Season in review: Quarterbacks

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2008 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, J.T. O'Sullivan, Jamie Martin

Starter in season opener: J.T. O'Sullivan

Starter in season finale: Shaun Hill

Unit MVP: Shaun Hill

Top newcomer: J.T. O'Sullivan

Most improved: Shaun Hill

Biggest disappointment: Another season-ending injury for Alex Smith

Biggest surprise: Shaun Hill

On the rise: Shaun Hill

On the slide: Alex Smith

Overachiever: J.T. O'Sullivan

Underachiever: None

What went right: O'Sullivan, winning the job surprisingly in training camp, shot out of the gate quickly and led the 49ers to a 2-1 start, at which time he was the No. 4-rated quarterback in the NFL. He gave the team a downfield dimension the 49ers have not seen in several years and had San Francisco among the league leaders in passing plays of 20 yards or more throughout the first half of the season. Hill took over as the starter during the team's midseason bye week and had a game passer rating of 91.7 or better in six of his nine appearances, including a 142.3 rating in Week 11 against St. Louis when he had a perfect passer rating during the first half. Hill ran the offense effectively throughout his eight starts and the 49ers were competitive in all of them, winning five of their final seven games. Hill finished as the NFC's seventh-rated passer and finished 12th among the NFL's leading passers with a quarterback rating of 87.5 – the best by a San Francisco quarterback since Jeff Garcia finished his Pro Bowl season of 2001 with a 94.8 rating. He also gave the team a semblance of stability at the position that the 49ers have not had since Smith took every snap behind center in 2006.

What went wrong: Journeyman O'Sullivan beat out former No. 1 overall draft pick Smith during training camp, which couldn't have been something anybody in the organization really wanted to see. Then, in one of the final practices before the regular-season opener, Smith suffered a rare fracture in his throwing shoulder while attempting a deep pass. The injury ended Smith's season before it even began and put him on injured reserve for the second consecutive year. He had surgery on the shoulder late in the year and, while doctors project a full recovery, it is unknown if his shoulder will ever be able to hold up to the rigors of performing in the NFL again. After a strong beginning in his first season as a starter, O'Sullivan's performance regressed into a stream of killer turnovers as he failed to adequately protect the football. When he lost his job as the starter in Week 8, O'Sullivan personally was responsible for more turnovers than the total of any other NFL team.

Looking forward in 2009: Despite Hill's fine performance taking over the starting job, the 49ers are not handing him the starting position for the 2009 season, and in fact have already stated they plan on bringing in another quarterback to compete with Hill for the job. That almost certainly will be a veteran, though it's debatable what the 49ers will find available on the open market. The 49ers also will seriously consider drafting a quarterback, perhaps with a first-day pick, though they won't be looking in the draft for somebody they'd expect to start in 2009. The unknown factor is Smith, who already has said he would like to remain with the team and is willing to take the massive salary cut required for him to do so. But the 49ers are no longer counting on Smith as their quarterback of the present and/or future. For him to get back into that kind of talk, Smith will have to earn it with performance. Smith's days of having a rightful place in the team's quarterback hierarchy are over.

Final 2008 unit grade: B-minus

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