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QB Dilemma - By Bryan Hersh Jan 31 2008

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Inevitably, every year at this time, when Super Bowl mania arrives the talk begins to compare legendary 49ers and 49ers teams of the past with the current contenders. Never has this discussion delivered a more worthy topic of debate than this year’s version of “Joe Montana Versus”. Unlike years past, this year, for the first time, we have a formidable candidate for debate: Tom Brady. 49ers loyalists have a hard time stomaching the fact that the greatest ever could be eclipsed or at least equaled if Brady parallels Joe’s four Super Bowl victories this Sunday.

As a loyalist, I have my biases, and hence I have done my digging, and there are areas I can point to where Montana will remain superior to Brady even if Tom can win his fourth Super Bowl this weekend. I could point to quarterback ratings, touchdown winning drives, or blowing out opponents (even in the playoffs), but that really is not the point. What is really relevant here, is that if Brady can will his team to victory on Sunday, we will have, for the first time ever, a quarterback candidate who is worthy of being mentioned in the same category of Joe Montana. If you needed a reason to watch this Sunday, now you have one, this could very well be one of those historical games.

Argue all you want about crossing eras, or dig as deep as you want to compare odd statistics, but the farther you reach, the more clear it will become. If Brady wins on Sunday, the conversation of best ever quarterback will no longer be obvious to most. In fact, the debate will be so tough that we will be forced to reach further, and further, for the obscure arguments to find a quantifiable differentiator. Hence, the farther we reach to win this argument in either’s favor, the more we are recognizing the likeness of each candidate.

The fact that comparisons are already being made, and that Montana is no longer the clear cut winner is not an easy thing for 49ers fans to rationalize. While, we will always have Jerry Rice to hang our hats on as an unquestionably the Greatest of All Time, it may already be possible to question Joe’s position at the top. And so, left digging and reaching, and to my own devices, I prefer to fall into a world of subjectivity.

A world where Joe remains unequivocally, the best quarterback to ever play the game, not because he won four Super Bowls, had great accuracy, admirable statistics, nor even because of his ‘it’ factor. Joe remains the greatest because he changed the chaos of athletes on a football field into a true art form. No matter what statistics are compared, no matter what anecdotal research is completed, unless you have seen Joe play, you cannot truly appreciate the master at work. Joe was the ultimate artist, and as good as Brady is, or will ever be, the most he can hope to be, is a very good replica. That is not a knock on Brady, but rather a testament to Joe, who evolved the position of quarterback and altered the course of the entire game. An Artist, and a Revolutionary, Joe’s position a top a list of amazing quarterbacks is as stable now, as it will be when Brady wins his sixth, eight, or tenth Super Bowl. That of course is the benefit of subjectivity, and the world in which many of us will turn to when Montana’s ‘measurables’ and Super Bowl performances are finally equaled.

The 49ers though have a different sort of quarterback dilemma on their hands which remains hard to fathom even after three or six years of dire distress at the position, given their storied past. The question of course is what to do at quarterback on the current team. Alex Smith who was pegged to be the quarterback to return the team to glory has proven to be inconsistent, slow to learn, and suffered last season from an injury that prevented him from performing at a NFL caliber level. Meanwhile Shaun Hill who has spent most of his career on the bench, managed to win two ‘garbage games’ of his three starts this past season. Truth told, without major change to the offense, neither truly inspires confidence in the future of the club at this point.

Thankfully, the 49ers have made some fairly significant changes to the offense for the 2008-2009 season. Changes that should at the very least put an end to lack of direction at the quarterback position, and could very well bode well for Smith, Hill or both. Not to discount the possibility that one of these men could still materialize into a NFL caliber quarterback worthy of starting for the 49ers, but it would be down right negligent not to plan for the worst and hope for the best.

It should be a certainty this offseason that the 49ers add another ‘could be quarterback of the future’ to the roster. That player will likely come from the middle rounds of the draft, but could also be a young free agent, with a strong emphasis on the word young. In finding a young quarterback in free agency or the draft, the 49ers will have someone who can compete for a starting position on the team, and who can push Smith and Hill to be their best. Hence regardless of who would win the starting role, there will be at least one other quarterback on the roster with experience that can serve as the veteran back up. This of course is pending Shaun Hill signing a new contract with the club.

The need to hold a roster spot for a player like Dilfer is now completely unnecessary and further eroded by changes to the coaching staff (to be elaborated on later). Dilfer has held his spot on the team because of his ability to mentor Smith. His knowledge of the game and the position is considered to be of coaching caliber. I have personally always taken issue with this argument, as I’ve never seen evidence of it translating on the field or for that matter into those that he has tutored. Yet, even if Dilfer’s mentorship is evaluated as highly successful, the void he once filled on the team has been covered by the materialization of Shaun Hill and changes to the offensive coaching staff.

Until now, I have entertained the notion that Shaun Hill has as good a chance as anyone to win the starting job for the club next season. To date, I have been impressed with Hill’s ability to: lead the team, win over the locker room, make quick and smart decisions with the ball, and throw what receivers refer to as a “catchable ball”. These are traits that I believe will keep the competition for the starting role, well…competitive. However, I have a hard time believing that Hill is the quarterback the 49ers will hang their hats on. As much as 49ers fans may like to ignore it, there are reasons Hill has sat on the bench for six years. And so he may compete for the starting job, he may even supplant the starter at some point next season if the team appears to be on its way to another dismal year, but, I believe instead, that the team will ultimately sink or swim with Alex Smith next year. That is of course, unless the team opts to add a young free agent who can beat out Smith, rather than a rookie as I do not expect a rookie to start for the club next season.

For the purposes of the remainder of this article then, Alex Smith will be the assumed starter for next season. Some will argue Smith has what it takes, and of course, others will argue the counterpoint. Those that argue in his favor typically make the following cases:

1. Smith is still young, and can learn and adapt
2. Smith has had bad luck so far in having to work with many different offensive coordinators, and different offensive systems
3. Smith has not been surrounded by suitable talent
4. Smith’s injury prevented him from materializing in what could have been his break out season
5. Smith’s mechanics are sound but may have been disturbed by his injury
6. Smith is bright and capable of managing football games well
7. Smith has shown the ability to make all the passes on the field
8. Smith has taken the team on his back and willed it to victory
9. Smith will only improve when he masters his respective offense
10. Smith’s abilities have not been fully utilized as coaches have not recognized what he does best

Conversely, those that argue against banking the team’s future on Smith argue that:

1. Smith has had his chance
2. Smith has been ruined by the coaching or lack there of that he has/has not received
3. Smith will never be able to adapt to a pro-style offense because of his foundation at college
4. Smith is inconsistent
5. Smith’s mechanics are in shambles
6. Smith makes poor decisions with the ball
7. Smith does not throw to the right spot for receivers
8. Smith is afraid to take chances when chances need to be taken
9. Smith has lost the locker room, and the favor of his coach
10. Smith is not a leader, and despite his college record, not a winner

These arguments, and quite a few more for that matter, have been tossed back and forth for a good while now. The truth of course is some combination of the above. What is really relevant though is whether the positives can be harnessed and the negatives diminished. That is what it will take for Smith to secure his starting spot with the club for next season, and beyond. Competition at the position should only grow fiercer as the team begins to add insurance at the quarterback position via other prospects. This should be Smith’s final chance to realize his potential.

The team is doing all that it can to help Smith succeed, to help its offense succeed, and ultimately to return respectability back to San Francisco. This process began this offseason with the addition of Mike Martz. Love him, or hate him, Martz gives the 49ers a true quarterback expert (see Warner, Bulger, Kitna, etc.) who is distanced enough from Mike Nolan, and the drafting of Smith, that he can make an unbiased decision on the 49ers quarterback position. That is crucial, as the team will be banking on this decision perhaps for years to come. The team has also established Ted Tollner as the quarterbacks’ coach. Tollner, who has worked with Martz before, will be very involved in changing Smith into the quarterback Martz wants him to be. Martz will however remain the final authority on the position, and he is expected to be very hands on in the process. This is exactly what Smith needs to succeed, and exactly what the 49ers need to do to determine if Smith can succeed.

Martz skills as a quarterback guru also mean that Smith will finally have the support that will remove any and all excuses about his performance. Accountability will now only point fingers in one direction, and that will be at Smith. Either Smith will be able to do what the coaches ask, or he won’t be. Either way, the 49ers will know if Smith should be part of the team’s future plans.

Martz is known for being grueling on quarterbacks; forcing them to learn his system, and to polish their fundamentals. Tollner will act as a source of consistency for Smith while Martz tears apart his game and rebuilds it. Martz of course will have his hands full installing the rest of the offense as well. Hence the support of Tollner will be vital to making sure that Smith is ready on game day. The 49ers though have taken it a step further. This week, the team hired, Adam Gase, who helped Martz install his offense in Detroit where he also served as quarterback’s coach. It is very clear, that Martz wants to have the support he needs to a) groom the quarterback and b) install his offense; all the while being able to wear multiple hats of offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, and offensive savior. This support network provides Martz with the infrastructure he will need to do that.

The hiring of Gase does more than allow Martz the freedom to move between roles. I admit this to be a wild prediction, but, I believe Martz has hand picked his successor at offensive coordinator. Martz has made it no secret that he would like to have another shot as head coach. The instability the 49ers have suffered on offense lately has had to have made this a huge concern for the 49ers when they hired Martz. If I were the brain trust of the 49ers, I would have insisted that part of his role, would be to groom a successor in case that head coaching offer came his way sooner than later. I would have done this with Norv Turner as well, but that is a story for another article.

Adam Gase gives the 49ers a young, bright, up and coming, offensive football mind that knows Martz’s system inside and out. He has served in roles ranging from scout, to quarterback’s coach. He may lack play calling experience, but I believe his role in Detroit was under-stated, and that he will be pivotal in installing Martz’s offense in San Francisco. This signing did not draw much interest given all the Super Bowl commotion at the moment, but it did raise my eye brow. I believe Gase is being groomed as an eventual successor to Martz. His success in that role will largely be dependent on how much time he can spend learning from Martz, and from his own personal skill set which remains largely unknown at this point. I reiterate that this is speculation, as my goal is not to create rumors. But, if I am reading the signs right, then this hiring is more significant that most will have initially believed. If the 49ers brain trust did not insist Martz groom a replacement at the time of hiring, they should have, and perhaps will now, but I have a strong “gut feeling” indicating that Martz will be grooming Gase for a future role as offensive coordinator. Hopefully Martz will last long enough to mentor Gase in a meaningful way, and if my prediction holds true, that the 49ers will then be able to retain Gase and the consistency on offense which they have been sorely missing even if Martz follows in Turner’s footsteps.

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