When will the long nightmare at quarterback end for the 49ers?

Al Sacco
Aug 4, 2016 at 11:26 AM6


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.

Season Leading Passer Yards TD/INT
2004 Tim Rattay 2,169 10/10
2005 Alex Smith 875 1/11
2006 Alex Smith 2,890 16/16
2007 Trent Dilfer 1,166 7/12
2008 Shawn Hill 2,046 13/8
2009 Alex Smith 2,350 18/12
2010 Alex Smith 2,370 14/10

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,

Season Leading Passer Yards TD/INT
2011 Alex Smith 3,144 17/5
2012* Colin Kaepernick 1,814 10/3
2013 Colin Kaepernick 3,197 21/8
2014 Colin Kaepernick 3,369 19/10
2015 Blaine Gabbert 2031 10/7

*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
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


6 Comments

  • Spaulding Weirdone
    Your Welcome
    Aug 7, 2016 at 5:07 PM
    0
  • George Morcocplease
    Thank You.
    Aug 7, 2016 at 3:58 PM
    0
  • arturo bradley
    I think the question should be asked is "when will SF find a true franchise QB?" I mean sure Smith and Kap have had some success and helped the team win some games during this decade but they are considered solid starters on their best day and not a franchise QB. Guys like Kap or Smith need to have consistently good players around them for success and stocking the roster on yearly basis is not sustainable in this day and age with salary cap, high number injuries, and high number of draft busts for every team. Franchise QB is one who can put a team on his back or bail team out at times when the rest of the roster does not play well in some games. That would be Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, or Jameis Winston or to a lesser extent possibly David Carr, Blake Bortles, or Teddy Bridgewater. A SB can be won without a franchise QB but this can only be offset with a high number of blue chip players on the roster.
    Aug 4, 2016 at 11:54 PM
    2
  • mbniner
    Right now our competition is between a QB that performed well when he had a great team around him and less so as the team aged, and a QB who was terrible with a horrible team around him and looked much improved in a limited number of games with a marginally better team. Can Kaep regain his form (and improve it) with better coaching? Can Gabbert show that he was in the same situation that Steve Young was in when he came from a terrible TB team and flourished (after a couple of years) with a great coaching staff? That's what makes this competition so intriguing, two talented QBs with second chances to show that they are elite. Can either do it? At this point nobody knows, not even the coaches, and it's will play out in the next 3-4 weeks.
    Aug 4, 2016 at 1:26 PM
    0
  • Levy
    Actually, I'd say the star of Harbaugh's teams were the offensive line rather than Gore. Gore was a star as well, but it was that offensive line that shined for him and gave him opportunities. But i would agree that Roman's offense just looked for someone to be careful with the ball, help move the chains and not create turnovers. But you have to wonder how much of that was because of the quarterbacks in place. A good game manager like Smith, who did what was asked of him and did it well, and a youngster like Kap, who had tons of potential but was still very raw.
    Aug 4, 2016 at 12:20 PM
    3
  • GM
    The most important thing missing in this article is context. Who selected Montana, Young and Garcia? Walsh. Stability at QB under Harbaugh? Not even. Harbaugh didn't run a passing offense - it's like saying you have dominant corners when your pass-rush is all world; its all about what you ask your players to do. Smith and Kap, for that matter, simply weren't asked to do as much as Montana, Young and Garcia, that is, you have to win the game with your arm, not with your legs and certainly not with a road-grading OL. The star of Harbs 49ers was Frank Gore, not his QB.
    Aug 4, 2016 at 12:13 PM
    4
    Response: I think you make some very good points here, but I'd argue that while Harbaugh did favor the power run game, he also coached to the players he had. There were times (especially early in 2013) when he tried to gear his offense around Kap's arm and legs. It worked great with 400 plus yards passing against GB in Week 1, but then Kap looked in over his head the following two weeks against Sea and Indy. Harbaugh then had to pull the reigns backs in.

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