The San Francisco 49ers are one of the most successful NFL franchises of all times. They are one of the oldest franchises and in their 70-year history have boasted some of the greatest players to ever play in the NFL. However, in recent years and in particular since an ownership change in 2000 and the retirement of Steve Young, the 49ers have fallen on hard times. Since 2000 the 49ers have experienced numerous miscalculations in player personnel and scouting resulting in the 49ers sinking from their juggernaut status in the 1980s and ‘90s to arguably one of the Leagues poorer franchises since the millennium. A team that had 16 consecutive ‘winning’ seasons from 1983 to 1998; since 1999 has gone over .500 only five times in 17 seasons. The 49ers have been historically led by great quarterbacks, but are the current crop in 2016 up to the task of restoring glory to the city of San Francisco?
A rich quarterback pedigree history
The 49ers have a long and rich quarterback history.
In the 1950s it was Y. A Tittle. The 6th overall selection in 1948 for the Baltimore Colts, played for the 49ers from 1951-1960 and racked up 7x Pro-Bowls and 4x MVPs during his time in the League (3 of these MVPs were with the Giants).
Then it was John Brodie in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Brodie spent his entire 17-year career in the bay and earned League MVP honours in 1970 while his no.12 jersey was later retired by the franchise.
The 49ers then had to wait six seasons to find their next franchise quarterback. In 1979 the 49ers in the third round selected a player who would go on to light up the NFL and captivate the hearts of millions of fans not just in the United States but around the world. Joe Montana was known by many names with the most popular being “Joe Cool” or “The Comeback Kid”, and during his 14 legendary seasons in San Francisco was a 7x Pro-Bowler; 4x Super Bowl champion (3x Super Bowl MVPs); 2x NFL MVP and is widely regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks on all time.
Montana’s career in San Francisco was cut short as he was traded to the Chiefs in 1993 after missing most of the previous two seasons due to injury. Montana was replaced by Steve Young (a player the 49ers had sent a second and fourth round draft pick to Tampa Bay for in 1987). Young would go on to live up to his billing as Montana’s replacement and in his 13 seasons made seven consecutive Pro-Bowls, was a 3x Super Bowl Champion and retired with the highest passer rating among all NFL quarterbacks.
The 49ers ‘Millennium slump’
Yet since Young’s retirement in 1999 the 49ers have failed to find an answer at quarterback. The 49ers wasted a first round pick in 1997 on Jim Druckenmiller, a player who was widely tapped as a future replacement for the aging Young. The team have since taken 10 quarterbacks yet failed to address the situation.
It is easy to use hindsight to criticize previous personnel decisions made by the 49ers such as the decision to take Giovanni Carmazzi in the third round in 2000 while Tom Brady was still sitting on the board deep into the sixth round. We could also criticize the teams moving up in the 2001 Draft to select seventh overall DE Andre Carter when Drew Brees was not taken until the start of the second round.
The failure of the 2005 NFL Draft
Yet I believe this Millennium slump could have been reversed as history could have repeated itself in 2005, similar to when San Francisco spent six seasons in the wilderness between John Brodie’s retirement and the drafting of Joe Montana. Six seasons after Steve Young retired, the 49ers had the first overall pick in the 2005 draft and everyone knew that San Francisco was in the market for a quarterback. With the first overall pick the 49ers selected Alex Smith, a quarterback who has gone on to be the very definition of an average quarterback. San Francisco chose Smith out of Utah over the hometown kid Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers was born in Chico, California (just a 2 and a half hour drive from San Francisco), attended 49ers games as a boy and his hero was Joe Montana. He also went on to play for California and many had him as the best quarterback prospect in the draft.
Yet then 49ers Head Coach Mike Nolan alongside the rest of the front office felt that Smith was the ‘safer option’ as Rodgers was labelled as “very cocky, very confident, arrogant” and that there were concern with his mechanics coming out of Cal. Smith was viewed as more athletic with greater size and containing more “upside.” Everyone knows how history panned out as Smith’s time in San Francisco was cut short while Rodgers dropped all the way to Green Bay at no.24 and has since gone on to become one of the best quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen.
The decision to trade Alex Smith
Missing Rodgers was one thing, but trading away the guy they took instead of him was another huge mistake for the 49ers. While Smith was no Rodgers, he was certainly no Giovanni Carmazzi either. Smith is exactly what he was described as coming out of Utah, safe. He is a game manager who will not lose you the game through turnovers. Smith did enjoy some success in San Francisco before being traded to Kansas City before the start of the 2013 season. 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh developed Smith into a steady quarterback who in his last two years in San Francisco threw 30 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions despite taking 68 sacks. During this period Smith also added over 300 yards on the ground. Smith was even having a career year before being concussed in week 10 in 2012 and following this sat the rest of the year behind sophomore Colin Kaepernick. At the time Smith was ranked third in the NFL with a passer rating of 104.1, led the league with a 70% completion percentage and had been 19-5-1 as a starter under Harbaugh. Smith was on pace to set career highs in completion percentage, passing yards, yards-per-attempt, passing touchdowns and rushing yards in 2012.
Again we may be using hindsight but if you look at what Smith has accomplished in Kansas City in three years it seems as if Smith has built on his impressive 2012 performance. Alex Smith is (and indeed was) an incredibly accurate quarterback with an extremely high football IQ who has shown during his time in Kansas and during his last two years in the bay that he could be a leader and make teams pay with both his arm and his legs.
Again hindsight is 20:20, but the decision to trade Alex Smith was a mistake. Yes Kaepernick was widely believed to be a unique dual threat quarterback and in his first post-season game against Green Bay, he rushed for an NFL record 181 yards, which sealed the nail in the coffin on Smith’s time in the bay. Kaepernick was seen as the future following the 2012 season as he performed exceptionally well despite his huge inexperience. However, more time should have been taken that offseason in evaluating whether he was just an athlete with a big arm or whether he had the mental make up that Smith possessed to become a starting quarterback and that defenses only needed one offseason in order to figure out how to stop Kaepernick and kill the 49ers offence.
So without any more reminiscing, let us take a look at those in 2016 who are hoping to follow in the footsteps of legends such as Steve Young and Joe Montana.
A look at the class of 2016 (or 2011)
Colin Kaepernick was selected in the second round by San Francisco in 2011. He went on to start 7 games in 2012 as he beat out starter Alex Smith and led the 49ers with his athleticism and arm strength to the Super Bowl where they narrowly lost to the Baltimore Ravens. Kaepernick was successful due to his speed and elite athleticism which led to him breaking rushing records for quarterbacks throughout his first postseason. He also has a cannon of an arm and has the ability to blow the lid of a Defense as he can connect with speedsters on the deep ball. Yet despite an unbelievable stretch in 2012, Kaepernick has failed to live up to the promise he displayed in 2012. Although Kaepernick led the 49ers to the NFC Championship game in 2013, he largely underperformed based on the expectations heading into the season, and this trend continued in 2014 and eventually resulted in him being benched half way through 2015.
The problem with Kaepernick was that starting in 2013, defenses realised that once they contained Kaepernick and forced him to beat them from the pocket, it collapsed spectacularly for the 49ers quarterback. The 49ers were trying to trade Kaepernick and his massive contract (six-year, $126million) this past offseason and the only thing stopping him being dealt to Denver was that he refused to take a pay cut. Current 49ers Head Coach Chip Kelly has a history of success with athletic quarterbacks as he is able to incorporate them and their unique skill sets into potent zone-read based systems. Yet Kelly’s system relies on more than simply athletic ability and its quick nature relies on quarterbacks who can get the ball out promptly, something that Kaepernick has struggled with his entire year as he is slow in going through his reads.
Head Coach Chip Kelly currently has an injured Colin Kaepernick competing to become the starting quarterback. Kaepernick has so far missed the first two preseason games and began training Monday for the first time in over two weeks. Kaepernick had undergone surgery on his right thumb and his left knee in January. Chip Kelly will be wondering whether he will be getting the Kaepernick of 2012 who shredded opposing offenses with his arm strength and legs or the Kaepernick of the previous two years who lost his starting job to the failed Jaguar Blaine Gabbert.
Speaking of the failed Jaguar, Blaine Gabbert was the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Gabbert spent only three years in Jacksonville yet this was enough for the front office and ownership to decide that they had seen enough and went ahead and traded Gabbert to San Francisco for just a sixth round pick in return. In 27 starts, Gabbert had a completion percentage of just 53.3%, 22TD’s – 24 Int’s, to go along with 21 fumbles. Yet Gabbert stepped in for Kaepernick half way through last season and posted 63.1% completion percentage, 2,031 yards (only 183 less than his career high) with 10 TDs, 7 Int’s and 4 fumbles.
Clearly there is some upside to Gabbert, despite failing in Jacksonville, San Francisco with Chip Kelly as a Head Coach could be an environment that Gabbert could thrive in. He has the mobility to be able to work in Chip Kelly’s offence that demands quarterbacks to be able to throw on the run and tuck the ball and run on zone-reads. However, he is not the athlete that Kaepernick is, nor does he have anywhere near the arm strength. But Gabbert has the mental make up to be able to thrive in Kelly’s fast faced offence which requires quarterbacks to be able to process quickly while on the go and be able to switch between reads promptly.
It is important to remember that this is a player who was awful in Jacksonville and was at best average last season in San Francisco. In Gabbert the 49ers have not got the next stud at quarterback, but they might at best have a steady quarterback who placed in an extremely QB friendly system might just about surpass 3,800 yards on a season.
Christian Ponder is the third of the 49ers quarterbacks who were drafted in 2011. Ponder was taken two places after Gabbert as the Vikings took him 12th overall. To say that Ponder underperformed in Minnesota would be an understatement. In four seasons he was under 60% competition (a bench mark for average QBs) and threw for only 38TD’s with 36 Int’s. It is telling that Ponder was only picked up by San Francisco when Thad Lewis went down injured last week. If teams were not willing to pick up Ponder when their rosters ballooned to 90 men, alarm bells have to be ringing in the ears of 49ers fans. Ponder did, however impress in the game against Denver last weekend (something no 49ers QB has achieved so far this preseason) although he was taking third team snaps.
The signing of Ponder is more a sign of desperation and an admission by front office that the current group of 49ers quarterbacks is largely underwhelming and at best average.
Side note: Jeff Driskel
San Francisco drafted Driskel in the sixth round of this year’s draft. He has the ideal size and athleticism that Chip Kelly looks for in a quarterback. He flashed talent while at college and is at best a project to see if Kelly can squeeze out the potential the young kid offers. He will not be competing for the starting job this year, however, it will be interesting to see how much he can progress in 2016 and whether he can have a Cinderella type story after transferring from NCAA powerhouse Florida to Louisiana Tech after breaking his leg in 2013.
The 49ers are famed for their rich quarterback history. Some of the best to ever line up under center have donned the red and gold yet the current crop appear to be more of a stop gap solution to a rebuild which is still in its infancy. The ‘millennium slump’ has carried on into the 2010s and despite a brief respite as Jim Harbaugh guided the 49ers to three NFC Championship games in four years, Harbaugh fell out with ownership and the slump has once again continued. Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder are not names that will inspire faith in any fan base and Colin Kaepernick remains a polarizing figure in the bay area. The current hierarchy are paying for the mistakes of past regimes as the 49ers miss evaluated their selection in 2005 and then to rub salt in the wounds traded away an average quarterback who they took in 2005 due to the hot air that was being blown in to quarterback Kaepernick. Kaepernick later proved he was more lead balloon than a hot air balloon.
New Head Coach Chip Kelly has to deal with the mistakes of previous regimes, however, it must be simply a matter of time before he attempts to draw a line under the failings of former 49ers personnel and look to draft a quarterback who he feels comfortable with and who he believes he can nurture and develop much the way he did with Marcus Mariota at Oregon. We have to remember that this is the man who turned Nick Foles into an NFL record breaker and made Mark Sanchez look like a functioning quarterback for a stretch in 2014. The 49ers are evidently in a rebuild and the 2016 season will once again be one where the organisation feels the repercussions of previous failings. Chip Kelly will have a difficult decision in choosing who to start at quarterback come week 1 as the 49ers will face the dominant Rams defensive line in week 1 followed by trips to Carolina and Seattle.
The 49ers are nowhere near ready to challenge for their division let alone a Super Bowl. It appears to be another wasted season for 49er fans, yet there is a glimmer of hope as Chip Kelly has the potential to help Kaepernick find his 2012 form, although this might just be clutching at straws.
– Tom Like