The Nate Davis Dilemma, Coming Soon

Sep 8, 2009 at 5:51 AM

I'm going to ask you to do something now. Some of you will think I'm asking you to indulge in pure fantasy. Others of you are already way ahead of me.

Assume, if you will, the bulk of the "experts" are right, and we're about to endure yet another losing season. Let's say that at the end of September we're one-and-two. At the end of October we're two-and-four. And at the end of November we're three-and-eight. Give or take.

Assume also, if you will, the offense is dreadful. As promised, the running game is solid, but it's weakened by the lack of a field-stretching passing game. Due to various factors—say, conservative playcalling, woeful pass-protection, and a disappointing receiving corps, among others—the passing game just never gets untracked.

And assume finally, if you will, the book on Shaun Hill is quickly closed. Taking advantage of the relative immobility of his feet and the relative weakness of his arm, defenses mercilessly beat him up and shut him down. At some point in these months, Mike Singletary turns to Alex Smith, who finishes his star-crossed 49ers career essentially as he started it, running for his life while looking in vain for someone to throw to, the last shreds of his confidence successfully obliterated.

Going into December, Singletary has a team going nowhere, and he starts looking ahead to next year, hoping, of course, he'll be around to see it, no guarantee when he's failed to deliver on the promise his boss had made the year before.

And he looks up and down his bench, and his eyes come to rest. On Nate Davis.

Davis, a rookie quietly selected in the draft's fifth round, hasn't played since the preseason. But what a preseason it was. In their much-ballyhooed but ultimately uninspiring competition, Hill completed 17 of 30 for 160 yards and a rating of 71.5, and Smith was 8 of 16 for 63, with a touchdown and a pick and a rating of 54.9. Davis, meanwhile, completed 29 of 49 for 314 yards, two touchdowns and a pick, and a respectable rating of 83.2.

But it wasn't just the numbers. There was something about this kid, something that set him apart not only from Hill and Smith but also from the Ken Dorseys and Cody Picketts and other preseason mirages of years past. Actually there were many things. First, of course, was that cannon of an arm. You can't fake that, and you can't coach it; you either have, or don't have, that rare ability to make every throw in the book, and Davis proved immediately that he has it. (Let's put it this way: YouTube offers no video of Dorsey or Pickett throwing a 70-yard bomb.) But he was also surprisingly polished in his mechanics. His accuracy, the "prettiness" of his ball, his footwork while dropping back, and his body control while scrambling or rolling out, these all suggested a rookie well ahead of the curve. Finally, he seemed to exhibit all those lauded intangibles: poise, cool, and guts. His delivery of two last-minute touchdowns on the road—during the second half in Dallas and the first in San Diego—showed some serious moxie.

Sure, he hit some rough spots. And yeah, he was playing in the preseason against the opposing seconds and thirds. But what's telling is how hard it is to imagine, that in those same conditions, Hill or Smith would've done any better.

And we weren't the only ones who noticed, either. Some suggested he might be "the steal of the draft," akin to Tom Brady, perhaps the most notorious late-rounder ever. (You might recall the 49ers themselves had no need for Brady, having drafted Giovanni Carmazzi three rounds earlier.) Others reminded that Davis was once projected to go as high as the second round, before his value was suppressed by a weird combination of things, such as a subpar end to his college career, a slow time in the 40, an unusual football grip, a learning disability, and perhaps even a coaching conspiracy.

Put simply, there's a lot of intrigue surrounding this guy. But now it's December, the team is out of it, and Singletary needs to decide what to do with him.

In recent years, it's been proven that a rookie quarterback—Matt Ryan, for example—can do just fine on a solid, well-balanced team. Put him behind an offensive line that'll protect him, pair him with receivers who'll make plays for him, and give him a defense that'll take the heat off him, and not surprisingly your rookie quarterback will look like a star. But take those things away, and again not surprisingly, your rookie quarterback—say, Alex Smith—will look like a bust. Keep him out there long enough, and he might get so rattled that he never recovers. Hence the conventional wisdom that until you can give him all those things that he needs, just keep your rookie quarterback safe on the bench.

Of course, like all bits of conventional wisdom, this one—that on bad teams, rookie quarterbacks should be treated like they're made of glass—doesn't always hold. Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning were thrown to the wolves, each endured a miserable season, and each seems to have recovered nicely. The Lions can only hope that Matthew Stafford follows suit. But we 49er fans have seen it at work, from both sides now. On the one hand, knowing his team was the NFL's worst, Bill Walsh went out of his way to protect Joe Montana, inserting him only to run a couple of well-practiced plays, usually near the opposing end-zone. Basically, Walsh put Montana into situations where it'd be easy for him to look good and build his confidence, and then Walsh got him the hell outta there. On the other hand, despite having a team that again was the NFL's worst, Mike Nolan sent Alex Smith into action and said, in essence, "Good luck, son." And we're painfully aware of how that turned out.

If Singletary is tempted to play Nate Davis, it'll be because we're a bad team. So with Smith's tragedy staring him straight in the face, Singletary might think it best to leave Davis on the bench, or to play him in only Montana-like spurts. But the problem is, we might not be able to afford to wait. Walsh had the luxury of knowing Montana was his guy. We don't yet have the same commitment to Davis, and the clock is ticking. If we don't find out about him now, and next year we're in position to draft Sam Bradford, Jevan Snead, or Colt McCoy, you can bet we're gonna take him. And that guy, not Davis, is the guy we're gonna commit to, by way of the usual first-round cash. Sure, Davis might end up starting anyway, but unless that first-round pick is yet another first-round bust, Davis won't be starting here.

So here's the dilemma. If Davis is gonna be the guy for us, he might need to show it, this year. But if our team is bad enough for Davis to play, he might not be able to show it, this year.

For all we know, Nate Davis is the one we've been waiting for. Wouldn't it be sad if we missed out on him, even though he was here all along?
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.


  • Canadian Faithful
    The problem is nobody has a crystal ball. Yeah Nate Davis is the sexy pick. He made plays in the preseason. The team has to rally around Shaun Hill and make plays. Jimmy Raye has tailored the offense to his players. Unlike Martz. Football is also a mental game. Mindset and momentum. The Niners have the best motivational speaker on the pro circuit in Singletary. They will come out of the gate and "do what they do." Run the ball and wear down the opposing defense. They now have the best offensive line in the last 4 years. If throwing is even required it will be short surgical precision. Yeah, it may not work every week but with a mindset of stick to our plan it will work! Singletary will not be like Nolan and waffle between quarterbacks. The coaches are committed to a plan and they will stick to it. Eventually Davis will compete for the starting job. That is nothing new to Hill. He has competed all his career. He is calm and cool now as a starter. He is the right fit right now. If the first 2 quarterbacks go down then it is a different story. It could be Cinderella. Davis could come in and never look back. Things have a way of sorting themselves out!
    Sep 12, 2009 at 11:05 AM
    Sep 10, 2009 at 8:01 AM
  • texniner
    The 49ers, and the fans are so shellshocked due to the Alex Smith debacle, that they can't see that their best qb in years is right in front of them. People like to say that Nolan was a qb killer, and to an extent he was, but to me, and I'm a Niner faithful, he simply EXPOSED him. Nate Davis has more instincts than both Alex and Shaun. In the NFL you have to be able to make all the throws, and he does it effortlessly. Go to youtube and pull up Nate Davis, and watch him at this skill competition, watch his arm strength and accuracy!! This is our qb, no need to draft one next year, he is right here. I don't mean rush him, but definitely see how much he can handle, he needs first team reps. In the preseason 2nd string 3rd whatever, he moved the offense, Vince Young and Matt Leinart relieved their starters, and they didn't look as good as this kid, with the experience they already have. HE HAS IT, THEY (49ERS) HAVE TO SEE THIS!!!
    Sep 9, 2009 at 7:57 PM
  • ShaneO
    man you are a depressing dude!!! the last 2-3 articles i read by you just suck the air outta the room. Problem is they are all well thought out articles, backed by facts and i keep coming back for more. so my point is although i think your writing is very well done and think ur arguments are legit (or should i say with that being said) can you find a ray of hope and write about that so i can feel good again!!! lol Thanks
    Sep 9, 2009 at 12:57 PM
    Response: Thank YOU, Shane. Unfortunately I'm a realist, not an optimist, and as of right now the reality for our beloved Niners strikes me as pretty grim. But the beauty of sports is how everything can change, in an instant. If the Niners pull out a win on Sunday, my exuberance will clear out my depression (at least until the next week), and I promise you'll see an article that reflects that. In the meantime, I'm grateful that you keep coming back for the abuse I'm dishing out.
  • Ladale
    Assume like some experts, that the Niners have every opportunity to take the division as any other team. Assume Shaun Hill starts and has a passer rating of above 90 and is among the tops in the league in pass completions as he did at season's end, assume Frank Gore rushes for nearly 1500 yards and has a pro-bowl season, assume the defense is tops in the league in stopping the run, assume Vernon Davis has a break out year as expected, assume the niners have their most complete receiving corps in years. Assume we don't take on a losers mind-set, because we know what assuming does?!!!
    Sep 8, 2009 at 11:31 PM
  • Frank
    I could not agree with you more. We need to find out if Nate has what it takes at QB this year. I do not believe Hill or Smith has what it takes. Nate Davis has way more natural talent than Hill or Smith, and he is very calm and poised in the pocket. When the 2010 draft gets here, Singletary needs to know if QB is a top priority. I hope they get him in some games this year. I really do believe he would do well later in the season.
    Sep 8, 2009 at 9:05 PM
  • Doc
    I've seen every Niner QB from the great Frankie Albert to the not so great Alex Smith. I've only seen Nate Davis play three times and that is enough for me to conclude that this kid is the next great 49er QB. He has maturity, confidence, poise, is cool in the pocket, mobile enough, and an arm that should be packed in gold. He has all the NATURAL INSTINCTS that Alex does not. I feel I can say with complete confidence that this kid is probably the best 49er rookie QB I have ever seen in red and gold. Singletary knows it and it's only a matter of time.
    Sep 8, 2009 at 7:36 PM
  • N.Rice
    Unlike the previous comments, I believe you make a very valid point. Next year's draft is a worthy consideration when talking what to do with Nate Davis. Especially with both McCoy and Bradford in next year's draft and the significant investment that it would require, in a position we COULD already have on our roster and if I am right about my belief that Shaun Hill is only a stop gap and not a franchise QB. Then consider that we have 2 1st's in 2010, and the likes of a Taylor Mays S, Terrence Cody NT, Russell Okeng and Trent Williams OT; all likely first rounders in positions of need, that could really help the overall team's future. Anyway, I look forward to seeing the question asked around mid-season.
    Sep 8, 2009 at 7:05 PM
  • Young Gun
    As Manny would say to Tony Montana, "take it easy" Jeff, you are shooting the horse before the race. Stop writing "what if" articles, they do no good. Shaun will do ok, he's a lot better than you think, he's above average and better than 10 or so other starting qb's. Until Alex proves his worth let him ride the pine as second string. I'm also excited about Nate's future, but let's not get too excited about him starting now or even next year. Niners over cards 21-17, you heard it first here!
    Sep 8, 2009 at 2:12 PM
  • joe
    Sep 8, 2009 at 11:55 AM
  • Jesse
    The "expert" comments you have to take with a grain of salt. Last week I heard an "expert" on ESPN say the 49ers wanted Coffee to start by midseason. I don't remember who said it and there was nothing to back that statement up aired. When you listen to the "experts" you have to keep in mind that they try to keep up with all of the teams so until we start playing and showing what we can do, they have no clue what we can do. And I guess neither do the fans but I can't stand reading these posts about how bad we might be. Save this stuff for when we are 3-8. This is the most exciting part of the year (except for the playoffs) because everyone has a chance, let's not throw our season to the wolves already. Don't get me wrong, I do think that Nate was a steal but he isn't ready for the job. Remember what happened to A. Smith when we threw him out there in his rookie year.
    Sep 8, 2009 at 10:50 AM
  • Sig
    I have watched Nate this entire preseason. And there is absolutely NOTHING that lets me believe that he shouldn't be our backup to Hill. He is actually better than Hill, but I think Hill has more experience and connection with the receivers...for now. But how can Singletary not see that Alex Smith is simply just another bust at QB for the Niners?!!! Let's see, since Young retired, let us take a trip down memory lane: Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Ken Dorsey, Jim Drunkenmiller, Tim Rattay, Alex Smith, J.T. O'Sullivan, and Chris Weinke. Can anyone tell me what's wrong with this picture? I understand that things are different now with free agency and all. But we had a shot at Warner, Favre, Vick, and Cutler! I do believe that given the time to develop, Nate can be something special though. His arm strength is amazing.
    Sep 8, 2009 at 8:57 AM
  • John
    I'm waiting (with what little optimism I have left) to see how things go. I agree with you to a point, but I think that as long as we are running a Fred Flintstone offense it doesn't matter who is playing in Fred's position.
    Sep 8, 2009 at 7:20 AM

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