Pickett Adds to 49ers QB Puzzle
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 22, 2005

THE 49ERS HAVE a quarterback controversy, and this time, it involves the No. 4 quarterback, Cody Pickett.

Pickett got a lot of fans excited in the exhibition season last year, and he has them excited again after his fine performance late in the loss to the Denver Broncos Saturday night.

A word of caution: Quarterbacks who play late in the game in the exhibition season, especially in the first couple of games, are playing against the dregs on defense, often players who won’t even be on the roster in the regular season. So, a quarterback’s statistics can make him look better than he is.

Still, there’s no denying Pickett’s physical talent. He’s got good size, 6-3, 227 pounds, and a strong arm. In college, he broke most of the school records at Washington, and his career passing yardage ranks fourth in Pacific-10 history – though knowing that the first two on the list are NFL flops Cade McNown and Steve Stenstrom should give pause.

I thought the 49ers made a steal when they got Pickett with a seventh-round pick in the 2004 draft. He would have gone higher if he’d left after his junior year, but his ranking fell when he had an injury-filled season as a senior.

His problem has been that he didn’t pick up the offense very well last season, and he has had a similar problem this year. It’s obvious in practice. The three quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart – Alex Smith, Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey – make decisions quickly on pass plays. It always seems to take Pickett longer. He’s done better in the games because, by the time he gets in, the offense has been greatly simplified.

There’s no question that he intrigues coach Mike Nolan. After a practice last week, Nolan told us, “I wish you guys wouldn’t write about him,” and he was only half-kidding. His fear was that he won’t be able to sneak Pickett through waivers. His chances were better before Saturday night’s game.

Nolan would like to keep four quarterbacks. Smith and Rattay will obviously be two of them, but it gets dicey after that. I’ve assumed that he would put both Dorsey and Pickett on revocable waivers. If both cleared, he would keep Dorsey on the roster as the emergency quarterback and keep Pickett on the taxi squad. If one cleared and the other didn’t, he’d put the one who was claimed on the roster and the other on the taxi squad.

But if neither one cleared? My guess is that he’d keep Pickett and let Dorsey go. Dorsey has shown improvement in camp, both in movement and arm strength, but he’s basically maxed out on the ability scale. His value now is chiefly as a guy who could play respectably if both quarterbacks went down in front of him, but if the 49ers got to that point, there wouldn’t be much hope for them, anyway.

With Pickett, the challenge obviously is to learn the offense, but it’s hard for a coach to give up on that physical ability, especially with the fluidity of the 49ers quarterback situation. Just don’t expect to see him as a starter soon.

THE BATTLE for No. 1 continues to be between Smith and Rattay.

Smith had another bad start against the Broncos. Now, he has only two exhibition games left to show that he should be the starter in the season opener.

I was on a television show last week when a San Jose columnist said that money would decide the season starter, meaning that Smith, because of his huge contract, would be the choice.

I don’t think it’s that simple. Nolan has to be very careful with this. On one hand, he obviously would like to see Smith as the starter, because he’s the future of the team. At the same time, he can’t risk alienating his team by putting a quarterback out there who isn’t ready and doesn’t give his team the best chance to win. I’m sure all the 49ers understand why Smith is playing now, but they won’t be so forgiving if Nolan, in effect, gives up on them just to play Smith. The rookie has to show he deserves his shot.

Meanwhile, Nolan is playing the situation exactly right, by starting Smith and giving him most of the snaps with the first team in the exhibition season. Smith has to learn, and this is the best way to do it. As a veteran, Rattay doesn’t need that experience. Even with his limited time in the exhibition games, he could step into the starting lineup when the season started and be perfectly comfortable.

In fact, I think that’s exactly what will happen. I see strong parallels in this situation and that with Steve DeBerg and Joe Montana in the late ‘70s. Bill Walsh always knew that his future was with Montana, but he was careful to use Montana only in specific situations as a rookie. Montana would be sent into the game when the 49ers were in the red zone, usually with a play on which he looked for one receiver and, if that receiver wasn’t open, ran with the ball.

DeBerg remained the starter until midway in the 1980 season, Montana’s second, enduring a terrible beating in a 59-14 thrashing by the Dallas Cowboys, but when Montana took over, the 49ers won three of their last five games. Included in that stretch was the greatest comeback in NFL history, as the 49ers, trailing New Orleans by 35-7 at halftime at Candlestick, won 38-35 on a Ray Wersching field goal in overtime.

It probably won’t take that long for Smith. I think Rattay will start the season and, sometime after the first half of the season, Smith will be in there. By that time, he will have a better grasp of the offense and be more accustomed to the speed of the pro game. He’ll make mistakes, but not as many as he’s making now. By his second season, he should be in full control.

PICKETT? He’ll be no more than the No. 3 or No. 4 quarterback this season, no matter how good he looks at the end of an exhibition game. It’s hard enough for Nolan to work with a rookie quarterback without having to bring along another young quarterback.

Next year could be a different matter. If Smith shows enough for Nolan to have confidence in starting him, he could trade Rattay – there will always be a market for a competent backup quarterback – and work with Pickett as the No. 1.

Would Pickett ever become the No. 1? It’s unlikely, simply because the 49ers have too much invested in Smith, financially and emotionally. But it’s nice to have another option, just in case.


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