Season review, part 4: quarterbacks

Alex Smith had the ball in his hands when the season started, but an 0-5 start and an array of mistakes cost him the starting job. Did Troy Smith come to the rescue? Only briefly.

When he was coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Mike Singletary famously said the quarterback position was no more important than any other position on an NFL team. Contrast that with new Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, who was asked recently if he needs a top-flight quarterback for his offense to succeed.

"Do we need a top-flight quarterback?" he said, repeating the question. "Do human beings need air to breathe?"

No matter what the 49ers do between now and next season, you can bet a QB will be at the top of their must-do list. They gave the reins to Alex Smith in his sixth season, tried David Carr for one brief spell, then turned things over to newcomer Troy Smith for a few games. By the end of the season, they were back to Alex Smith.

In short, the Niners never found their quarterback. In this review, let's take a look at what happened.

QUARTERBACKS

Some people will argue the worst thing Singletary did was let Shaun Hill leave for the Detroit Lions via trade, taking away the team's fallback option in case Alex Smith failed. As it turns out, they were probably right.

Singletary's reasoning was simple. He didn't want Smith looking over his shoulder in case things went bad. He made Smith a team captain in training camp, and Smith looked and sounded confident about his ability to lead the team. His teammates were solidly behind him.

But things just never fell together, and it didn't help that the 49ers lost their first five games. Smith's statistics weren't impressive (three TD passes, seven interceptions in his first four starts), but you didn't need to see the numbers to believe he would struggle again. He never looked composed in the pocket, checked down too quickly when passing and often seemed content to throw away the ball rather than let a play develop. Countless times, he misfired too high or too low or too wide – mistakes a veteran QB shouldn't be making.

When Smith suffered a separated shoulder in his non-throwing arm Oct. 24 at Carolina, Singletary put the ball in Troy Smith's hands. And although Troy could be dynamic, he frequently tried to force his throws or held the ball too long when he couldn't get outside the pocket and use his feet.

But Troy Smith did what Alex Smith couldn't: He won. He helped the 49ers beat the Denver Broncos in his first start, Oct. 31 in London, then came back after the bye week and threw for 356 yards in a 23-20 overtime victory against the St. Louis Rams. Was he the answer?

That's debatable. Troy went 3-2 as a starter, but his accuracy was off, and opponents had success against him when they kept him from scrambling outside. After two consecutive games in which he completed fewer than half his passes, Troy was out and Alex was back in.

Troy Smith got one final opportunity to impress when Singletary tapped him to start against the St. Louis Rams on Dec. 26 in what was the 49ers' last chance to stay alive in the NFC West race. After going 7 for 19 passing, however, Singletary told Troy that Alex would take over – and the ensuing shouting match on the sideline between Troy and his coach is a lasting memory of the Singletary regime.

Neither Smith was the answer (both are free agents), so the 49ers will forge ahead. But do they draft a starter, trade for one or look at available free agents? Our best guess: They'll try to sign a veteran and draft a player who can be eased into Harbaugh's West Coast offense. That's the wise course.

Grade: D.


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