They say the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Such has certainly long been the case with respect to the quarterback situation for the San Francisco 49ers.
Since the departure of Joe Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993, the 49ers have experienced a steady cycle of diminishing returns at the signal caller position, with each subsequent QB failing to live up to the precedent and expectations set by his predecessor.
Montana gave way to Steve Young, who for years dealt with the stigma of not being able to deliver the team another Lombardi Trophy. Despite finishing with clearly superior career statistics, and finally winning the big one in 1995—delivering a record-setting performance in Super Bowl XXIX in which he eclipsed Montana’s own record-setting Super Bowl XXIV MVP performance—Young was never as beloved or accepted as Montana.
Young gave way to Jeff Garcia, who struggled out of the gates, but eventually emerged as a capable leader, leading the 49ers to two playoff appearances and earning three trips to the Pro Bowl. Still, he was never able to deliver so much as one lousy Super Bowl title, making him a clear step down from Steve Young.
After Garcia departed for Cleveland, the 49ers went through a period of almost constant fluctuation at QB, starting players like Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett.
Fans who had been disappointed with the play of Jeff Garcia as compared to the heroics of Young and Montana suddenly found themselves longing for the days of Garcia under head coach Steve Mariucci. These were dark days for the 49ers, as they won just two games during the 2004 regular season.
The days of Montana, Young, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Eddie DeBartolo and virtually perennial Super Bowl contention were but fond and distant memories.
Then came April 2005, the NFL Draft and Alex Smith.
Basically since the day he was drafted, Alex Smith has been persona non grata in San Francisco. Originally, this was due to the overwhelming perception among fans that local Cal product Aaron Rodgers was clearly a better choice for the floundering 49ers—who were seeking to parlay their No. 1 overall pick into a franchise-saving QB.
Since then, Smith’s play on the field has given his critics plenty of ammunition to denigrate him.
Every QB since Montana has had to deal with the almost crippling expectations that come along with playing the position for the 49ers, and cries for the backup are the rule more than the exception.
Young lived in Montana’s shadow even after winning the Super Bowl, amidst speculation that the team would be much better led by the likes of Steve Bono or Elvis Grbac. Young was a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame QB, but he was not always welcomed in San Francisco.
Jeff Garcia took his fair share of criticism trying to replace Steve Young. Despite consistent 4,000-plus-yard seasons, many were enamored with the likes of Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey. But nobody faced a situation quite so unfavorable as Smith.
Smith was drafted to be the savior of a once-great franchise and was asked to lead a team with a porous offensive line, suspect defense and lean-at-best offensive weapons back to the playoffs.
To make matters worse, injuries forced him to start early in his rookie season, and he has constantly had to deal with the grandiose delusions of how great the team could be if Aaron Rodgers had been drafted in his stead.
Everyone from Tim Rattay to Shaun Hill to JT O’Sullivan to Nate Davis to David Carr has been described as clearly superior throughout his six-year tenure. Taken in this light, it is no shock that Smith has been hated since the moment he took the field in red and gold.
Practically no matter what Smith does from this point forward, it will never be good enough to impress the 49er faithful. With an 0-5 start, fans are once again calling for the former University of Utah star’s head on a golden platter, and it may not be too much longer before they get their wish.
Smith’s play in 2010 has been far from stellar (though also far from the largest problem contributing to the 0-5 start), and the team would be justified in going a different direction.
Forty-niner fans should take a lesson from history, however, and realize that the fantasy of what could happen with a different QB at the helm will nearly always trump the reality of what is playing out on the field.
Should the 49ers turn to David Carr or Troy Smith in the coming weeks, do not expect a dramatic reversal of fortune. As soon as one of these men throws his first interception, the cries for Nate Davis or the imminent drafting of Andrew Luck or Jake Locker will grow more and more fervent.
Perhaps the 49ers will soon find the QB who finally breaks this downward spiral, but for now they must press on making the most out of what they have.
Keep the faith!