Three summers ago, he had to hold off a hotshot rookie, Johnny Manziel, to be the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback.
A year after that he edged out Ryan Mallett to be the Houston Texans’ starter. Last year he was behind Jay Cutler in Chicago until the Bears starter injured his thumb early in the regular season.
This year? The training camp battlefield is unusually uncrowded for Brian Hoyer, the first time in nine seasons that’s been the case.
The 49ers’ quarterback room also includes Matt Barkley and rookies C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens. But it’s one of the few positions on San Francisco’s roster that has clear demarcations between first-, second- and third-string players. Hoyer took all of the snaps in the spring with the would-be starters and expects the same in the run-up to the regular season.
All of which has the 31-year-old passer, an NFL vagabond who is on his seventh team and playing under his eighth different head coach, experiencing an odd sensation this summer: security.
“You don’t have to deal with the unknown a little bit when it comes to (quarterback competitions),” he said. “That’s always nice, especially being a human being. You can tell yourself not to worry about things as much as you want to, but you know those thoughts creep up in your mind. So now just to be able to go out and focus and take control and know this is my team, this is my offense – it kind of eliminates that and you can just focus on the football side of it.”
Of course, how long that sense of control lasts is up for debate.
Hoyer signed a modest, two-year deal in March, the kind of contract that suggests he’s merely a bridge to someone else. That someone else could be Washington’s Kirk Cousins, who succeeded Hoyer as Michigan State’s starter nearly a decade ago, or any other big-name quarterback – Sam Bradford, Jimmy Garoppolo, etc. – who might be available in the offseason.
If the 49ers fare poorly, they also will have a shot at one of the top passers in the draft, perhaps USC’s Sam Darnold or Wyoming’s Josh Allen.
That prospect might seem demoralizing to Hoyer, but he doesn’t see it that way. This is the first season he’s been the clear-cut starter and he’s taking advantage of the situation, including organizing a three-day players-only practice earlier this month at SMU in Dallas.
Fifteen teammates – mainly receivers and tight ends – attended, and the group did everything from go over plays to lift weights to eat dinners together. It was as much about camaraderie, Hoyer said, as staying sharp during the long break.
“One day a few guys went golfing, a few guys hung out with some of the guys that lived around there,” he said. “It was good. It was my first time doing anything like that and I thought it went well.”
As was the case when quarterback Alex Smith ran his own practices during the 2011 lockout, the sessions in Texas also seemed to bolster Hoyer’s status as a team leader, and it’s clear he’s already well-liked and well-respected in the locker room.
Hoyer is soft spoken and doesn’t stand out when it comes to arm strength, size or running ability. His career rushing total: 117 yards and one touchdown.
He’s lasted nearly a decade in the league, however, because, as left tackle Joe Staley said this week, he’s resilient and ultra-competitive.
“One of the most competitive people I’ve been around. That’s saying something coming from me,” said Staley, who is entering his 11th season. “I’ve always prided myself on being the most competitive person, but he’s up there. He wants to win at everything he does, and I think that’s a great quality to have in a teammate.”
Kyle Shanahan noted that Hoyer has reached an age at which most journeyman quarterbacks either drop out of the league or are content to stand on the sideline with clipboards in their hands. Over his career, Hoyer has dealt with a torn ACL, a broken arm and two concussions that occurred less than a month apart.
“For him to come here – he’s moved his family a bunch – and to come here, I know why he’s doing it, because he wants an opportunity to play,” Shanahan said. “He’s not a guy who’s happy just sitting on the bench and being a comfortable backup. A lot of people get like that in this time of their career, but not Brian. He wants to play.”
Shanahan spent the 2014 season with Hoyer when Shanahan was the Browns’ offensive coordinator. The quarterback completed 55 percent of his passes and threw 12 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions that year. Despite those middling numbers, the Browns won seven of Hoyer’s 13 starts that season.
Cousins? Garoppolo? Bradford? Shanahan insists Hoyer has an opportunity to show the 49ers don’t need to add an expensive, big-name quarterback in 2018.
“You’ve got to focus on now, and when the season ends and we all evaluate and we will see what happens,” he said. “I just know that I’m happy to have him here, and I think we have a quarterback who gives us a chance to win.”