Now that we’ve all had a chance to see what the big fuss was about regarding Michael Crabtree and why both he and his agent were incredulous to be drafted three spots after future NFL trivia answer Darius Heyward-Bey, the headlines with the 49ers have once again flipped back to their default setting—the quarterback.
On the heels of backup Alex Smith’s furious 21 point second half rally that fell just short of producing an epic finish at Houston—and the miserable six consecutive quarters that incumbent Shaun Hill put on display before getting the hook—the announcement was made by coach Mike Singletary on Monday that Smith would be the new starter next Sunday at Indianapolis, and presumably for the games that follow as well.
The temptation is to label the story a “quarterback controversy” and it would be easy to do so.
However, having followed the Niners for more than two decades, I’ve seen actual quarterback controversies. Joe Montana vs. Steve Young was a quarterback controversy. Heck, Steve Young vs. Steve Bono was a quarterback controversy.
Shaun Hill vs. Alex Smith is not a quarterback controversy; it’s a cry for help. In turning to Smith, Singletary is not looking for Lazarus to bring this franchise back from the dead. He is simply choosing the lesser of two evils.
“Coach Sing” has certainly been criticized in this corner the past two months, but in this instance he played the situation exactly right, proving once more that not only does he have his finger on the pulse of the team, but also he’s more of a long term, big picture schemer than he lets on.
Smith is obviously more talented than Hill, of that there can be no debate. The guy was drafted number one overall in the 2005 draft for more reasons than his superlative Wonderlic score and his eagerness to ask “how high” when Mike Nolan told him to jump.
He doesn’t have a rocket launcher by any means, but now that Smith’s twice-repaired throwing shoulder is fully healthy, he at least has an arm befitting an NFL starter. His mobility and overall athleticism are better than average for the position as well.
None of these things can be said truthfully about Hill, and he has had many detractors in the organization—some still with the 49ers and some not—who have flat out said he doesn’t have even the bare minimum arm strength required to be on a league roster.
What Hill does have though is moxie, leadership, and the ability to adapt to game plans and circumstances beyond his control. He has proven he can be an effective game manager and a winner, as long as the people around him are playing well and he is not asked to do too much.
He was the ideal choice to lead the team in the early portion of their campaign when the schedule was soft, opposing teams didn’t have a lot of film on him, and their defense could carry the freight. The pass game was never going to be emphasized anyway—not without Crabtree in the fold—and Singletary wanted to start the year with the quarterback less likely to turn the ball over and put his defense in a bad position.
Also, if Smith had been named the starter from the beginning, the spotlight would’ve been on him immediately and it would’ve been asking a lot of him to not wilt under the pressure after not playing a real game in nearly two seasons.
The plan all along was to limp through with Hill for the first few games and then hand the baton off to Smith once defenses figured out that they can suffocate the 49ers completely just by crowding the line of scrimmage and jamming his receivers at the line. Once people got wise that Hill cannot stretch defenses out, it was all over for him.
Singletary took great pains to say that the move wasn’t premeditated, that he really thought Hill could be his guy the whole way through, but then in his next breath he explained his rationale for making the switch and the truth came out.
“You had an offseason where you are trying to work things through with your shoulder… and at the same time, you are just trying to get settled. We were just letting the guy get settled and getting a chance to think about some things and at the same time, there happens to be a season going on. We wanted to let him develop that hunger, let him get excited about if I get an opportunity again, let him develop some confidence,” Singletary said.
What he didn’t say was that he wanted to give fans—the same ones who lustily booed Smith on the first day of training camp—six games of The Shaun Hill Experience. Once they saw for themselves that Hill cannot throw a ball more than fifteen yards without it fluttering, perhaps they’ll be less inclined to jeer Smith when he does return to the lineup.
Yeah, it’s probably a flawed theory, but it’s worth a shot.
Regardless of whether it was premeditated or not, the move had to be made. Singletary finally admitted, six weeks too late, that his team will not be able to run the ball, regardless of whether it’s Frank Gore or Glen Coffee in the backfield, if defenses have eight or nine guys the box.
Hill was unable to make that eighth man leave, but the hope is that Smith—and a three wide receiver set with Crabtree, Isaac Bruce and Josh Morgan—will.
Singletary also sees some cracks starting to show in his once impregnable defense. Again, it’s the same bugaboos from past seasons. The pass rush is inconsistent, the safeties are sub-par, and no one can cover a tight end. The team will need more than two touchdowns to win games and the coach knows it. At the very least the defense needs the offense to have less three and outs so his defenders won’t be so worn down.
Smith will have more turnovers than Hill would. Again, there’s no point in arguing otherwise.
It’s just that Singletary realized he has two choices: Either live with the tradeoff between big plays, both good and bad, that Smith will give him, or watch his team turn into the Browns, lose 31-7 every week and spend the month of December fielding questions about Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow rather than Hill and Smith.
“I don’t think it’s the same old Alex,” Singletary said. “I think Alex has matured, I think he’s grown and I think he’s ready to play. We’re going to find out.”
Indeed we will.