It is far from a news flash that the San Francisco 49ers have deep problems at quarterback. Only David Carr is currently under contract, and his performance in the second half of a Week 7 loss to the Carolina Panthers was enough to silence the chorus of Alex Smith haters who had been screaming for him the previous two weeks.
But the problem goes back much further than that.
The 49ers have never truly found a replacement for Steve Young, whose career ended suddenly in 1999 when Lawrence Phillips missed a blitz pickup and Aeneas Williams saddled Young with the last of a series of debilitating concussions. He was replaced by Jeff Garcia—a Gilroy native and the last quarterback hand-picked by the legendary Bill Walsh. Garcia provided admirable service after a rocky start, becoming the last 49ers QB to earn a Pro Bowl trip.
Somehow, the 49ers decided Tim Rattay was a better option than Garcia and since then, the 49ers have rarely witnessed even serviceable performances at QB, let alone Pro Bowl-caliber output.
Rattay, Steve Stenstrom, Rick Mirer, Ken Dorsey, Cody Pickett, Chris Weinke, Alex Smith, Trent Dilfer, J.T. O'Sullivan, Shaun Hill, David Carr and Troy Smith all saw time under center—all with results fans wish they could forget. Now the 49ers have a new coach and the chance for a fresh start with a roster laden with significant talent—if only they can find a new QB.
Many 49er fans remain convinced that the biggest mistake the 49ers made at QB over the last decade was drafting Alex Smith with the first overall pick in 2005. They are right about that. However, it is not for the reason that most maintain—the fact that they should have selected Cal product Aaron Rodgers instead.
The popular misconception is that had the 49ers selected Rodgers with the top pick, he would logically have blossomed into the all-pro he has become in Green Bay, netting the 49ers stability at QB for years to come. Of course, this misguided theory is just plain wrong.
While Rodgers was able to ease into the starting role through three seasons as Brett Favre's understudy in a stable offense with a solid foundation around him, Smith quickly became the best option for a terrible offense. He struggled to develop in an ill-conceived and ever-changing offense with next to no protection and hardly any viable weapons (when Smith took over, Kevan Barlow was the starting running back and Brandon Lloyd and Johnnie Morton were among the receiving options).
Rodgers was given every opportunity to become the player he is today, while Smith was almost surely doomed from the start.
In fact, in nearly every possible alternate reality, any rookie QB the 49ers threw into the 2005 lineup was doomed to fail. They would have done much better by drafting a potential playmaker in 2005, like Braylon Edwards or Antrel Rolle, and letting either Ken Dorsey or a more savvy veteran QB take his licks while they tried to build the rest of the team.
To be fair, there was massive pressure on then-new head coach Mike Nolan to draft a QB. Some went as far as painting Nolan (son of former fairly successful 49ers head coach Dick Nolan) as the next Bill Walsh, and he needed to find his Joe Montana.
The fallacy in this comparison is ridiculous. Nolan was a defensive coach with no head coaching experience at any level and little ability to develop a young quarterback. Furthermore, Walsh found Montana in the third round and used him sparingly in his first two years, as he learned Walsh's system behind veteran Steve DeBerg.
Still, perception always trumps reality and had Nolan gone against the conventional "wisdom" of the local and national media and taken a player from another position with the top pick, he would have been crucified before his team ever took the field.
Of course, had it worked and helped the team return to the playoffs, much of the criticism would have been stifled, but Nolan, general manager Scot McCloughan and the Yorks lacked the moxie to take that chance and simply bowed to the popular consensus.
The results were disastrous.
The mark of a great coach is the vision and wherewithal to make the right move for the team, even when it might not be the most popular. The 49ers now face a similar situation with their new coach, Jim Harbaugh.
The 2011 49ers stand to have a much better team than the squad that took the field in 2005, but that does not make it a good situation to try to develop a rookie QB on the field. Couple that with the fact that the 49ers could address other serious deficiencies in the secondary or pass rush with prime talent at the No. 7 spot—rather than using the pick on a QB with significant questions—and there should be little motivation to draft another first-round QB.
Nonetheless, many still insist that QB is the only option for the 49ers at No. 7. The top need is QB, so the top pick should be a QB. If Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Sam Bradford can succeed, why not Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker or Ryan Mallett with the 49ers? Why try to develop a mid-round pick while paying an expensive veteran in the near-term?
Because that is how most successful QB stories start.
Bradford, Flacco and others like them are the exceptions—not the rule. Most successful QBs play sparingly, if at all their first couple years, as they adjust to the speed of the NFL game and learn their team's system and approach. None of the top four QB options in this draft are slam dunks, but any of them would instantly become the team's best option if the 49ers took them on draft day.
The 49ers will be a team in flux, working under a new head coach with no NFL coaching experience, transitioning to a new offensive system, and trying to end a prolonged playoff drought. They possess some significant offensive weapons and an offensive line anchored by a talented young tandem, but questions remain at just about every position. Additionally, nobody really knows what the true hierarchy of the offense will look like—with offensive coordinator Greg Roman serving this role for the first time and Jim Harbaugh planning to call plays himself.
This is not a nurturing scenario for a rookie QB.
The 49ers made a major mistake in the 2005 by drafting Alex Smith, but not because they passed on Aaron Rodgers. Any quarterback they took was doomed to fail and they should have used the pick on talent at another position.
Now six years later, even with an offensive-minded head coach and a better team, they cannot afford to repeat this mistake. The 49ers need to use their first-round pick on a top defender, and pick up a long-term QB prospect later on. They can then explore alternate options in the near-term at QB, but in no scenario should the long- and near-term QB answer be one in the same. Taking that approach would set them back to January 2006, without Norv Turner to try to bail them out.
The 49ers do not need another setback. They need to avoid a repeat of 2005. There are a variety of completely exclusive options at QB in both the near- and long-term categories, but that is a topic for another time.
Keep the faith!