49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

July 26, 2009
Niners QB situation: Heaven or Hill?
    I tell ya, Shaun Hill gets no respect. The poor guy is the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL, and as I wrote today, that complex goes back to when he played quarterback at the University of Maryland. The Terps were constantly scanning the roster for a sexier starter even though Hill was a proven winner. As if on cue, Matt Bowen of the National Football Post writes that everyone in Santa Clara is pulling for Alex Smith to win the starting job this year. By "everyone," I'm guessing Bowen means the 49ers' front office, and in particular GM Scot McCloughan, who, after all, drafted Smith No. 1 overall in 2005.

    Even if that were the case - and McCloughan will tell you with a straight face he's Even Steven on this issue - I doubt it will have any impact on who wins the job. To his credit, McCloughan has left the who-starts-who-sits issues to his coaches. If he didn't, J.T. O'Sullivan wouldn't have been the starter last season. In the end, the decision will be made by Mike Singletary with heavy influence from Jimmy Raye. Do either of these guys have a bias? Well, more than any other player, Hill is responsible for Singletary winning the permanent coaching job. Meanwhile, Raye has received plenty of feedback on the quarterbacks from former OC Norv Turner, who is one of Smith's biggest fans. The plot thickens ... or just maybe there's no plot at all.

    As for why Hill doesn't get more respect, it all boils down to his right arm. Perhaps more so than any other attribute, college and NFL evaluators are blinded by a quarterback's arm strength. They reason that a powerful arm opens up all sorts of possibilities for an offense, can get it out of all sorts of jams and loosens up the defense. A middling arm has the opposite effects.

    One NFL assistant, however, told me the big-arm theory is typically overblown. Most big-armed quarterbacks have such a long wind up and take such a big step when throwing, that the ball actually arrives at its destination at the same time or later than a weaker-armed quarterback who gets the ball out quickly. Indeed, the pocket has to be perfect for most strong-armed guys to be effective. And in the NFL, the pocket is rarely perfect.

    Hill began his college career at tiny Hutchinson (Kan) Community College. And while that might seem like a disadvantage when compared to hot-shot recruits who go directly to Texas or Oklahoma, it has had one lasting benefit. Hill's offensive line stunk. They were 240-pound gym rats, who held their blocks for mere nanoseconds. As a result, Hill had to learn to dodge pass rushers, throw off balance and otherwise improvise. That is, he had to do what's required on many, if not most, NFL pass plays. Things fall apart. The best quarterbacks can do repairs on the fly.

-- Matt Barrows

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Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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