Shaun Hill/Nate Davis; Brad Penny, Jason Giambi, Matt Holliday; Tim Tebow vs. John Elway
by Glenn Dickey
Sep 02, 2009

THE 49ERS don’t have a quarterback who can lead them to the playoffs this year, but there is hope for next year and beyond.

The designation of Nate Davis as the No. 3 quarterback yesterday, concurrent with the release of Brock Huard, was very good news. That will give Davis a chance to learn the pro game this season and get enough reps in practice to refine his game.

Davis has been the one lone bright spot among 49er quarterbacks during the exhibition season. It’s easy to get too excited about young quarterbacks in these games because they’re playing against defensive players who may not even be on the roster for the regular season – remember Cody Pickett? - but Davis has shown remarkable poise, a very strong arm and good football instincts.

The play that really did it for me came in the Dallas game when the Cowboys blitzed and, instead of panicking and throwing up a hurried pass, he stepped to the side to find an open passing lane and fired a bullet to Joe Jon Finley at the 1 to set up a touchdown.

That’s the kind of instinct that none of the 49ers other quarterbacks have shown. Davis isn’t ready to be a starter now. He has a learning disability that has forced 49er coaches to cut back on some of the playbook for him and he didn’t play in a top level collegiate conference. But by watching and practicing for the rest of the year, he should be ready to compete for the starting job – and, hopefully, win it – by next spring.

Huard had been signed to provide veteran protection if both Shaun Hill and Alex Smith were injured, but if that happens, Huard couldn’t save them.

In some ways, Huard and Hill are the same quarterback, though their career paths have been very different.

Because he played for Washington (and his older brother, Damon, was already an NFL quarterback), Huard was drafted in the third round by Seattle in 1999. He’s played since then in the NFL, which has only given other teams a chance to see what he can and, more importantly, what he can’t do. He defines the term “journeyman quarterback”.

By contrast, Hill was an undrafted free agent and had bounced around the NFL as a quarterback who never played until both Smith and backup Trent Dilfer were sidelined by injuries in 2007. He’s been mostly under the radar in his 10 regular season starts since, and teams haven’t known how to best defend against him.

That’s already changing. The Cowboys have played the Niners twice with Hill at quarterback, in the regular season last year and the exhibition season last Saturday, and they’ve completely disrupted him both times with their blitzing defense. That’s the kind of defense Hill will face often this year. Those fans and writers who have pushed for Hill to be the starting quarterback may soon learn the truth of the old saying “Be careful what you wish for.”

But, it’s all on Hill’s shoulders now. Mike Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye gave Smith every chance to step up and take the starting job, but he couldn’t do it. Now, his only chance would be if Hill got hurt and he stepped in and played well, but given his history, that’s really a long shot. It’s much more likely that he’ll just be released after the season is over.

So, right now, 49er fans have to hang on for another year – I know, that’s been the refrain for far too many years already – and hope that Davis can step up and take the reins next year. I have a hunch that, when he does, he’ll have a long, successful career in San Francisco.

LAST CHANCE: Brad Penny said he wanted to return to the National League so he could lower his ERA, in preparation for entering the free agent market after this season. Then, his first start with the Giants is tonight against the Phillies in their bandbox park. Uh, on the other hand….

Seriously, though, this is a no-risk move by the Giants because Penny will be taking the place of the Mystery Guest who has been the Giants fifth starter. He can’t be any worse and, if he can get back any of his former self, he could be a real boost. The Giants don’t want to bring up hot prospect Madison Bumgarner, and they shouldn’t. When Randy Johnson was put on the DL, I thought there was no chance he could be a factor as a starter again this season, and Johnson confirmed that last week. He may come back as a reliever, but now that he has passed 300 wins, I expect him to retire after the season.

The Rockies also made an interesting move, signing Jason Giambi. That seemed strange because it was clearly obvious when he was with the A’s that Giambi shouldn’t play in the field, but the Rockies only added him when the rosters were expanded after Sept. 1, so they can afford to use him as an occasional pinch-hitter, while the A’s pay most of his salary. I think Giambi can still hit for power, though not average, and he probably would have been fine with the A’s if they had just used him as a DH. But the A’s already had Jack Cust, who should NEVER be allowed to play the outfield.

MATT HOLLIDAY: There are some hitters who are just so good that they’ll hit in any situation, no matter what the park is like or how strong the hitters around them are. Barry Bonds was like that, setting home run records in a park that is often death for lefthanded power hitters. Albert Pujols is definitely like that now, just a great hitter for power and average. Pablo Sandoval appears to be that type of hitter, too, especially with his ability to hit balls which are well out of the strike zone into the seats.

Then, there are hitters who hit well only in favorable circumstances. Check Aaron Rowand’s batting stats with the Giants and what he did with the Phillies in the middle of a strong lineup and playing home games in perhaps the best hitter’s park in the league.

Matt Holliday, though, is probably the extreme example. Playing in Colorado, in the middle of a strong lineup and in a hitter-friendly environment, he looked like a great hitter. Playing in Oakland, where he was expected to be the leader, he flopped, big-time. I wasn’t there for the A’s home opener, but those who were say that Holliday’s body language spoke volumes when he hit a ball right on the nose, only to have it hit the wind that used to dismay Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco and die in an outfielder’s glove.

Now, Holliday is in St. Louis, playing in a lineup with Pujols and in a park which doesn’t penalize hitters – and he was hitting .375 after last night’s game.

He’ll be on the free market after this season, but it should definitely be a case of Buyer Beware. If a team going after him already has a strong lineup, fine. But, if you’re expecting him to be the savior, forget it.

TED KENNEDY: Kennedy’s death reminded me of the time my wife and I met him at the De Gaulle airport in Paris. It was in the mid-80s and we were waiting in a lounge to change planes when Nancy nudged me and said, “Isn’t that Ted Kennedy over there?”

It was indeed. We later learned that he was in Paris for an international conference.

So, I went over and introduced myself to Kennedy and told him how much I admired his work. He nodded perfunctorily. Then, I introduced him to Nancy, who has always been a strikingly beautiful woman. At that moment, I ceased to exist. Kennedy turned on the charm as he spoke to Nancy for several minutes, until his plane was called.

And I realized that his love for the ladies was not exaggerated.

FANTASY FOOTBALL: In the ‘60s, Andy Mousalimas, then owner of the Kings X sports bar in Oakland, Tribune sports editor George Ross and Scotty Stirling, then general manager of the Raiders, formed the first Fantasy Football league (though they didn’t call it that), complete with “drafts” for the participants.

That whole craze has escalated enormously – I’ve told Andy I’ll never forgive him for this! – so he and Stirling will be interviewed by ESPN tomorrow for a show they’re doing on Fantasy Football. I don’t have an air time but if you’re interested, you should check the listings in the next month.

The only regret Mousalamis and friends have is that they never copyrighted it. Imagine the royalties they could have earned.

GREATEST QUARTERBACK? College football writers have been calling Tim Tebow the greatest college quarterback ever; some even call him the greatest colllege player, regardless of position.

Well, maybe he is…and maybe he isn’t even the best college quarterback now. Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy are both returning, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see one of them win the Heisman Trophy this year.

Just as with the pro game, I think it makes more sense to judge quarterbacks within an era, because the game has changed so much. In the years after World War II, players had to play both ways. Johnny Lujack was not only a great passing quarterback for Notre Dame but made a toucchdown-saving tackle of Doc Blanchard to preserve the scoreless tie in the 1946 Army-Notre Dame clash.

Since then, in the two-platoon era, college football has gone through a run-dominated era, including the Wishbone and the Split-T, and now is in an era where teams are running spread formations in which the quarterback can either run or throw, like the old single wing tailback.

There’s no way you can compare quarterbacks in such widely differing eras.

A reader, Nick Duka, suggests another possibility: John Elway.

I still remember the first time Elway threw in practice. I thought he was the most physically gifted quarterback I’d ever seen. Two sophomore quarterbacks, one of them Babe Lauthenberg, went directly to the admissions office and transferred, because they knew they’d never play with Elway there. I wrote that Elway should be the starter as a freshman. Coach Rod Dowhower went with senior Turk Schonert, who was the NCAA passing champion that year, but I don’t think I was wrong.

Elway was recruited by Bill Walsh, who took the 49ers job before being able to coach him. Elway’s last three years were under Paul Wiggin, a great guy but not much of a coach, and his overall college career ended in disappointment when Cal won the Big Game on the improbable kickoff return.

He still impressed the pros, and he was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. But if he’d played his whole career under Walsh….even contemporary writers wouldn’t be talking about Tim Tebow.

ANGRY READER: I posted the first e-mail in “Letters” for your amusement. It’s not the first time my comments have reduced an inarticulate reader to profane-laden comments.

When I first started writing a column for The Chronicle, I realized that sports fans ranged from the very intelligent to what I called the “numb nuts”, a category into which the writer of that e-mail certainly belongs.

I knew I couldn’t appeal to everybody, so I decided to aim my column toward the more intelligent readers because I knew they would not read columns geared to a lower level, whereas those of lower intelligence would read anything written about their teams.

Now, the lower end of the intelligence scale only reads my Examiner columns. They don’t come to my website. So, if you’re reading this, congratulate yourselves for passing an IQ test!


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