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One could argue, and you'd certainly be justified in doing so, that the San Francisco 49ers had the greatest run of quarterback play in the history of the National Football League. From 1981-1998, Joe Montana and Steve Young combined to win five Super Bowls, four Super Bowl MVPs, four regular season MVPs, and were selected to 15 Pro Bowls. Other than the strike shortened 1982 campaign, the team won 10 games or more in every season during that stretch and made the playoffs in 16 out of 18 years. Life was good.
After Young's 1999 season was cut short due to a concussion that would ultimately end his career, the team handed the reigns over to Jeff Garcia, who had a nice little run in his own right (after initially struggling). Garcia was by no means Montana or Young, but he did go to three straight Pro Bowls and made two playoff appearances. He was a solid starter, and the last one the team would have for quite some time. After the Niners cut ties with Garcia following the 2003 season, the team went in a complete tailspin at the position. Actually, you could now make the argument that San Francisco has had one of the consistently worst quarterback situations in the league since then.
Consider that, during the 2015 season, 19 quarterbacks in the NFL threw for 3,500 yards or more, and 16 signal callers eclipsed 21 touchdown passes. The 49ers haven't had anyone behind center do either of those things since Garcia in 2001. If you look deeper, you'd find out that the only other teams to not have a 3,500 yard passer this decade are the Kansas City Chiefs (2005), the Cleveland Brown (2007), and the Minnesota Vikings (2009). So the Niners have the longest drought in that department by four years. As far as touchdown passes, the only franchises that have't had a single player eclipse 21 in the 2010's are the Tennessee Titans (2003), St. Louis Rams (2006), Browns (2007), and Vikings (2009). So San Fran's got that one too.
Other than some safe, mostly manage the game type play from Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick during a majority of the Jim Harbaugh era, the 49ers quarterback situation has been downright embarrassing since 2004. Here's a look at the team's leading passers in every one of those seasons pre-Harbaugh.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that the 49ers went 39-73 during this stretch of abysmal quarterback play, with 2005 possible being the worst season by any franchise in the history of the forward pass (I'm kidding...kind of). That year, the combination of Rattay, Smith, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett teamed up to complete 52.4 percent of their throws with 8 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. They combined, COMBINED, to throw for 2,190 yards. That's a 136.8 yards per game. Somehow, this team actually won four times. I don't know...you figure it out. (On a side note, the 2005 squad scored 239 points, which is one more point than the 2015 49ers managed. Good times).
Anyway, once Harbaugh took over the team there was certainly more stability at the position, and Smith turned into an efficient although far from prolific starter. Kaepernick was certainly dynamic at times, but has digressed every year since 2012. That's the nightmarish part of it all. Kaepernick looked like a budding superstar, with a ceiling as high as any quarterback we've seen in some time. Then it slowly fell apart. With Harbaugh gone in 2015, the wheels seemed to come off completely for Kaepernick under Jim Tomsula and Geep Cryst, and he ultimately gave way to Blaine Gabbert half way through the season.
Here's a closer look at the breakdown of leading passers over the last five years for the Niners, with 2011-14 being the best years under Harbaugh,
*It's worth noting that 2012 was by far the best season any Niner quarterback(s) have had since Garcia, as Smith and Kaepernick combined for 3,651 yards and a 23/8 TD/INT ratio. Obviously, that was the team that made it to the Super Bowl.
As you look over the options in 2016, there might be a small glimmer of hope that things could turn around. New head coach Chip Kelly is known as a quarterback guru, and has seen average players like Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez play their best under him with the Philadelphia Eagles. Kaepernick and Gabbert may have their faults, but you can't argue that each is extremely talented. If Gabbert showed improvement under the overwhelmed Tomsula and Cryst, couldn't he continue the upward trend with Kelly? If Kelly could make Foles and Sanchez look like legitimate starters, couldn't he get Kaepernick back on the right track?
Those are fair questions, and an optimist would certainly answer yes in both cases. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be many optimistic views on either quarterback, and many feel that the Niners will once again be looking for answers at the position in 2017. Maybe this is the price to pay after so many years of Montana and Young. Could this be our penance from the football gods for two decades of dominance? Who knows. Just blame the Yorks.
In all seriousness though, the 49ers need to get with the times and start employing a passing attack that can actually...you know...pass. And that all starts with the guy behind center. Will this nightmare ever end?
Al Sacco has covered the 49ers for various sites over the years. He's been a guest on multiple podcasts and had his work used by ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY. Follow Al on Twitter @AlSacco49