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The Quarterback Battle is Over, and the Running Backs Won

Aug 25, 2009 at 2:45 PM

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.
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.


  • Dan
    I would like to make a second comment about Alex Smith. I think this is the best place for him right now. He doesn't need to run away to another team hoping his problems will just go away. His problem is not the team he's on. The coaching staff has been supportive. Last year he was injured, the system didn't work, and the offensive coordinator favored some guy he brought with him from Detroit. All those issues are gone now. So the only thing he needs to do now is defeat his demons, step up in the pocket every play, and deliver the ball like we all know he can. If he does it here in S.F. he will be a stronger quarterback. Alex seems to have a lot of determination, but I think he needs to bring his determination onto the field with him. Running away isn't, and shouldn't be, his style. Even if the right tackle can't keep the defense off him.
    Aug 28, 2009 at 1:21 PM
  • Hungover
    I agree neither quarterback had enough in-game opportunities to truly evaluate them. Personally I think Singletary was actually looking more at how the team responded to each quarterback. Martz may be crazy, but the comment he made about Alex's history mattering here might be the real reason he didn't win the competition. I don't think Alex commands as much respect in the locker room as Hill, since Hill was last year's late season savior. Perception is reality. If most of the players think Hill should start over Alex, then that's what Sing is going to give them.
    Aug 28, 2009 at 7:42 AM
  • Ceadder
    A very well thought out opinion of this "competition." Though I think that you left out something very important. The thought that MAYBE, Sing was leaving it up to the media to decide. Bear with me now. We're two games into this thing and being shorted the third and most important game in this competition and WHAMO!!! Sing hits us between the eyes a game early with "The Guy." The very same guy that most of the local media had been pining away for, for MONTHS. The same guy that they've made into a cult icon in the Bay Area. I didn't buy into that then and still don't buy into it now. Like you I'm wanting to be persuaded differently. Albeit vice versa. I really wish that people in EITHER camp that comment here would take the time to see exactly what was lacking in this thing. Smith looked pretty dang solid. Of course half that time was with the scrubs. I'm thinking that whatever issues that Smith had to overcome, he had to overcome the poor handling the most. I'm tellin you this now, if Hill even hiccups wrong this season Smith will more than likely take the job back and won't be letting go anytime soon. I want Hill to succeed like any 9er starter. But man if he fails?
    Aug 26, 2009 at 11:26 PM
  • 4evrfan
    I get your points, Jeff, and agree the actual game "competition" was weak. But, the right guy won and they did get a lot of looks in camp and the Raiders scrimmage. Maybe Sing realized he wasn't going to get a much different perspective, especially from Alex, in 1 more preseason game, so why wait? He needed to show signs of being demonstrably better than Hill to take the job and didn't. Should they have thrown more passes though? Absolutely.
    Aug 26, 2009 at 9:14 AM
  • Kevin
    This is one of the most stupidest articles I have read, just say you don't like Singletary.
    Aug 26, 2009 at 8:57 AM
    Response: Although I'm sorry you found the article "most stupidest," I'm not saying I don't like Singletary. Actually I like him a lot. But that doesn't mean I agree with--or even understand--everything he does. What I'm saying here is that this quarterback competition confused me at the beginning, in the middle, and especially at the end. Singletary told these guys to compete, and then, in game conditions, he DIDN'T tell them to throw. So all we really know about these guys in this offense is that they're handing off to some really good running backs. I just think that's kind of weird, and it concerns me. I mean, sure, Singletary's a run-first guy, and a great running game does make things easier on the quarterback. But at some point, the quarterback is gonna have to step up and win a game, and it would've been nice if Singletary had used this competition to test these guys' abilities to do that.
  • Marcos
    I couldn't disagree more with your analysis. Each of these players had plenty of film on them. Shaun from last year, Alex from 2006. With a braintrust of Jimmy Raye, Mike Johnson, Chris Foerster and Tom Rathman, you don't think that a pretty accurate evaluation of each player was developed and specific plans were made to upgrade each player's technique and skill level. Take the intangibles out of it. Just the mechanics required of an NFL quality QB. OTAs and training camp were the platform for the individual study and improvement through practical application. Who made the necessary improvements? It has been noted that Alex was nearly devoid of fundamentals, footwork, reads, avoiding the pass rush while Shaun's big flaw was a reliance on the short passing game. How many plays do you need to observe to see if the lessons have been incorporated into their play? No question Alex had a much steeper hill to climb, but Hill actually had to change his focus to look for the deeper throw. He had to change the behavior that has given what success he has had in the NFL. At this point the practice reps need to go to the starter to continue to develop these skills.
    Aug 25, 2009 at 7:03 PM
  • Dan
    Alex deserved the chance, Shaun deserved the chance as well. It was logical to let them fight it out on the field. I think the coaches wanted to see more fight. I would have liked to see more, and it's not too late. Alex can go and get that job back anytime he wants to. All he has to do is go out there and make the plays work. If one of our four quarterbacks were to take this team to a level our running game couldn't match - HE'D be the guy. We have the receivers, the tight ends, it's not like the coaches aren't giving the passing game a chance. One of these guys just has to take it there. Also in response to Mike Martz's comments on Alex Smith, What about your guy - JT O'Sullivan? What was that about? I don't think Martz should be commenting about Alex Smith's future. He didn't do anything to help matters obviously.
    Aug 25, 2009 at 5:00 PM

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