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Hope Returns - By Bryan Hersh Dec 17 2007

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49ers fans everywhere may not have reason to rejoice after the teamÕs fourth victory of the season. This season is no doubt a wash. But fans do have a reason to hope once again, and so do the players, the coaches, and the front-office. The hope may be for a brighter future, it may be for next season, or it may simply be that all the work done over the last three years was not a waste. Shaun Hill, 49ers QBOTW (thatÕs quarterback of the week) is responsible for returning hope to San Francisco.

The revived hope does not wash out the numerous problem areas on the team. In fact, questions around the competency of Nolan as a head coach, about the proficiency of Alex Smith as a quarterback, about the structure of the organization, and the many others disastrous areas on the team are still alive and running strong. Even the abilities of Shaun Hill remain truly questionable. After all, at the end of the day, the 49ers victory came against a Bengals team that is sputtering with a defense that is downright horrible.

Though Shaun HillÕs performance may have been CPR to NolanÕs career, it may also have been the kiss of death. Despite HillÕs performance, and a strong offensive showing, NolanÕs game management was still awry. In the first half of the game, he squandered time outs, and in the second half he opted to go for it on 4th and 2, when a fairly easy kick by Joe Nedney would have given the 49ers a two score lead with 6 minutes to go in the game. So while the offense improved, and while players were executing better, and while even the play calling seemed to do the trick, it is very had to attribute the success to coach Nolan especially considering all the weeks that he was sure Trent Dilfer gave the 49ers the better chance to win. It is easy to forgive Nolan for starting Smith instead of Hill, in fact, I donÕt think anyone would have argued that Ņpre-Viking game HillÓ should have started over Smith. But Dilfer? I mean Dilfer? Why in the world was Dilfer allowed to step onto the field over Hill?

Questions about Alex SmithÕs abilities are now more prevalent than they were at any point in his career. Shaun Hill, king of the awkward release, has managed to lead and move the same offense (though a more banged up version) that Smith failed to despite repeated opportunity. Hill, who has none of the tools, and far less opportunity made Smith look grossly incompetent by comparison. And he did it all with only 2 prior NFL snaps under his belt and six years or rust in his shoulder. While IÕm not quite ready to throw the book in on Smith, nor raise the flag in support of Hill it is very clear that Hill brought something to the 49ers offense that had been missing with Smith. Leadership? Perhaps. Guts? Perhaps. Instincts? Perhaps. Or maybe it was something so much more than that. Maybe Hill simply has ŅitÓ despite his inadequacies.

The organizational structure in San Francisco remains a mess. Whether Mike Nolan stays or goes, whether a general manager is added, or president brought in to run the football operations of the club, or whether the team elects to stay the course and Ņin Nolan, they trustÓ it is very clear that there are not enough true football people at the top of the organization, and that an unproven coach with too much power is un-healthy. Heck Steve Mariucci who actually had winning seasons, and playoff seasons with the 49ers was never even considered for the power that Nolan has. There are too many questions regarding the direction of the franchise from the top Š no matter how many Marketing and Spin doctors the YorkÕs may employ. Questions, questions, and more questions. Does anyone truly believe Jed has all the answers?

Of course the future of the quarterback position as a whole for the 49ers is still open to question. Will it be Smith? Will it be a free agent, or a new draftee? Or could it possibly be Shaun Hill. The remainder of the season should give the 49ers a true indication of the value of Hill. At least of course is the ability to evaluate talent is still something the 49ers posses (and after the past two games I believe they do Š see below). But to sign the praises of a quarterback who sat on the bench for six years simply because of one good game against a really bad defense would be as foolish as thinking Tim Rattay can be a starting quarterback in the league. Not to take anything away from HillÕs performance, the poise he showed, the leadership he brought to the huddle, or the respect he earned from his teammates; but, and this is a big one, prior to the BengalÕs game teams did not have any footage to game plan against Hill with. They further did not know his strengths and weaknesses, and the Bengals did a poor job of rattling the unproven quarterback. Yes, Hill did do a lot of good things in the past six quarters of football, including orchestrating a two-minute drive at the end of the first-half of the Bengals game with true proficiency but itÕs not proof enough. At least not yet, and at least not for fans who have seen Tim Rattay and Elvis Grbac falter after similar success.

All the questions are still abound, but now, at the foundation, there is at least hope. Once upon a time, hope of a better future, could mask a dismal season Š and there is real, legitimate reason to have hope once again.

Despite all that is un-proven by quarterback Shaun Hill, the fact remains that his past six quarters of football were reminiscent of the Jeff Garcia days in San Francisco. To some, that is not such a good thing. After all, how can a city that has been blessed with Joe Montana and Steve Young be satisfied with another Garcia? But Hill, who plays the game a little ugly, and perhaps isnÕt the sharpest pencil in the box in practice has done what no QB since Garcia has been able to do for the 49ers Š make the quarterback position look easy, elevate the play of those around him, lead the team, and command the team to a win. To this day, IÕll take GarciaÕs ugly 30+ touchdowns to 10 interception ration (with one of the worst offensive lineÕs in the history of the franchise) to anything we have seen since. IÕll take GarciaÕs performances over GrbacÕs, RattayÕs, Dorsey, and of course Steve StenstromÕs (less we forget). In the same light, if Shaun Hill looks ugly, practices ugly, but wills the team to victory, well thatÕs something, and thatÕs something the team can build around and eventually supersede with the proper piece of the puzzle; because at least it would put the 49ers back on the map. It would draw attention, and give great players a reason to want to be a 49er again. ItÕs amazing what winning can do.

Of course, I do not overlook the challenges. As I mentioned off the top of the article Hill is still in my books an unproven quarterback and other hurdles exist as well. If Hill can keep his performance a constant for the remainder of the season, re-signing him as an un-drafted free agent could be difficult, even with the salary cap space that the 49ers do have. And if Hill were to succeed and return next season, the controversy between him and Alex Smith will be ever-present. Should Smith lose his position due to injury? Could Hill, who practices ugly, beat out Smith, who practices pretty Š when the coach making the decision is possibly the same person who started Trent Dilfer and demoted Ashley Lelie? That of course brings us to the next point. If HillÕs practices are as ugly as the media has made them out to be in the past, how can the offense ever dream of operating with the efficiency it did with Montana or Young at the helm? The answer to this last challenge at least has come from player quotes about Hill Š who in practice, reportedly tells his receivers exactly where he want them to be, and where the ball will be placed. Mark Emmons of the MediaNews reported that: ŅAll week in practice [Vernon] Davis said, Hill was telling receivers where he wanted them on pass routes.Ó It seemed to have worked for Davis who split defenders to give the 49ers the go-ahead score at the end of the first-half this weekend. Davis had this to say about the play: "Shaun just knows when to let the ball go heÕs going to put the ball right exactly where it needs to be. So you better be ready if you're open, because it's coming." So despite the awkardness of his release, and his questionable practice performance, Hill has brought a certain level of precision to the quarterback position that has definitely been lacking. That is reason for hope.

There is also reason to hope that all the money spent over the past three seasons, and the complete talent overhaul was not for a loss. Regardless of who is at quarterback for the team, it is pretty evident that any competent quarterback can bring out solid production from players that are supposed to be big talents on offense. Darrell Jackson had one of his best games of his 49ers career. Vernon Davis and Frank Gore has very strong performances, and the ball was also spread to Delanie Walker and Arnaz Battle. The offensive statistics were not quite Patriot-like, but the offense finally looked like it knew what it was doing Š and even the offensive line seemed to hold their blocks a second longer. Turnovers and penalties were also way down. But perhaps most impressively is the 60% successful conversion ratio on third downs, compared to the teamÕs season average a league worst 32%, and compared to a league best 50% (New Orleans Saints). And did I mention that the team held the ball for nearly 36 minutes? Two minutes longer than the average league best (Pittsburgh Steelers), and 9 minutes longer than the teamÕs season average. No wonder the defensive performance was also elevated. They were able to breathe in-between series. In-fact, the defense is so accustomed to being on the field and so well conditioned that when the Bengals went to a no-huddle offense, the defense was easily able to keep up. With all of these positives, and looking at the game in isolation, it easy to get over excited, it is also easy to brush it all off as Ņjust one game against a pretty bad teamÓ. But it is reason for hope. Reason that if the 49ers can find an effective quarterback (whoever that might be) that the rest of the weapons are for the most in-place Š and that the team can win in-spite of poor game management and questionable coaching. At least to the point of being a truly competitive team.

With the return of hope, the 49ers, their fans, and those involved with the team at least have a reason to look forward to the offseason for something other than just firings. Even if Shaun Hill looks Stenstrom like in his remaining starts with the team, it has been seen that good leadership, and proficient play at quarterback can overcome all of the hurdles the team is presently faced with. The true challenge then is identifying the right leadership from top down, president, general manager, coaching, and quarterback. With a special emphasis on quarterback because there has to be more than leadership, more than just the ability to overcome bad coaching (though this may continue to be a necessity if Mike Nolan stays the course) there has to be all the other ŅitÓ characteristics. The return of hope could prove to be the saving grace of this miserable season.

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