49ers Still Need a Quarterback
Tim Rattay didn’t lose that game by himself, but it was obvious that if you changed quarterbacks, that alone would have made a big difference in the game. Donovan McNabb is a quarterback who can carry a team. Rattay is just occupying the position.
Teams can win championships without a great quarterback. The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in January, 2001, with journeyman Trent Dilfer at quarterback because they had a stifling defense, one that may have been as good as any in the game’s history. But the Ravens are the only team I can remember in covering pro football since 1967 that won a championship with that formula.
Certainly, it hasn’t happened in 49er history. Nolan’s father, Dick, went 10-3-1 in his third season and defense played an important role, but he also had a very good quarterback in John Brodie, who was underappreciated by 49er fans until they saw the stiffs who followed him.
Bill Walsh did even better in his third season, 13-3 and a Super Bowl win. The 49ers made a great defensive improvement in the offseason by drafting cornerbacks Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright and then traded for Fred Dean in the offseason – but they also had Joe Montana at quarterback.
The formula for all the 49er Super Bowl champions was a great defense and a great quarterback, first Montana and then Steve Young, From midseason 1980 through the first part of the 1999 season, the 49ers had future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. They had some other very important pieces, too – Lott is also in the Hall of Fame and Jerry Rice will be there as soon as he’s eligible – but it all started with Montana and Young.
Despite the near-record yardage by the Eagles yesterday, I believe the 49er defense will play well this season, but it certainly isn’t the type of defense that can dominate a game, as that Ravens championship team did. Nor is it the equal of any of the 49er defenses in their championship years. It’s good enough to keep the 49ers in most games, but without an offense that can step up, they’ll also lose those games. It’s unrealistic to expect more than 4-5 wins out of this team.
STEVE DeBERG set team passing records in 1979, but Walsh knew he couldn’t win with him. Rattay isn’t as good as DeBerg, so Nolan knew when he looked at game videos from last season that he had to get a quarterback he could build a team around.
Is Alex Smith that quarterback? Clearly, he’s not ready yet to start in the NFL. As a rookie, neither was Montana, who was older and had more collegiate experience than Smith. Walsh used Montana only in specific situations, on plays on which he would look just for one receiver and run if that receiver were covered. It wasn’t until midway through Montana’s second season that he became the starter.
Nolan will be just as cautious with Smith. He started him in the first two exhibition games to give him a taste of the action, but he put Rattay back in for the third exhibition. He won’t put Smith in again, except at the end of games that are hopelessly lost, like the Eagles game. There’s no sense letting him get physically and emotionally battered when he’s not ready.
Smith has considerable ability, as he showed in college and as he shows in practice.
Some fans have been quick to judge him a failure, comparing him to Jim Druckenmiller, the 49ers’ first round flop, and Ryan Leaf, who self-destructed after being picked with the second selection of the draft. In fact, there's no comparison. Druckenmiller was totally unsuited to the 49ers offensive system because he couldn’t move, and he didn’t register high on the IQ scale, either. In contrast, Smith is very mobile and very intelligent. Leaf was an emotional disaster, unwilling to work very hard to stay in shape or to learn the changes he had to make to succeed in the NFL. There’s no problem with Smith’s work ethic nor with his willingness to learn.
Some quarterbacks hit right away; for different reasons, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger were good quarterbacks in their rookie years. Others progress more slowly; Carson Palmer seems to have come into his own in Cincinnati now. Others fail; Joey Harrington seems to be regressing in Detroit.
Smith obviously isn’t in the Manning/Roethlisberger category. Nolan can only hope that he’ll fall in the Palmer category.
FOR NOW,offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy is going to have to be cautious with the offense. Since Rattay isn’t the type of quarterback who can win games, he should be limited so he at least won’t continually throw the interceptions that lose games. The running game must be stressed.
Under the direction of personnel man Scot McCloughan, the 49ers appear to have done a good job with the draft, with nine draft picks and undrafted rookie free agent Otis Amey on the roster. The 49ers still need at least one more good draft, perhaps two, to get the depth of talent they need.
Meanwhile, Nolan is putting in the structure for a winning team – but the 49ers won’t get there until they have a winning quarterback.
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