The Atlanta Falcons exposed the 49ers in their 45-10 thrashing on Sunday: The Niners have no offense, largely because Shaun Hill is a below average NFL quarterback.
The 49ers had started 3-1 because of a strong defense that held their first four opponents to 53 points. But even then, there were signs of a coming breakdown because the offense scored only two touchdowns in each of those games.
The most telling sign came against the St. Louis Rams, the NFL’s weakest team east of Oakland. Hill struggled for most of the game as the offense scored only one touchdown against the woeful Rams in the first three quarters. The defense scored two touchdowns and special teams added another for a 35-0 win that sent 49ers fans home happy.
Until the next Sunday.
Hill started out poorly, with a tipped pass that was turned into an interception, and he completely lost his composure. Opposing teams have learned that if they put pressure on him, Hill doesn’t know how to deal with it. TV broadcasters noted that in the 49ers opener against Arizona. He ran four times for 53 yards against the Falcons, but otherwise just threw inaccurately or went down on a sack.
His one successful deep throw in five games was a 51-yard completion to Isaac Bruce against the Cardinals, when no pass rusher was in the same zip code with him and Bruce had two steps on his defender. That combination won’t happen often. When he was under pressure later in that game on a similar play, his pass wasn’t close to Bruce. When deep throws were called against the Falcons, he wasn’t close to hitting a receiver.
Some readers have compared Hill to Joe Montana, who didn’t have the strongest arm ever, but the comparison is ludicrous. Montana had some spectacular games as a collegian, most notably his comeback win in the Cotton Bowl. Hill’s collegiate career was so undistinguished, he wasn’t even drafted. Montana as a pro had great vision of the whole field, which Hill does not. Montana excelled at hitting a receiver in stride, so he could run for more yardage; even on short passes. Hill’s receivers often have to stop and wait for the pass to get to them.
A much better comparison for Hill is with the inadequate quarterbacks between John Brodie and Montana. Remember Scott Bull, Joe Reed, Norman Snead? Of course, the 49ers were losers with all of them.
To compensate for Hill’s deficiencies, coach Mike Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye have put together game plans which emphasized running. They work better with Frank Gore in there, and Gore will be back after this week’s bye. But NFL teams rarely get to the playoffs without better quarterbacks than Hill.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see Alex Smith as the starter at some point this season. Smith has much more physical ability than Hill, and the 49ers could open up their offense with him.
Next year, rookie Nate Davis may be in the mix; he has a strong, accurate arm and good football sense. The 49ers might also try to draft a quarterback or trade for one in the offseason.
One thing is certain: They won’t be legitimate playoff contenders until they have improved quarterbacking. Right now, they’re like a man trying to win a race on one leg.