Imagine that. A slice of perfection Sunday in a very imperfect 49ers season, thanks to No. 3 quarterback turned backup turned starter Shaun Hill.
In the first half of the 49ers’ 35-16 win over the Rams at Candlestick Park, Hill posted a perfect passer rating of 158.3. He became the first quarterback in 49ers history to accomplish that feat in the first half.
Hill completed 12 of 14 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He also ran for a touchdown, diving into the end zone from a yard out.
Not that long ago, Hill resided in the equivalent of Siberia for quarterbacks. He was sent to that deep freeze by offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who made the same mistake that so many other coaches have made. He underestimated Hill.
And after watching Hill slice and dice the Rams’ defense Sunday, it makes you wonder what might have been for the 49ers this season if he had been the starter from Day 1 instead of J.T. O’Sullivan.
Hill was 2-0 as an emergency starter last season and parlayed that strong play into a new multi-million dollar contract. He entered training camp in what appeared to be a tight, head-to-head battle with Alex Smith for the starting job.
But Martz wasn’t with the 49ers last year when Hill led the team to two of its five wins. He didn’t watch first-hand the way Hill skillfully read defenses, found open receivers and hit them in the hands. He didn’t see first-hand how cool, calm and surprisingly elusive in the pocket Hill was under the incredible pressure of a real NFL game.
Training camp had barely begun when Martz eliminated Hill from the quarterbacks competition and elevated O’Sullivan to the position of Smith’s chief competitor. Before long, it was clear that O’Sullivan was Martz’s choice to start.
I can understand Martz’s thinking. O’Sullivan played for Martz with the Detroit Lions as a backup. He knew his system. He had a quick release and a fearless approach to throwing the deep timing routes that are staples in Martz’s offense.
And Hill? Well, the company line was that he just didn’t pick up Martz’s offense quickly enough to compete for the job. I think I’m going to have to call bull you-know-what on that one.
Sure, Martz’s system is complex. But it’ not brain surgery. It’s football. And Hill isn’t some football dimwit. He’s in his seventh NFL season. He came off the bench last year and ran the 49ers offense better than it had been run all season. He had a passer rating of 101.3. He threw five touchdown passes with just one interception.
My theory is that Martz took one look in practice at Hill – OK, maybe a handful of looks – and decided he didn’t pass the eyeball test. Hill doesn’t have a cannon for an arm. He won’t win many foot races. Hill’s first thought is to take the safe throw rather than the swashbuckling deep shot.
Hill is a beige presence in practice. He rarely stands out. But put Hill in a game that counts, when defensive linemen are creating chaos and he has to make quick, sound decisions, and Hill shines.
It’s not a coincidence that it was interim coach Mike Singletary and not Martz who benched O’Sullivan and gave the starting job to Hill. Singletary saw Hill play last season.
After the victory, Singletary was asked if he knew in training camp that Hill could do what he did Sunday against the Rams.
“I knew that last year, way before training camp,” Singletary said. “Last year when I saw him play, I really thought he did a good job. He managed the game, he made some throws. Guys were excited. In training camp I just thought it was a matter of learning the offense and having some confidence going forward.
“Weeks 1, 2, 3, 5, I think he would tell you, ‘You know what? I’m trying to learn the offense. If I go in there, I can run three plays, and that won’t last very long.’ I just think it’s a process. Everything’s a process. I think he’s continuing to gain more confidence, and the offense is continuing to gain more confidence in him, not that they didn’t have it to begin with, but even more so. And I think they appreciate his leadership.”
Hill could only run three plays when the season started? I’m surprised Singletary was able say that and keep a straight face. Hill said that he has “a much better grasp of the offense now” than he did at the start of camp after having watched O’Sullivan start the first eight games. But when asked if he knew the offense well enough to start in Week 1, Hill certainly didn’t shoot down the idea.
“Ah, I don’t know,” Hill said. Yeah, I think he does.
I think Hill – especially if he had been given the starter’s reps during training camp and exhibition games – could have stepped in from Day 1 and played well. He could have managed the game, protected the football, made smart decisions and even made some tough, accurate throws on time, as he did Sunday.
In the first half, Hill fired a strike to wide receiver Bryant Johnson on a quick slant, hitting him in stride. He turned that short pass into a 42-yard gain, setting up the 49ers’ second touchdown. Later in the half, Hill rolled to his right, sidestepped defensive end Leonard Little and lofted a 31-yard pass deep down the middle to running back DeShaun Foster, who had a step on a Rams defender. That pass set up another touchdown.
Those lasers were part of Hill’s perfect first-half passer rating.
“I didn’t realize that I had a perfect passer rating in the first half,” Hill said. “The funny thing about that rating is it might say that somebody is perfect, but I promise you there were some mistakes in there.”
Maybe so. But there were many more good decisions and accurate passes and, yes, even some deep passes. Hill did more than just manage the game. He made some big plays.
“I think as we go forward Mike Martz is learning some things that Shaun can do,” Singletary said. “The more he sees, the better it gets. So what I would say is, yes, Shaun Hill can mange the game, but he’s also a good quarterback that can make some throws. I’m excited about seeing that.”
Better late than never.
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