Season in review: Quarterbacks

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2006 season by position, analyzing what went right and wrong during the year and identifying the changes that took place and the players who stood out during the course of the season. Who's the unit MVP, the biggest disappointment and the biggest surprise? Who overachieved and underachieved? Who's on the rise and on the slide? It's all here. Today: Quarterbacks

Quarterbacks on final 53-man roster: Shaun Hill, Trent Dilfer, Chris Weinke, Drew Olson

Starter in season opener: Alex Smith

Starter in season finale: Chris Weinke

Unit MVP: Shaun Hill

Top newcomer: Chris Weinke

Most improved: Shaun Hill

Biggest disappointment: Alex Smith

Biggest surprise: Shaun Hill

On the rise: Shaun Hill

On the slide: Trent Dilfer

Overachiever: Shaun Hill

Underachiever: None

What went right: Down to their third-string quarterback because of season-ending injuries to Smith and Dilfer, the 49ers found that they have a guy who can play and execute the short passing game in sixth-year veteran Hill, who hadn't thrown a pass in a NFL game before entering after halftime in the Week 14 loss to Minnesota. Hill proceeded to complete 22 of 27 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown in that game, then led the 49ers to victories in their next two games against Cincinnati and Tampa Bay, gritting it out through finger, rib and back injuries in the latter game. Hill finished the season with a 68.4 completion percentage and had five touchdown passes and only one interception in 10 quarters of action. He finished with a team-best 101.3 passer rating, and his game ratings of 106.9 against Minnesota and 105.8 against Cincinnati were the two best of the season for the 49ers and the only times a San Francisco quarterback had a rating above 100 during the season. Dilfer had a few solid performances in his first action with the 49ers, leading a comeback victory in overtime at Arizona by throwing for a season-high 256 yards and two touchdowns, his best outing of the year in six starts. Dilfer was the only San Francisco quarterback to throw for 200 or more yards in a game during the season, finishing with 209 yards against New York and 231against St. Louis.

What went wrong: A lot. Before Hill provided some shining moments in December, it had been a horrible season for San Francisco quarterbacks, who were battered while absorbing a franchise-record 55 sacks this season. The 49ers' season began spiraling downward in Week 4 when Smith was slammed to the turf on the third play from scrimmage against Seattle and suffered a Grade III separation of his throwing shoulder. He never fully recovered from the injury and might have been rushed back into action too soon only to produce three dismal performances upon his return. Smith, after his promising second season, started out slowly before his injury and his pivotal third year behind center was basically a lost season as he completed just 48 percent of his passes with just two touchdown throws while compiling a passer rating of 57.2, which ranked only above Dilfer's 55.1 among NFL quarterbacks with as many passes thrown. Smith also had a well-publicized communication breakdown with head coach Mike Nolan, a situation during which Smith didn't do himself any favors in both public and team perception. He didn't play again after a Week 10 loss to Seattle and eventually had surgery to repair ligament damage in his shoulder and finished the season on injured reserve. In place of Smith, the 35-year-old Dilfer failed to play winning football and establish himself as a viable backup who could keep the offense competitive. He had two or more interceptions in four of the seven games he played and was sacked 27 times in those outings. Dilfer suffered a concussion in Week 14 against Minnesota that ended his season and, possibly, his career with the 49ers. Hill, who played with a dislocated and fractured index finger on his throwing hand, suffered bruised ribs and cracked vertebrae in the Week 16 victory over Tampa Bay and was unable to play in the season finale at Cleveland, forcing the 49ers to start Weinke, who had only been with the team two weeks and hadn't played in a NFL game since 2006.

Looking forward in 2008: The 49ers already have promised open competition for the starting position with Smith, who was handed the starting role each of the past two seasons. The 49ers are working on a deal that will keep Hill in San Francisco to compete for the job, and it's possible they will either bring in another veteran or draft a prospect to add to the competition, although the list of veterans that will be available in free agency is weak. Dilfer's status with the team still is unclear, with general manager Scot McCloughan saying after the season ended, "We still have to sit down and address the Trent Dilfer issue. He has value, there's no doubt about it. It's just one of those things that we will sit down and talk with the position coaches about some of the older players. If we are in the draft and there's a darn good quarterback sitting there, we're going to take him." Despite his lost 2007 season, the 49ers still will be looking to develop Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, as their franchise quarterback, and it figures to be his job to lose this summer, as long as he comes back at full strength after his surgery, which was said to be successful. Smith should be ready to return for the team's spring minicamps, where competition is sure to be waiting for the job he owned entering the 2007 season.

Final 2007 unit grade: D. Hill's late-season emergence raises the final grade.

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