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Make No Mistake: This QB Competition Should Terrify You

Jun 30, 2009 at 6:17 AM

As the 49ers gear up for another training camp, we're all understandably excited. Sure, we've been hurt before. But we're smart enough to know, this time, it's really true.

This team is very, very close.

It's got some issues, like every team does. (Yes, even the Patriots.) But as much as I hate to agree with Pete Prisco, I've gotta admit he said it best: "It's all quarterback with the 49ers." If we have an answer, we can honestly allow ourselves to think playoffs or bust. If not, then, well, not.

Since the end of last season, we'd assumed Shaun Hill had earned the job. His physical skills will never impress you. But he's a gamer, who's obviously earned the respect of his teammates. And he's a winner, with that oft-cited seven-and-three record that with a couple of breaks would be better still. No doubt, we'd thought. He's the man.

But Alex Smith, you might recall, was a #1 overall pick, and he was paid like it. He was never a sure thing, sort of a top pick by default. But he was still a top pick, and since then we've all wished—with increasing desperation—that he would justify that investment. It's been four years, though, and he still hasn't done it. So, all the more, the job should belong to Hill. Right?

Here's the problem. Despite the ravings of the blogosphere, the book on Smith is not at all closed. If you think he's a bust—and there are so, so many of you—you are totally, flagrantly wrong. Want proof? Ask yourself if you thought so after the last game in 2006. In that game, the 49ers, who had nothing to win, played a Broncos team with everything to lose. The 49ers didn't just win; they were led to the win, by Smith. Be honest. You didn't think he was a bust then. And because, in essence, he's been hurt ever since, he can't be a bust now. Not yet, anyway.

So the 49ers can't give up on him. Sure, wasting a top pick is bad. But giving that player away and watching him win somewhere else? Catastrophic.

Okay, so what to do? The solution seems obvious, and until a few weeks ago it seemed we were headed straight for it. Start over. Pretend that Smith, still only 25, is again the hot rookie. And while he learns, give the job to the gritty veteran. But this time, the gritty veteran will be played not by Tim Rattay, who'd proven nothing, but by Hill, who's proven so much more. The best of both worlds, see? If Hill succeeds, then we'll win, and Smith can take over later, when Hill declines. If Hill fails, then we'll lose, and Smith can take over sooner, but only when he's ready to succeed. Perfect.

But a strange thing happened on the way to the obvious. At the OTAs, the big story was Smith. He was healthy, confident. He had new life on his fastball. Scot McCloughan said he looked better than ever. (Of course, it must be noted that McCloughan has more than a little of his reputation riding on Smith, but his assessment was backed up by the beat writers at the scene.) Mike Singletary declared that Hill and Smith would compete into training camp. And Jimmy Raye said they might compete even longer. After all, he said, "we don't play [the season opener] until September 13."

The excitement is palpable, and why not? What a story this would be. Alex Smith, written off, left for dead, returns with a vengeance, proves the doubters wrong, and leads this proud franchise back to the top of the NFL. Add a musical score and you could sell the rights.

But as great as that story would be, Singletary is making a serious mistake. He made a mistake when he first established this competition. He compounded his mistake by declaring that the competition would continue into training camp. And now the only question is whether his mistake will take this season, full of such promise, and ruin it.

Let's say the competition goes the distance. When it ends, one of two things will happen. The more likely possibility is that the starter will be Hill. That, of course, is the right choice. But by waiting so long to make it, Singletary will have shown a dangerous lack of faith. To be successful, a team needs to look to its quarterback, and it has to believe. If the coach's belief is shaky, why should the team's be any stronger?

So Singletary will have undermined Hill, but worse, he'll have destroyed Smith. If Smith is allowed to start over, if he becomes a born-again rookie who will watch and learn, then it makes perfect sense for him to sit behind Hill. A rookie, particularly a rookie quarterback, can sit for a while without being labeled a bust. But despite all that Smith's been though, Singletary isn't giving him that break. Instead, he's thrusting him straight into the fire. He's challenging him to win the job, right now. And what do you call a #1 overall pick who can't win an open competition with an undrafted journeyman? That, my friends, is a bust.

The other possible outcome of this competition, of course, is that Smith will win it. And the results will be just as bad. A good friend of Smith's, Hill will publicly say the right things. But in private, how could he not be demoralized? He's been the team's best quarterback for two years. All he's done is win. What do I have to do to get my shot?

Smith, meanwhile, will be playing under a pressure so crushing that his failure will be virtually guaranteed. Again, this team is a quarterback away from real contention, and Hill is the people's choice. He's also probably, at least in private, the players' choice. When Smith struggles—and he will, at least a little—the public, and perhaps his teammates, will demand his head on a platter. But having declared Smith the winner of this drawn-out competition, Singletary won't be able to change course on a dime. So Smith will continue to play, the pressure will grow, his performance will suffer, the team will fracture, and the season—and Smith's career—will be lost.

We've all heard the coaching cliche that if you have two starting quarterbacks, you really have none. Until the OTAs, the 49ers had a pretty nice set-up: one starting quarterback—a crafty veteran with a belly full of guts—and one young kid with a world of talent still waiting to be developed. But in all the excitement surrounding the possibility that the kid might now be ready to deliver on his promise, Mike Singletary decided that having two starting quarterbacks—if only in the preseason—is the way to go.

It's not. At some point, this competition will end. If it ends soon, this season might just be what we so desperately hope it'll be. If it doesn't?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.
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.


  • TCompton
    What Singletary has said he's looking for is a leader. Who cares which one wins as long as they're actually a leader. The other should be a good backup. As for the players themselves, comparing them is a little bit unfair. Saying that Hill is the better QB after two half-seasons is a little premature (I think). Likewise, judging Smith on his performance during the first three seasons with different offenses and no support is also a bit unfair. I see two unproven QBs fighting for the starting job. Neither is great, although one (Smith) has been a bigger letdown because as a #1 draft pick, expectations were greater. That said, I think that Smith probably has a greater upside than Hill. Of course, if Hill continues to win games, then that doesn't really matter. And in an offense that is being built to run over its opponents, the scrappier Hill may be the better option at QB. But because it's hard to judge them on past performance, I can see why Singletary is waiting for one of the two to take the reins. If neither does it, then we're likely in for another long season.
    Aug 4, 2009 at 7:31 AM
    Jul 12, 2009 at 8:37 AM
  • YearnForThePast
    Your prose is just a tad dramatic. reg9871 is right, neither of our QBs is going to evolve into our franchise QB. They are only the best we got. Trade them both and they will be NFL backups at best, not two starters. Hill is a scrappy survivor. 7 years of barely making cuts. Singletary "undermines Hill" and he falls apart because he has to compete once again?? This is the only NFL Hill knows, fighting to stay alive in the NFL. He will be fine. Flacco and Ryan didn't need 4 consecutive years of the same OC to be successful. Contrary right out of the gate. Smith has had more chances than anyone I can think of. No one looks at his having outstanding tutelage of multiple coaches who have become head coaches and one with a Super Bowl ring. How is this not an advantage? Seeing many ways to play QB from many great minds. A disadvantage? In the game Hill has good instincts. Smith does not. I cringe at how many times I have seen Smith run to the sideline from phantom pressure, only due to having been knocked down on a prior play and he anticipates the same thing on this play. This is such a visceral reaction. Do we really think this is something he can fix?
    Jul 9, 2009 at 8:41 AM
  • reg9871
    I do understand the article, but you forgot the obvious. No matter how good either one plays, the Niners will draft their franchise QB next year. So both of these guys are playing for their NFL lives. Singletary is actually doing the correct thing. If you give the job to Hill, complacency sets in. If he earns it, he will understand that every minute he needs to try to get better. And the same goes for Alex Smith. I think in Singletary alone, Niners fans have a lot to believe in. He realizes he is coaching grown men who have to be accountable. That goes a long way in making the players understand that you have to earn everything you get on this team.
    Jul 7, 2009 at 11:58 AM
  • MD
    I think most of Tim's comments are all wrong. First of all. Smith can't be considered a bust. How?? He was legitimately injured for the last two seasons. And the comment about Singletary not ever going to achieve greatness as a head coach, I mean come on. I think he did the right thing by taking his time and finding the guy that he feels comfortable with and feels can win games with. Who cares how long it took him to pick an OC. I love the fact that both guys are getting a chance to win the job. Sure i hope they pick the starter sooner than later, that's only because i just want to know who it's going to be. The competition is the best thing to have, especially at this position. Players should always feel like they have to compete and give their best. it's a man sport. you don't get the job, suck it up, be a team player and maybe you'll get your shot again. i read how people comment 'Bill Walsh was this, and he did that.' Yes Bill was a great coach. one who believed in pushing his players. Let's not forget him bringing in Steve Young to push the great Montana. Sure it caused a stir, but it made both players play their best and it proved to be very healthy for the organization.
    Jul 4, 2009 at 7:39 AM
  • m_brockalexander
    Terrify us? Don't think so. Concern Niner fans..........definitely! The Niners have to make a commitment to one or the other as early in the preseason as possible. Smith has the physical tools over Hill, but not the leadership skills yet. Maybe, all the drama that Smith has gone through personally and professionally will toughen him up so he can finally take the reins.
    Jul 3, 2009 at 7:09 PM
  • Been there.
    Montana_to_Rice nailed it. His 7-3 record is indeed a mirage. If Smith stays healthy he will be the guy. Tremendous upside potential compared to the career 3rd stringer.
    Jul 3, 2009 at 2:09 PM
  • Yetiman
    This article has an interesting angle (a couple of them, actually) but I'm a little confused as to the premise: Shaun Hill as a crafty veteran with 10 starts, while Alex the kid has...30 NFL starts??? What's up with that? I'm perfectly willing to let these two friends compete fairly for the starting job and see if there is a clear winner. Singletary has indicated that "the team will let him know" who the winner that I assume that whichever QB guides the team with the most consistent drives, the most yards, most TD's, best completion percentage, etc. in the first couple of exhibition games will have earned the starting position. For that matter, there'll be competition at several positions this summer: cornerback, defensive line, right tackle, wide receiver...and quarterback. I think it's a good thing for the team and the players involved to let the play on the field sort things out. As long as everybody has a fair opportunity to give it a shot to try and earn a position, whoever wins the starting roles will have earned it fairly on the field. The rest of the team will know it, and respect it. Sounds perfectly fair to me.
    Jul 3, 2009 at 7:48 AM
  • pauls4tniners
    Thanks for saying what I have said for months. If we are correct about Smith going in and failing, he will be the only 2 time bust in the league. Smith needs to sit and learn the speed of the game and prepare himself for the future. If it's too soon, Smith will be done and so will the Niners' season.
    Jul 2, 2009 at 10:58 AM
  • Tim Loveland
    I liked the Jeff Kaplan read of the Alex Smith / Shaun Hill competition, but I'm afraid Jeff is afraid to point at the underlying obvious: the Shaun Hill / Alex Smith competition is a result of Mike Singletary's insecurity. Think about the idea of greatness: Mike Singletary could be the defensive coordinator of the decade, because he's a great motivator and disciplinarian. But as head coach he's never going to be anything but average. Think about the process he went through to find an offensive coordinator. He interviewed candidate after candidate immediately following last season and immediately following his appointment as head coach. But after interviewing repeatedly with five or six candidates he chose tired old friend Jimmy Raye to be offensive coordinator. And I'm afraid the quarterback choice will be resolved the same way: plug hackneyed choices into a tired philosophy and tell the sportswriters this is the best we can do. Bill Walsh may not have been the football genius that the sporting world makes him out to be, but Coach Walsh did understand that by creating an evolutionary, improvisational offense, he could create an offensive scheme the opposing defenses couldn't prepare for. That reality gave his teams a great advantage. Neither 49ers ownership, Mike Singletary nor Jimmy Raye understand that. What's really scary is, Singletary ought to.
    Jul 2, 2009 at 10:50 AM
  • ShaneO
    I think this is one of the best articles i have read in a long time. and i read at least 6-7 a day after work. it makes perfect sense. I feel every successful team develops their QB into a starter while very few can just start a rook and win (exceptions ATL and BAL) and if we are going to truly start this kid over why not treat him like a rook and START OVER. Hill may be tough but come on, how long before you say to yourself, what do i have to do to start, when did winning not become enough!? of course that's going to weigh on someone. and frankly i'm SOOO sick of QB competition. does competition make a team better, yes, but frankly not at the QB spot. Think of all the best teams, with Brady, the Mannings, Romo, hell even Buf knows who their starter is, Bal knows, Tenn knows, etc. I can't wait till we can just have ONE year where ONE guy gets ALL the reps and a chance to be successful. i honestly can't remember the last time we knew who the man was going to be. We need to just name Hill the starter, give him the reps, get him prepared and let Smith come along.
    Jul 2, 2009 at 8:06 AM
  • Scott
    I would say whatever they do it will work out. These guys are professionals and realize the object is to win games. If either struggles the other will get their shot. Wouldn't be the first team to play two quarterbacks and still make the playoffs. Regardless of who starts I'm excited about the upcoming season.
    Jul 1, 2009 at 9:05 PM
  • kem99
    I don't disagree that the easier (and perhaps better) route to take is for Hill to be the starter for Game 1 with Smith the back-up but let's not forget that even if Hill is named the starter at the opening of training camp, he knows he has to continue to prove himself each day, each snap, each game. Your article forgets that the organization's wavering on Hill goes back to the end of the season when Singletary would not commit to Hill then, continued through the off-season with the Warner and, to a lesser extent, Cutler discussions, not to mention draft discussions related to Sanchez. Hill gets it the same way Jeff Garcia got it. He is always going to be under scrutiny until he wins a SB because he does not look like what teams think their QB should look like or throw like but, to date, he's gotten the job done. Barring injury in TC, Hill is going to end up being the starter. The real question is what happens if he struggles. Will Singletary have a quick hook if they start out 1-3 and the offense is not working?
    Jul 1, 2009 at 11:57 AM
  • NickSh49
    Great article Jeff. Extremely well written. The "musical score & sell the rights" line is great use of metaphor. Not amazingly inventive, but well presented and pretty darn witty. Good to see some Webzone writers who can write concisely and have a firm grasp on how to keep a reader both informed and entertained. Bravo, Mr. Kaplan.
    Jun 30, 2009 at 1:55 PM
  • Hawaiian49er
    What a silly article. Its basic assumption is that both Shaun Hill and Alex Smith are like immature teenagers with such precariously fragile egos that both are liable to crack and fail because Papa Singletary is making them compete to play (just like everyone else on the team) thereby not showing either of them the proper love. Get real! Shaun Hill is a veteran back-up who has been competing just to stay on his club's roster for his entire career. You think his recent success with the 49ers has made him so much of a prima donna that he will be insulted by not being handed the starting quarterback job? Nah! I'll bet he's tickled pink just to be given a legitimate shot at being the "Man" on opening day, and even more content in the knowledge that he has earned job security for at least the foreseeable future. As for Alex, you seem to forget that he's more of a veteran starting quarterback than Shaun Hill and that he's seen and been under far more pressure than Hill ever has. His "deer in the headlights days" are over. He may fail, but it won't be because he cracks under the pressure. Nope! The only thing to fear is that either one or both of them just might not be good enough.
    Jun 30, 2009 at 11:33 AM
  • rab49er
    So negative!!!!!
    Jun 30, 2009 at 10:38 AM
  • Montana_to_Rice
    This piece should have been written with a crayon! Hill is the type of QB who will assure a team of 6 to 8 wins during a season, i.e. mediocrity. His 7-3 record is a mirage, just look at the teams he beat and the circumstances of each game. Defensive coordinators will be salivating while game-planning to face Hill, a QB whose ball flutters and hangs anywhere past ten yards. Hill is the definition of a quality career back-up, he will do well in relief appearances, but long term he is not the answer. Smith may or may not be the answer, but with Smith an offensive coordinator can use the whole playbook and field, and force defensive coordinators to worry.
    Jun 30, 2009 at 9:10 AM
  • BR
    very uplifting take on the situation lol. Is Alex really going to feel more pressure than he did coming in as the #1 pick in 2005?
    Jun 30, 2009 at 6:58 AM

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