Shaun Hill Vs. Alex Smith; Fred Dean; Webber, Gasol
by Glenn Dickey
Feb 06, 2008

FOR THE first time since Alex Smith was drafted No. 1 by the 49ers in 2005, he will face serious competition for the starting quarterback slot, after Shaun Hill signed a two-year contract this week as a free agent.

After improving in his second season, Smith had a train wreck of a season last year. He started slowly, then suffered a shoulder separation and came back from that too soon. Though coach Mike Nolan insisted his shoulder wasn’t affecting his play, it obviously was. Smith finally confirmed that and sat out the last part of the season, finally having surgery on the shoulder.

Meanwhile, Hill was one of the very few feel-good stories about the 49ers. Originally an undrafted free agent, Hill had been on the Minnesota Vikings roster for four years and the 49ers for two but had played in only one game and hadn’t thrown a pass.

But when he was thrown in after first Smith and then backup quarterback Trent Dilfer were hurt, Hill played very well. In three games before he was hurt, he completed 68 per cent of his passes and had a passer rating of 101.3.

Now, there’s a new offensive coordinator, Mike Martz – Smith’s fifth in five years, going back to his last year in college. Martz is renowned for his ability to develop quarterbacks and his spectacular passing offense, but which quarterback will run that offense is an open question.

Martz has said that his primary requirement for a quarterback is accuracy, which would give Hill the edge. But he also likes to throw deep, and Hill hasn’t shown much ability to do that.

Strangely, though Smith has been with the 49ers for three seasons and took every snap in 2006, he is more of an unknown quantity than Hill at this point.

Hill showed a remarkable ability to run a short-pass offense in his brief starting time last fall. He hits the slant patterns with accuracy, giving receivers a chance to run after the catch – as Bill Walsh once designed his offense. When I talked to tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker late in the season, they were very happy with Hill, because they were getting the ball.

But the 49ers receivers can’t be compared to those in the late ‘80s, when they had Jerry Rice and John Taylor as the wide receivers and Brent Jones at tight end. There isn’t a wide receiver on the team who would be higher than No. 3 on a good team, and Davis, the No. 1 draft choice in 2006, has yet to show consistency in catching the ball.

Other teams had not had an opportunity to scout Hill before he played last season. They will now and, knowing it’s unlikely the 49ers can beat anybody deep with these receivers, they’ll tighten coverage if Hill plays and cut off passing lanes.

Smith has more ability than most 49er fans realize – I’ve had the advantage of seeing him in practice as well as games, which gives me a more complete picture of what he can do – but he’s developed some very bad habits, partly because of lack of protection and partly because of the constant change in coordinators. He will never come close to developing his potential if he isn’t able to shake off those habits.

So, Martz will have a real challenge in the mini-camps this spring and training camp in the summer, deciding which quarterback will give the 49ers the best chance to win, this season and into the future. The 49ers chances this season and into the future will ride on his choice.

WHILE THE Warriors were obsessed with the return of Chris Webber, the Lakers stepped in and got the bigger prize, Pau Gasol, in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies. Gasol immediately showed why they wanted him, scoring 24 points and getting 12 rebounds in his first game in a Lakers uniform.

The Lakers gave up the disappointing Kwame Brown and No. 1 draft picks this year and in 2010. Tell me the Warriors couldn’t have made the same kind of deal with Patrick O’Bryant, who Don Nelson won’t play, anyway.

Perhaps it was a financial decision to keep from getting into the range which would force them to pay a “luxury tax”. If so, it will cost them. Webber will be of some help, but he’s 35 and quite possibly will break down before the season ends. Gasol will be an offensive force for the Lakers this season and into the future.

THE NEWS that the Mets had traded for and then signed Johan Santana to a record contract for pitchers was stilll another reminder of how the Giants have boosted salaries for all free agents because of their overspending.

Santana, of course, was negotiating off the record contract that Barry Zito signed with the Giants before last season. There is a big difference, though. Santana is a great pitcher who will probably put the Mets into the World Series. Though the Giants publicity mill portrayed Zito as the new face of the franchise, in fact, he was already in decline, and that decline accelerated last season. He’ll probably pitch better this season, but he’s still no better than No. 3 on the Giants staff behind young phenoms Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum.

And, just as a reminder, the Mets wouldn’t bid more than $75 million for five years for Zito last season. They have the money to spend, but they don’t waste it, as the Giants to.

HALL OF FAME: Logic often goes out the window with the selections to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Fred Dean’s selection last month was richly deserved.

I’ve never seen a more dynamic pass rusher than Dean, especially in the 49ers first two Super Bowl seasons, 1981 and ’84. There is no better example of how much Dean meant to the ’81 team than this sequence in the fourth quarter of the first game against the Rams:

--On third down from the San Francisco 37, Dean and Jim Stuckey combined to sack Pat Haden and force a punt.

--On third down from the San Francisco 46 on the Rams’ next possession, Dean’s pressure forced Haden to the other side, where he wwas sacked by Lawrence Pillers.

--With just under three minutes remaining, the Rams had another third down on the San Francisco 34. Deen sacked Haden, forcing another punt.

--On the Rams’ last drive, Dean sacked Haden twice. Still, Haden kept the drive going until the Rams reached third-and-ten on the San Francisco 31, with 45 seconds left. Probably fearing Dean’s pass rush, Haden called a draw – which was stopped after just four yards by Fred Dean!

Dean had great quickness and strength, though he weighed only 245 pounds. He came by his strength naturally, because he did none of the weight lifting that, even then, was common among linemen. I can never forget Dean, sitting on his stool in the locker room, puffing on a menthol cigaret and declaring, “Any time I feel like exercising, I lie down until the feeling goes away.”

The negotiations to get Dean, who was sitting at home because of a contract dispute, were complicated. Ken Flower reminds me that, at Dean’s insistence, Willie Brown become involved. At the time, Brown was an attorney in San Francisco. “Of course, Willie wanted the 49ers to get Dean, so he made sure the deal went down,” said Flower.

SUPER BOWL LEFTOVERS: The Giants’ win over the New England Patriots was probably the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.

I’m not talking about the point spread. Those are set by gamblers to encourage relatively equal betting on both sides. So, the biggest point spread was probably for the third Super Bowl, when the Baltimore Colts were 19-point favorites over the New York Jets, who won the game.

In retrospect, that was not the upset it seemed at the time. Media and fans regarded the NFL as much the stronger league. In fact, the NFL’s superiority rested in the Green Bay Packers, one of the great dynasty team in league history, and the Packers’ reign had ended with their victories over the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders in the first two Super Bowls. In the ’68 season, the Packers finished below .500, and they wouldn’t become a championship team again until the ‘90s.

Because the playing careers of football players are so short, teams can rise and fall in a relatively short time. The top teams in the AFL had been signing many of the top players when the leagues were competing for players, before a truce was reached in 1966. Two years later, the Jets were not only superior to the Colts, but the Raiders and Chiefs probably were, too. The Chiefs won the fourth Super Bowl and, after the NFL was re-figured into two conferences, the AFC won nine of the next 11.

A New York team may have the biggest Super Bowl upset, but it’s the current Giants, not the Jets of four decades ago.

GYMASTIC STARS: If you’re interested in something a little different, 600 of the nation’s top female gymnasts will compete in the Spirit of the Flame Challenge at the Santa Clara Convention Center, Feb. 29-March 2. That includes more than 100 Level 9, 10 and Elite athletes. For more information, Tickets are $5 for a single session and $30 for the entire tournament and may be purchased at the door.

TICKETS TO big college basketball matchups, including UCLA-USC on Feb. 17, Duke-North Carolina, Feb. 6 and March 8, and Michigan State at Indiana, Feb. 16, are available on TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS!. at the bottom of my Home Page. So are tickets to the Warriors and the Boston Celtics matchup with the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, Feb. 10. In the entertainment field, Hannah Montana is still the hottest attraction, and shows with Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks, Bon Jovie and Eric Clapton are also big. Just click on either the Bay Area or national link for these and other shows or sports events in which you’re interested.

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