For a franchise whose legacy includes two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, one of whom many consider to be the best of all time, the San Francisco 49ers have had a remarkably difficult time finding decent play at the game’s most pivotal position.
The last consistently good 49ers quarterback was… Can you guess? It’s been a while. Okay, it was Jeff Garcia, who made the Pro-Bowl in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Between then and now, quarterbacks who have started a significant number of games for the 49ers include Ken Dorsey, Tim Rattay, Trent Dilfer, JT O’Sullivan, and Shaun Hill.
Let’s talk for a moment about Shaun Hill. He was, in my opinion, a fantastic backup quarterback. He was beloved by players, played his heart out, was a natural leader, and made good decisions. He didn’t have a strong arm or any sort of athleticism, but that was okay, because he wasn’t supposed to be the first option. He was supposed to be the emergency option. He fits the Jon Kitna-mold of backup QBs. At one point, though, things were so bad for the 49ers that people were clamoring to start(!) Shaun Hill. Fans extolled the virtues of the clubhouse favorite, and his winning record for the team.
All of the mediocrity, the malaise that has hung over the 49ers at the QB position, seems to be fading away, at last. Finally, the Shaun Hill’s of the world (in this case, Scott Tolzien and Josh Johnson) are fighting for the 49ers backup job, rather than the starting job.
(Sidenote: it looks as if Colin Kaepernick is taking hold of the backup gig, as I’m assuming the coaches wanted him to all along. That’s a good sign; it means he’s making progress as a passer, at least ahead of Johnson and Tolzien. Fans are excited about his ability to run, as showcased in last Friday’s preseason game; be careful, however, to not get to excited. Lots of guys can run, not a lot can play quarterback. Vince Young can run, Tim Tebow can run, Dennis Dixon can run. Unless one of those guys suddenly figures it out, they all look destined for backup QB jobs permanently. Get really excited about Kaepernick when he displays accuracy and touch consistently; that’s when you’ll know he’s ready.)
Interestingly enough, the main player is the same one who’s been here since 2005: Alex Smith. The only thing that has changed? Jim Harbaugh, the coach.
If you’ll allow me, I’d like to compare Alex Smith to Batman. More specifically, I’d like to compare the 49ers to the Batman movies.
For years, the Batman movies were severely disappointing. 4 Batman movies came out between 1989 and 1997: Batman; Batman Returns; Batman Forever; and Batman & Robin. These featured A-list actors like George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Jack Nicholson, Tommy Lee Jones, and Jim Carrey, and had tremendous studio budgets. Yet, directors Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher could not coax winning films out of them. (They were financially successful, for the most part, but that is no indicator of objective quality.)
Along comes Christopher Nolan, a darling of film buffs for his work on films like Memento, The Prestige, and Insomnia. After critical success with those movies, he decides to take on Batman, a superhero movie. Not only does he create a successful, good superhero movie, he does the unthinkable: he turns a superhero movie into a legitimately good, critically-acclaimed, commercially successful film.
If you haven’t guessed, Jim Harbaugh is Christopher Nolan. A man beloved in the college game for slamming Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly’s teams takes over a mediocre-to-bad franchise and immediately turns it into an NFC Championship team. Alex Smith is Batman, winning on guile, willpower, and intelligence, rather than any sort of superpower like Eli’s rocket arm or Tom Brady’s telekinesis.
I won’t lie to you and say that I’ve always been an Alex Smith believer. There was a point where I was the one calling for Shaun Hill, or even Troy Smith. Things were really bad. But seeing the results last year calls for a little retrospective analysis.
The book on Smith out of college read like this: a natural leader, good short-to-mid-range accuracy, good athleticism, smart. Have any of those changed? Certainly, we’ve seen that he doesn’t have a great deep ball, but nobody really ever said he did or would. He is maybe more fragile physically than once expected, and that’s unfortunate. But everything else seems to still be true.
“He is a guy that, until he understands it, he is nonfunctional. He is a guy that, I keep hearing how Brett Favre kind of makes something out of nothing and is a person that runs around to make a play. Alex Smith is not that kind of player. Alex Smith is a person that, once he is taught, he has to learn it all.” That’s what Urban Meyer said on Smith when he was coming out of college. I believe 49ers fans collectively forgot that bit of information provided to us by Smith’s college coach. I believe, that had we all remembered that, we might have been more understanding of Smith’s nightmare situation.
And, considering that, is it so hard to believe that Smith’s best is yet to come? That it might even be coming this year? Perhaps the 49ers best case is not to quickly develop Kaepernick, but to continue developing Smith. Smith put up impressive numbers at Utah, impressive enough to get him drafted No. 1 overall. Who’s to say he couldn’t again? He has, after all, the qualities Harbaugh seeks: athleticism, intelligence, and toughness.
This year, I believe, will be Harbaugh and Smith’s The Dark Knight. And we should all enjoy watching the blockbuster.