The 49ers lost the game in Houston but they found the quarterback they need to fuel a playoff run.
Alex Smith came on in the second half on Sunday to throw three touchdown passes and nearly bring the 49ers back from a 21-0 deficit. Smith’s superior athletic ability, both passing and running, gives the 49ers a much better chance than Shaun Hill can with his limited physical skills.
There are always several quarterbacks like Hill around the NFL — the Raiders have one in Bruce Gradkowski — who are fine as backups who can come in and play decently if the starter gets hurt. If they’re put in a starting role, they play themselves out of a job.
Hill had some success because he was flying under the radar; teams knew nothing about him when he took over in 2007 after injuries to both Smith and Trent Dilfer and in midseason last year after taking over for J.T. O’Sullivan.
I predicted that defenses would catch up to him when they found out more about Hill, and that’s exactly what happened. The woeful St. Louis Rams shut him down for three quarters last year the second time they saw Hill. This year, Hill struggled against the Rams at Candlestick Park, getting only one offensive touchdown in the first three quarters. He was awful in the 45-10 humiliation at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons and was just 6-for-11 for 45 yards in the first half against Houston.
Yes, the 49ers’ offensive line continued to have problems in pass protection, but it hasn’t helped that Hill has no real pocket sense; when the rush comes, he usually just goes down instead of moving to give himself more time.
Smith moved well when he came into the game on Sunday, reminding us that he often ran for good gains out of the spread
formation in which he played at Utah.
Niners coach Mike Singletary had hoped that Smith would step up earlier. That was why he wouldn’t commit to Hill as a starter through spring workouts and in summer training camp until the very last moment. Even then, Smith could have won the starting job if he’d played well in the third exhibition, but he didn’t, probably because he had a sore thumb that affected his passing.
So, Singletary commited to Hill, but last week he noted that “Alex has never been out of the picture.” He didn’t make a change in the second half of the Atlanta game, but he did in Houston, which was a better spot. At Candlestick, Smith would probably have been booed.
Over and over, I’ve heard from 49ers fans that Smith has had his chances, but he really hasn’t. He came in to an impossible situation as a rookie, having to learn to play in a pro offense after playing in the spread in college, with a terrible offensive line and an equally terrible group of receivers. In his second year, he was making good progress under offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Then Turner left and Smith severely injured his shoulder — but coach Mike Nolan insisted he was OK. He wasn’t, and he’s had to have two surgeries to get healthy.
His physical and mental problems have toughened Smith. He’s throwing better and with more confidence than ever, and he gives the Niners a much better chance to make the playoffs.