Can Niners make a real QB out of first-round bust?

Jim Flanigan makes sense. Proven, quality defensive tackles are hard to find, and the Niners just acquired one at a reasonable rate. He ought to make things interesting on a suddenly depth-laden D-line. But where does Cade McNown fit in? If you thought the 49ers had some serious competition for backup jobs behind Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia before, well, just look at them now.

SFI cannot honestly sit before you today and say that Cade McNown makes sense. Didn't the Niners just sign an experienced, record-breaking Arena League star quarterback this winter? Didn't they just draft a BYU star with potential at the position this spring? Haven't they been saying all year that they are sold on Tim Rattay as their No. 2 quarterback behind Garcia this season? Wasn't McNown a temperamental bust in Chicago, and apparently not any better last year in Miami?

The answers, of course, are yes, yes, yes and definitely yes. But that said, the move for McNown is incredibly intriguing at the very least, and at the very best yet another example of astuteness and tremendous foresight on the part of Niners general manager Terry Donahue.

McNown, you might remember, once was the 49ers' wet dream. When McNown was coming out of college after an All-American senior season at UCLA in 1998, Steve Young was just completing arguably his most productive season as the Niners' quarterback at the age of 37. The Niners drooled at the possibility of grooming McNown for the future behind Young. In fact, McNown - a robust left-hander with running ability who also happened to wear No. 8 - looked like a carbon copy of Young in uniform.

But, alas, McNown was too good. At the time, at least. The Niners selected No. 27 in the first round of the 1999 draft and didn't have much leverage to move up to take McNown - who was selected by Chicago at No. 12 - because they still were trying to keep together their aging Super Bowl contender from a year before.

But McNown never made it during two tumultuous seasons in Chicago, where he failed amid high expectations and was crushed by the ire of merciless Bears fans. But he started 15 games during those two years, threw for 3,111 yards and 16 touchdowns (and 19 interceptions) and also rushed for 486 yards.

That's NFL experience. More than Aaron Garcia - the Arena League star - can say. More than Brandon Doman - the Niners' fifth-round pick this year - can say. More than Gio Carmazzi - the Niners' third-round pick in 2000 - can say. And if any offense fits McNown, who was stamped for stardom when he entered the NFL, it's San Francisco's.

"We believe the quarterback position is absolutely the most critical position on the football team," Donahue said Thursday. "We've got to make sure we create the best corps of quarterbacks there is in the NFL so if, God forbid, anything happens to Jeff Garcia, we can accomplish the goals we've set for the organization. The greater the quality of players at that position, the greater the competition will be. At times (McNown) has shown promising qualities and characteristics at the position."

Donahue said Thursday that the Niners plan to take just four quarterbacks to Stockton for training camp in July. Jeff Garcia and Rattay are in. So is Doman, the Niners have been telling us all along. And so is McNown, Donahue strongly indicated. "I would think that's fair (to say)," Donahue said.

That's bad news for Aaron Garcia, who has made progress in the system during this spring and said in earlier interviews with SFI that the Niners had told him in no uncertain terms that he'd be going to training camp. Carmazzi is out of the team's plans - certainly for 2002, and probably for eternity - though his situation remains unsettled because of the injury he incurred last year while playing for NFL Europe.

McNown has shown the NFL nothing. So far. Could it be different in San Francisco when he falls under the tutelage of quarterback gurus Bill Walsh and Steve Mariucci and also Donahue, the man who recruited him to UCLA and started him as a true freshman in 1995?

Stranger things have happened. The Niners are going to take a look. All it will cost them is a seventh-round draft pick next year, and that's only if McNown is on the roster for five games this season. And if, in fact, McNown is still sticking around at that point, it could mean the Niners may have found their replacement for Steve Young's replacement. In a roundabout way, of course.


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