I don't quite understand what just happened.
Okay, Shaun Hill's the starting quarterback. That much I get, and I certainly don't disagree with the decision. But I distinctly remember hearing that the decision would depend on a legitimate competition between Hill and Alex Smith.
Did I miss it?
Don't get me wrong; as I wrote a couple of months ago, the whole idea of this competition was bad. Yeah, yeah, I know the old line that competition makes everyone better, and ordinarily I agree. But with Hill having proven his mettle, and with Smith coming off two years lost, and with yet another new offense being installed, the best course would've been to give Hill the job up front, give Hill all the first-team reps so that he and the other first-teamers could better learn the offense and each other, and give Smith the chance to start over slowly, without being thrown again both into the fire and under the bus.
I thought this competition was a disservice to both competitors, and to the team.
But that was just my humble opinion. Who knows, maybe the competition, indeed, would bring out the best. So I hopped on board, ready to be proven wrong. Now the competition's over, and I just have to ask.
Where was it?
Apparently, at least some of it was in training camp. There the contenders got roughly equal reps, and after every session, we eagerly consumed the news of who was ahead and who was behind. But it looked like a toss-up going into the exhibition games, so we breathlessly awaited the performance that would decide the matter, once and for all.
It's not so strange that Mike Singletary decided the matter without having seen anything close to that decisive performance; after all, it's getting late, and we knew all along that a tie would go to the incumbent, Hill. What's strange is that Singletary decided the matter without having given either contender a real chance to provide one. What's strange is that Singletary took these two golden opportunities to really see what these guys could do in this offense, and he simply threw them away.
Quick recap. Round one, against Denver. Hill gets to go first. He throws all of two passes. That's two. Singletary's seen enough; as he explained later, Hill was "less of a mystery." So enter Smith. He throws a whopping seven passes. No need for more. By game's end, the 49ers' leader in passes attempted was none other than projected third-man Damon Huard, with nine, as many as Hill and Smith combined. The running backs, meanwhile, got 28 carries (more than three times as many attempts), for a nice 127 yards, an average of 4.5.
After round one, the media dramatically declared that the competition was "even." After nine passes combined, though, how could it have been anything else? Indeed, the quarterback who looked the best that night was actually—guess who—Huard, by sheer coincidence the guy who got to do the most work.
So on to round two, Oakland. Ooh, the competition is heating up! Smith gets the start, and this time his pass attempts go all the way up to nine. And when Hill takes over, he gets to throw it seven times. But of course, neither again was the team's leader in passes; that honor went to projected practice-squadder Nate Davis, with 11. Even Davis had nothing on the running backs, though. Those guys carried it an astounding 44 times (just short of three times the combined attempts by Smith and Hill), for an amazing 284 yards, a 6.5-yard average. And which quarterback easily outshone the others? Naturally, Davis.
After round two, it seemed the plot was only thickening. "I have to look at some more film," Singletary said. "It takes me a little longer than some other people."
Not much longer, though. He named Hill the starter the next day.
That must've been some pretty impressive "film." What it must not have been, though, was film of these games. A lot of interesting things might be on that film, but a quarterback competition is not among them.
If this competition had been legitimate, the games would've gone like this. Game one: Hill plays the first half with the first team, Smith plays the second half with the scrubs. Game two, the reverse. Each would now have played an entire game, throwing maybe 30 passes while plowing through a wide variety of the playbook. Then we'd know something. Then we'd have a real sense of what each guy could do.
As it stands, we know almost nothing. Except, of course, how they look handing off. And that's where Singletary's given himself away.
We know his offensive philosophy. He wants to use the run to set up the pass. That means his first priority in every game is going to be to establish the run. And that means his first priority in this preseason is to show he'll be able to do that.
Mission accomplished. Two games. 72 running-back carries. 411 yards. A ridiculous average of 5.7. And Frank Gore's carried it only twice. No doubt: this running game is shaping up to be nothing short of awesome.
But with that showing, the quarterback competition went down in flames. When asked to explain why he seemed to neglect such an essential issue, Singletary said he was making the quarterback's life easier, whoever it was. With a running game like this, the quarterback doesn't feel he's gotta "go out there and win the football game. It creates a lot less tension for that quarterback."
That's certainly true, but for the first time I really feel like Singletary's pulling my chain. This was supposed to be a quarterback competition. In a quarterback competition, the contenders need to throw, and throw a lot, under game conditions. That just didn't happen. Do you really believe that Shaun Hill was legitimately competing for his job when he threw two fewer passes in two games than Nate Davis threw in one?
I hate to go all conspiracy-theory, but either Singletary doesn't know how to evaluate quarterbacks—which I doubt, strongly—or the job was Hill's all along, and this competition was nothing but an elaborate charade.
Maybe it was a coaching ploy; he's our guy, but we wanna make sure he keeps working, that sorta thing. And who knows, maybe it'll produce a better Hill, starting in this week's game, when we'll finally get to see him do some extended work. But if that's all this was—and here I hate to go all bleeding-heart—it was a nasty thing to do to Smith, who was led to believe he really had a shot and now is being made to look like he blew it. And if it cost Hill the chance to get better acquainted with his teammates and the playbook, then, well, it was a nasty thing to do to the team. Because as great as the running game might be—and as much as Jimmy Raye's "bell cow in this operation will be No. 21"—in the end we'll go only as far as Hill takes us.
This "competition," such as it was, hasn't proven he's ready. And like I said, it's getting late.