The San Francisco 49ers have not made the playoffs for eight seasons. While there have been many factors that have contributed to this drought, perhaps no on-field issue has been as glaring as the prolonged inconsistency the team has seen at the quarterback position.
The 49ers have not had a Super Bowl-winning QB since Steve Young, and no QB has even flirted with the Pro Bowl since the team parted ways with Jeff Garcia. The 2011 roster stands to have a good deal of talent and promise, but unless new head coach Jim Harbaugh can concoct a viable solution at QB, no one should expect the team's luck to change.
Harbaugh was aggressively wooed by the 49ers even before completing a 12-1 season at Stanford, where he led his team to an Orange Bowl title, the first in school history. The primary draw of Harbaugh was not only his winning pedigree at Stanford and University of San Diego but also his offensive prowess and supposed knack for molding quarterbacks (as evidenced by Andrew Luck).
Having been through an extended recent history of major heartache on offense and particularly at QB, the 49ers are hoping Harbaugh will finally be the man to right the ship. Finding a new QB will be a top priority.
For reasons already well documented in previous articles, it appears near impossible that the 49ers can find a workable solution in both the near- and long-term time frames in one and the same player. The team is not well-equipped to groom a rookie from the draft on the field next season, they have serious needs elsewhere to address in the early rounds of the draft, and few if any available veterans have the combination of age, experience and ability to make them more than a short- to medium-term solution.
For those reasons, the 49ers need to employ a two-pronged attack to their QB problem: find a veteran who can grab the reins immediately and hold serve for at least a few seasons and grab a mid-round prospect to develop for down the road.
Here is part one of a two part look at the top-10 potential solutions for the near term, highlighting No. 10 through No. 6:
Don't hit me!
This is not another article espousing the theory that—for a variety of convoluted reasons—former No. 1 overall pick and on-again, off-again starter Alex Smith is the best option for the 49ers moving forward (the rank alone suggests there are nine other options who are better than he is).
Many people have offered such arguments, and they were given a certain degree of vindication recently, when Harbaugh said in a radio interview that he felt Smith could still be a winner in the league and was excited to work with him. On the surface, one can see why.
Smith has improved statistically nearly every year he has played, and the last time he played under a true offensive mentor (Norv Turner in 2006), he had arguably his best overall season. Despite a very tumultuous start, another injury and several demotions to the backup role, Smith finished 2010 with stats that were remarkably similar to the 2009 stats that managed to inspire such hope among many who once had doubted him.
His 72.1 career passer rating is serviceable but not impressive, and while his record raises concerns, many would posit that with a better situation, that would improve.
The 49ers and Alex Smith may have already reached a point in their relationship where it can no longer be functional. Right or wrong, Smith has shouldered the bulk of blame for the team's struggles since 2005.
On several occasions, flourishes of hope have opened the door just wide enough to the idea of Smith becoming the player the 49ers thought they were drafting, only to let fans fantasize for an instant before said door slams back in their face, leaving them to bear the painful reality of another disappointing season.
The fans have been conditioned to distrust Smith, and while he has shown great resolve at times in rebounding from hardships, he has found himself in public feuds with both his head coaches and was quoted shortly after the season as saying he could not envision a scenario in which he would return to the 49ers.
Harbaugh's recent comments seem to suggest a desire by the team to keep him around, but one has to question that logic.
Sometimes, a change of scenery is best for both parties, and that certainly seems to be the case here. Even if the NFL labor dispute costs the league the entire offseason, retaining Smith for nothing more than insurance makes little sense. There are better options, and it is time to move on.
Former New York Giant, Oakland Raider and Tenessee Titan (among other teams) QB Kerry Collins stands as a slightly better option than Smith. The main issue is that Collins—who turns 39 this season—might be more likely to retire than to sign a free-agent contract. Additionally, with the expected departure of Vince Young, the Titans may make a strong play to retain the veteran.
At 38, the best days of Collins' career are assuredly behind him, but that does not mean he has nothing left to offer. Collins is a savvy veteran who can find ways to utilize the offensive weapons the 49ers have. While he went just 3-7 in 10 games this past year, he posted a passer rating in the triple digits four times, finishing with a rating of 82.2, significantly better than his career rating of 73.9.
Collins has been to the playoffs four times in his career, leading the Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000, where they lost to the Baltimore Ravens. He could prove to be a valuable asset who could help the 49ers compete immediately while giving his successor time to mature. He also would likely be cheaper than options like Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer.
There is, however, a reason he would be cheaper. At 38, Collins would not provide the 49ers much leeway in developing their future QB. If, for example, they took an option in the draft who needed three seasons to mature into a starter, they would likely need another option to bridge that gap.
Collins certainly lacks the mobility to extend plays, and with an offensive line that still needs some development, that could be disastrous. Furthermore, while he has proven a capable option at times, Collins has compiled just two winning seasons as a starter in the past decade, and has been inconsistent statistically.
Collins would not be a bad option in a pinch, but there are a variety of better choices for the 49ers to pursue.
The idea of the 49ers swapping players with their cross-bay rivals is nothing new. Jim Plunkett, Roger Craig, Tom Rathman, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice all made the trek from San Francisco to Oakland, and Barry Sims is the most recent example of a player coming the other way across the Bay Bridge.
While many have suggested the 49ers ought to target free agent Raider defensive lineman Richard Seymour, they might consider restricted free agent QB Bruce Gradkowski as well.
Gradkowski has made somewhat of a name for himself—especially in the Bay Area—over the last two years, showing an ability to come off the bench and start for the Raiders in relief of JaMarcus Russell and Jason Campbell, with his biggest achievement being leading the Raiders to victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in 2009.
Gradkowski has shown the ability to make plays and win the odd game, and his gritty style of play might entice some to take a chance and see whether a change of pace could spark him to greater success. For those looking for historical correlation, Gradkowski began his career wallowing away in Tampa Bay, not unlike another 49er QB—Steve Young.
That is likely where the similarities to Young will end, however. Gradkowski has shown the ability to come in and be competitive in the occasional spot start, but has been unable to consistently win in those chances. He has proven to be fairly injury-prone as well.
His career statistics are nothing to write home about: a 65.9 passer rating with 20 touchdowns against 23 interceptions in 20 career starts, hardly the output one would look for from a QB tabbed to turn around a struggling offense. His arm strength and accuracy are both questionable, and he does not have nearly the upside of various other young options.
Gradkowski could work as a fall-back option but certainly should not be the main focus of the 49ers.
Many forget that Matt Leinart once seemed destined to be the next franchise quarterback for the 49ers. Prior to committing to return to USC for his final "super-senior" season, Leinart was set to be the consensus No. 1 pick as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and winning QB of the 2004-2005 BCS Orange Bowl National Championship Game.
Instead, he shirked a sure No. 1 pick and returned to school only to lose in the BCS title game against Texas the following year. He then fell to the Arizona Cardinals at 10th in the 2006 draft.
Leinart has recently gone on record as saying he wants the opportunity to start in the NFL, and potentially he could still have a big upside. He has all the physical attributes to be a star QB at 6'5" and 225 pounds with decent mobility and solid mechanics. He was once touted as the most pro-ready college QB, and his career at USC and success on college's biggest stage should speak to his ability.
He spent several seasons learning behind Kurt Warner in Arizona, a player who emerged as a star fairly late in his career—much like Leinart hopes to do. With the right environment and the right mentor, perhaps he could flourish as many expected him to.
Then again, his professional career track record raises major red flags. After having mixed success in his first two seasons, he surrendered the starting role in Arizona to Warner, who had been brought in primarily as a mentor and backup. He was never able to win the starting job back until Warner retired.
Then, when many expected him to finally ascend to the role he had been drafted to fill, Leinart could not even survive training camp in Arizona—losing out to Derek Anderson and finally landing as the emergency QB in Houston, behind the likes of Dan Orlovsky. His career record of 7-10 with a passer rating of 70.8 could be the building block to future success but might just as easily be a prelude to continued mediocrity.
Leinart's work ethic and motivation have also been questioned regularly throughout his career.
His recent comments suggest that he may finally be willing to rededicate himself to improving his game, and with the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh, Leinart might finally be able to realize his pro potential. At 27, he has enough experience to know his way around the huddle but still offer the 49ers the potential to have stability at QB for a longer period, if needed.
Leinart could prove a serviceable to good option for the 49ers for five to 10 years to come and might form a solid tandem with a 2011 rookie, either as starter or backup. He is also a free agent (meaning the 49ers would not need to surrender a pick or player to get him) and would probably be among the cheaper options. Given his red flags, though, the 49ers better leave themselves with other options.
Ranking one spot higher than Matt Leinart is the man who led the Texas Longhorns to victory over Leinart's USC Trojans in the 2006 Rose Bowl—Vince Young.
Young was once described as a better version of Michael Vick—bigger, stronger, and just as fast with better ability as a passer. Of course, people later said the same thing about JaMarcus Russell and now the comparison of either to Vick—who spent much of 2010 as a favorite to win the MVP award—is laughable.
Still, Young remains a physical stud, and unlike nearly anyone on the list so far, he has proven the ability to win at the NFL level. Young has led a team to eight or more wins in three of five professional seasons, taking the Tennessee Titans to the playoffs in 2007.
His statistics have not been spectacular—42 touchdowns, 42 interceptions and a 75.7 passer rating in 47 career starts—but he has consistently found ways to lead his team to victory. His rare combination of size, speed, mobility and passing ability make him a potential game-changing force.
However, there are two huge drawbacks to Young: his off-field issues and huge contract.
Young abandoned the Titans twice, once in 2008 after being booed early in the season, and again in 2010 following a public feud with head coach Jeff Fisher stemming from Fisher's refusal to allow him back into a game after an apparent injury.
The 2008 incident was particularly troubling, as it seemed to reflect deep psychological issues (he was rumored to be suicidal during the course of this saga). While Young later apologized for both incidents, the damage proved irreparable—as he is expected to be traded this offseason despite the departure of Fisher.
Then there is his salary. Young is owed more than $4 million this February in the form of a roster bonus. In addition to that, his base salary for 2011 will exceed $8 million, a lofty price for a quarterback with such significant baggage (salary figures according to ESPN.com). Furthermore, the Titans are not expected to cut Young, meaning that in addition to his salary, the 49ers will have to give up some type of additional incentive (be it a veteran, draft pick or both) merely to land Young in the first place.
Young's public off-field issues and large salary are major reasons for pause, but his upside is undeniable—in terms of both age and ability. If the 49ers could restructure his salary and find him the help he needs to conquer his emotional issues, he could become a force in the NFL. After all, another QB named Young did pretty well for the 49ers.
The top five options will be revealed soon, with a follow-up series highlighting long-term options.
Stay Tuned and Keep the Faith!