Is Cody Pickett the Answer for 49ers?
It wouldnít be the first time a low-round draft pick ascended to the top spot. In the most recent example, Tom Brady was a No. 6 pick for the New England Patriots, taken only one round higher than Pickett was in the 2004 draft.
An even more remarkable story was Johnny Unitas, who was discarded by the Pittsburgh Steelers for Jim Finks, who later became an outstanding executive but was never more than an average quarterback. Unitas was playing semi-pro ball when the Baltimore Colts signed him because George Shaw, a No. 1 pick, was injured. You know the rest of that story.
In Bradyís case, Bill Belichick traded Drew Bledsoe, who had been a No. 1 pick, and made Brady his starter. The prevailing wisdom in the NFL was that Belichick was crazy. Bledsoe is still playing, and heís having a good season with the Dallas Cowboys, but with Brady, the Patriots have won three of the last four Super Bowls.
Could Pickett be the same kind of surprise for the 49ers?
There are two elements here, the financial and the performance. The first canít be ignored. The 49ers have a huge financial stake in Smith, including a $22 million signing bonus, which is pro-rated over seven years in figuring the salary cap.
It wouldnít be too difficult to trade Smith, because his contract, like others in the NFL, is not guaranteed. A club that picked him up would have to pay him for one year but could cut him after that if he didnít pan out. The 49ers have already paid the signing bonus up front.
But if the 49ers traded him, the rest of that signing bonus would accelerate into the year they trade him in figuring the cap. If, for instance, the 49ers traded him after next season, slightly more than $15 million of that figure would be counted against the cap.
So, from a financial standpoint, the 49ers have every reason to hope that Smith will be their quarterback for the future. But if weíve learned one thing about Mike Nolan this year itís that heís very confident of his own judgment Ė and, heís essentially his own boss, with nobody in the front office over him. I have no doubt that, if he thought Pickett should be his quarterback, he would go with him.
But, Pickett has to be clearly the better choice, because of the financial implications of trading Smith and the impact that decision could have on other player decisions. If the choice is problematical, Nolan will have to go back to Smith and keep Pickett in reserve.
MANY FANS have been clamoring for Pickett ever since he sparkled in the exhibition season last year. Iíve urged caution because I know how misleading an exhibition season showing can be. Teams are very limited in what they use, offensively and defensively. A reserve quarterback is often throwing against defensive backs that wonít even be on the roster during the season. A good showing in exhibition games is often comparable to those young hitters who shine in the early days of spring training but have disappeared into the minors by the time the season starts.
That doesnít mean Iím disparaging Pickettís skills. I saw enough of him in college to be pleased when the 49ers drafted him. An injury-filled senior year hurt his prospects, which was the reason he dropped so low in the draft, but he has always had the potential to be an excellent pro quarterback, with good size, a strong arm and even some running ability, so he can escape from pressure.
He developed some bad habits in that senior year, but hands on coaching by offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler have straightened him out. (As an aside, Nolan has an excellent staff of assistant coaches, a big help with such a young team.)
Successful quarterbacks all have one thing in common: good mechanics. They set themselves to throw, and they throw with fluid motions. The most important element is their footwork, because itís impossible to be consistent throwing the ball without being positioned properly. Steve Young used to say that he knew if he were throwing well just by watching himself from the waist down on game videos.
With hard work and coaching, Pickett has improved his footwork, which enables him to be more effective as a passer.
Pickett is still low on the learning curve because he started as the No. 4 quarterback in the rotation. He wasnít even practicing on the ďscoutĒ team, which uses the offense of the next opponent, until Tim Rattay was traded. McCarthy wisely limited him when he went into the game after Ken Dorsey was injured last Sunday because he knew so little of the 49ers offense. Heíll still be limited this week because itís unfair to expect him to know much of the offense yet, but at least, heíll have a chance to take snaps with the first team in practice this week. (Itís still possible that Smith could start, but even if he makes a miraculous recovery from his ankle injury, I doubt Nolan would risk further injury by rushing him back.)
Donít expect Pickett to look as good as he has in brief appearances in exhibition games. Heíll be playing against the regulars this week, though the New York Giants defense isnít particularly strong. The best we can realistically hope for is that heíll show flashes of what he might be able to do with more preparation and more pro playing experience.
THOUGH SOME 49er fans got positively giddy after last Sundayís win, the reality is what itís always been: This season is about individual improvement and identifying players who could be part of a playoff team a couple of years down the road.
There is no more important decision to be made than at quarterback, because the 49ers are not going anywhere until they have the right quarterback. Nolan debated between Smith and Aaron Rodgers before the draft last spring. Wouldnít it be ironic if the answer to his quarterback question was already on the roster?
CRUISE WITH ME:
I am organizing a group tour for a 12-day Eastern Mediterranean cruise on Holland America, starting on Sept. 28, 2006. It will begin in Athens and end in Venice. Among the stops are Istanbul, Alexandria and Dubrovnik.
It will be a sports-oriented tour, of course. When we are at sea, I will lead group sessions covering sports topics. I have only begun to plan these sessions, but we might have times, for instance, when we would play general manager and try to fix the Giants, Aís, 49ers. The last might take a couple of cruises! I welcome your suggestions.
There are 30 spots available. Prices range from $2,350 to $3,999, plus $110 tax and airfare. Holland America can arrange airfare, or you can do it on your own.
If youíre interested, let me know and Iíll pass your message along to Janice Hough, the travel agent who is working with me on this. She will send you information on the cruise, including a complete itinerary. I am not asking for a commitment from you at this time, just trying to measure interest.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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