Hill and Smith. It might have been for a week. Fans and local media talking heads alike, enamored with Hill’s “proven winner” 7-3 career starting record, were clamoring for Hill to be named the starter.

Despite a contract renegotiation from Smith and some clear strides in his training, preparation, instincts, and fundamentals, it seemed as though the team was just waiting for any excuse to “prove” Hill was the right pick going forward.

The opportunity came in the second preseason game against Oakland, when Smith suffered a minor injury to his non-throwing hand while making an impressive play to recover and tackle a defensive player after an interception which had bounced off the hands of a potential receiver. Hill was ordained as the starter to the delight and relief of everyone, except yours truly.

Hill managed to stay out his teammates’ ways and play well enough not to lose three of the first four games of the season. Hill’s “skill set” seemed to fit in well with the Coach Sing formula of smash mouth defense and run-centric (if bland) offense. Soon, however, Hill would show his true form.

Starting with the Atlanta game and spanning the bye into the first half of the Houston game, Hill’s limitations became all-too apparent. The 49er defense was strong, but not so strong as to be insusceptible to the occasional quick strike. If opposing teams could get up by two scores, it was all but a death sentence for a Shaun Hill-led offense.

Hill’s lack of arm strength, mobility, and instincts forced the 49ers into a boring, basic, and predictable style of offense that at best could only hope to keep pace with the opposition, if the 49er defense could slow them down enough. The prospects for a multi-score comeback were worse than slim if better than none. By the way, three-and-outs generally do the defense no favors in helping curtail opposing scoring either.

Coach Sing put Alex Smith in to start the second half of the Houston game and the offense looked like a completely different unit. They almost came back from 21 points behind to win the game, but fell just short. Still, it was a feat that would have been impossible behind Shaun Hill. I, for one, am happy to see that the coaching staff has FINALLY seen the light and cut ties with Shaun Hill.

I can hear the cries already. “But Pat, this is a TERRIBLE move. Shaun Hill was the only proven winner the team had. He wasn’t pretty, but he found ways to win. He’s 10-6 in his career as a starter. He’s the best option the 49ers had. And worse yet, they got NOTHING back for him.”

With all due respect, you are completely wrong.

Shaun Hill compiled his “impressive” career record mostly in games late in 2007 and 2008, when the playoffs were already out of reach and there was little to no pressure on the team. He is a journeyman backup, better suited to holding a clipboard than taking a snap. I will concede that he plays with impressive heart, but that is mostly due to the fact that he has little else to lean on.

Hill is a capable backup who can step in here and there and gut out a few tough wins in relief of an injured starter, but he cannot shoulder the load of being “the guy.” His weak arm and poor mobility force the offense into a simplified run-centric scheme that is mediocre, unexplosive, and painfully predictable (as evidenced by the fourth quarter “drives” in Week Three last year when the 49ers had the lead and were trying to ice the game). He is a hindrance to offensive potential.

As for getting nothing back, the return of a seventh-round draft pick proves to me that the rest of the NFL already knows what the 49ers coaches and executives have finally figured out and what many fans and sportscasters still try to avoid: Shaun Hill really is not worth much. Be glad the 49ers got anything for him, rather than just losing him to an unconditional release.

Now, I am not avoiding the fact that the two players the 49ers have chosen to move forward with are far from having future Hall of Fame credentials. The team’s future at QB now lies in the hopefully capable hands of one or another former No. 1 overall pick. Both Smith and Carr have had their shares of well-documented struggles at the NFL level. However, given the fact that none of the three (including Hill) had really proven ANYTHING of importance, I applaud this move by the 49ers.

It is clear that Carr and Smith have the bigger upsides. Strong arms, good mobility, and the ability to meld into more complex and creative offensive game plans. They may make more mistakes, but Hill was still far from flawless in games at QB. Even if he never turned the ball over, mistake-free football means little if you cannot move down the field.

Obviously the 49ers still have needs to address. Chief among them is who will protect these QBs and give them a chance to succeed. That obviously needs to be figured out, but even behind a line of Guy McIntyre, Harris Barton, Randy Cross, Jesse Sapolu, and Bubba Paris, Shaun Hill would have struggled. Addressing the offensive line alone would not have solved the 49ers offensive woes. They needed to address QB depth and Scott McCloughan took advantage of an opportunity to do so, when the time and the price were right.

I have seen a lot of anger over this move but people need to understand it was the right thing to do and it made the team undeniably better. Whether it shows tangible returns remains to be seen, but you cannot fault the 49ers for effort. 49er fans need to stop simply regurgitating the ramblings of local talking heads like Raj Mathai, Larry Biel, Dennis O’Donnell, and Ray Ratto. When you look at the real facts of the matter, this deal made sense!

Keep the faith!

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