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Alex Smith vs. Shaun Hill: Steel Cage Death Match 2009

Unfortunately I'm rather busy during the day this week so I didn't get a chance to weigh in on the Alex Smith contract re-structuring. We had a lively discussion yesterday (thanks 49ersfan29405 for getting the FanPost up), which is obviously not too surprising. And I think I'll stay out of the Alex Smith is dreamy, no Kyle Boller is dreamier debate. I certainly won't judge folks. The combination of that and the Dominique Zeigler fro picture made for an entertaining diversion.

I certainly don't think we need to rehash everything from yesterday, but I did want to frame the debate a little bit more around the upcoming competition. This post is sort of our reassessment of the QB depth chart (like we did with wide receivers last week). One thing to get out of the way now is that I don't anticipate much discussion of Damon Huard. After Huard was signed, some folks suggested Alex Smith be the #3 QB all year and just regroup. I don't see that happening. Damon Huard may make it onto the regular season roster, but it will be as no more than the #3 QB (barring injury).

I think the most applicable title of an article regarding the new QB competition was "Friendly competition, fresh start for 49ers' Smith," by Mike Sando. I hadn't realized this, but Shaun Hill was one of Smith's groomsman at his wedding in late February. Also, when I went to the crab cracking thing (working on getting those pictures up), one of the 49ers people there said the offensive linemen had all been at the wedding. So, fortunately there does not appear to be ill will among the various parties.

Last season we had this same situation developing. Shaun Hill had closed out 2007 in relatively solid fashion and the bandwagon was gearing up for him to start in 2008. Of course everything went to hell pretty quickly. Whether you believe it or not, J.T. O'Mulligan seemed to have the built-in advantage early in training camp and road it to the starting job. Smith, the QB of the future, went on IR and Hill languished in the background. So much for that competition.

Now, we find ourselves back at where the QB competition should have been. Smith vs. Hill, with no real third party expected to get in the way, at least in 2009. The team could certainly draft a QB (more on one option for the position later today), but I'd imagine they've learned their lesson and would let any rookie sit the entire 2009 season.

So now we may have a legitimate QB competition. Obviously plenty of folks think any QB competition involving Alex Smith and/or Shaun Hill is a joke. You're more than welcome to weigh in on that aspect of it, but for the purposes of this post I'm just going to assume they're both good enough QBs!

Hill is in an even better position heading into this competition than he was last year. Last year he had played a few good games, but it was a very small sample size against questionable competition. 2008 saw Hill play in three times as many games, put up very quality numbers and against legitimate competition no less, in several of the games.

Alex Smith is basically the riding the potential that was starting to develop in 2006 and has been stunted ever since. I'd imagine he's ecstatic about the demise and departure of Mike Nolan. In his conference call after the deal was announced (transcript after the jump), he was asked if this felt like a fresh start, particularly given the new coach and yet another new coordinator:

“It does. It does feel different. There’s definitely a different feeling around the facility with Coach Singletary here, with some of the new people he’s brought in. It’s kind of a fresh attitude. With the new contract and coming in and kind of a fresh start to compete, it is kind of refreshing in a sense. I feel like I get a chance to kind of start fresh, start over, and start again to try to become the player I know I can be.”

As we move towards this re-started QB campaign, it's a legitimately tough call as to who will win out. Even if you don't like either guy, if you accept that these two are the guys competing for the job, both bringing different things to the table. Shaun Hill has produced in games when it matters. He may be crap in practice, but when he needs to make plays, he makes plays.

Alex Smith has always been able to look good in practice, but there remains a question of what he can do on the field. Is he the QB that was a beast at Utah and has legitimate excuses for his struggles the last two years, or is he merely hiding behind those excuses? If you think about it, he's playing for yet another offensive coordinator, so what's going to make this year different than any other if he wins the starting job? Maybe the ball control Raye-Singletary offense makes things easier, but who really knows.

Last year, when Mike Nolan announced JTO as the starting QB, I ran a poll asking if he made the right decision. Most said yes, but a solid 26% said they didn't care who was starting, as long as the team won. I really don't know who will win the starting QB competition, but am just concerned about the proverbial "best man for the job." Hill is the type of blue-collar lunch pail guy that Singletary would seem to like. However, Singletary seems to be drawn to something about Smith and I don't know what it is. Any thoughts?

I could go on all day bouncing back and forth between the two. So, we've got the poll up, but also, how do you think the season plays out at QB? Does Smith win the job, but lose it to Hill strictly because of performance? Injuries are a possibility, but so unpredictable that it's not something worth analyzing in this case. So injuries aside, how might this steel cage battle to the death play out at the QB position?

RE: Why was it important for you to come back to the 49ers?
"It was definitely important to me. I really felt like I had unfinished business here. I felt like this was the team that brought me out and gave me my first chance and I really felt like I have a lot to prove here to myself, to the organization, to my teammates, to the fans, and to really become the player I set out to become when I first came out of college. I'm grateful that they gave me the opportunity to stay here and to be a part of this."

RE: I apologize for not congratulating you on the contract and also the marriage.
"Thank you very much. I appreciate it."

RE: What have the 49ers told you about the situation going into this first mini-camp as far as who's number one at quarterback, who's number two? Have they said anything, and what's your understanding of that?
"I don't know the specifics about how this first mini-camp will work out as far as who's taking snaps with who. I'm just excited they're going to give me a chance to compete for the starting job and that's it. I guess I'm not totally sure on the specifics. I'm sure they'll work themselves out as we move along, but [I'm] just excited that I'll get a chance to compete."

RE: How is your shoulder?
"It's doing well. My shoulder feels great. I don't want to put any percentages on it or anything like that, like a number, but definitely better than I felt at any time last year. I've been here working since the season ended and I feel really, really good with it. I'm excited about finally getting back to being healthy and getting out on the field and competing and not have to worry about it."

RE: How extensively did you look at your other options and what was out there?
"It was a weird situation, after the season not necessarily knowing what was going to happen with me and not really being a free agent, so a lot of it was just hearsay. Here and there, you hear different things until I really found out that the feeling was mutual that I wanted to stay here in San Francisco and that they wanted me back. A lot of it's even just kind of rumor and you hear different things so it's hard to even comment on it, but I'm thankful that I didn't have to go down that road and that the 49ers want me back and that this all worked itself out."

RE: Does this feel like a fresh start to you, particularly in light of having a different coach and, unfortunately or fortunately, a different coordinator again?
"It does. It does feel different. There's definitely a different feeling around the facility with Coach Singletary here, with some of the new people he's brought in. It's kind of a fresh attitude. With the new contract and coming in and kind of a fresh start to compete, it is kind of refreshing in a sense. I feel like I get a chance to kind of start fresh, start over, and start again to try to become the player I know I can be."

RE: What have you learned from your past experiences? We probably don't have enough time to go through it all but what themes can you touch on that maybe are lessons you've learned?
"The football side out of it, I think I'm just much more mature mentally. Not to say that I was immature, I think I've just grown up a lot as far as this business, as far as really being focused. I think I really was focused when I first came out, but I think I just have a better outlook on it mentally, a better strength about it - about what I really need to worry about and what I don't need to worry about, the things I need to focus on and what are the right things to focus on so to speak. And that's just...I really feel like I'm in a better place. My life outside of football is in a much better place. When you first come out of college and you're a student athlete, and all of a sudden you do get some money and you're a homeowner and different things and you're in a new area, a lot of the things can be distractions and I feel like I'm in a better place in that sense to just really focus on my career and set some goals for myself and really try to achieve them."

RE: Back to your shoulder, will you be able to take part in the full mini-camp and do everything asked of you? Or, will you have to do a limited role?
"I certainly hope so. I haven't really sat down with the trainers and the coaches to go over all those details. I expect to from my standpoint, but I haven't really talked to them about what's going to be best and what we're going to do. I definitely feel capable enough to go out there and make the passes I'm expected to make. We'll see, though. I guess I don't want to say anything for sure but I definitely feel good enough to go out there and do it."

RE: You've also had a chance, reportedly, to look at at least the framework of the playbook. What did you see from there and how does it compare to what you've seen in the past?
"Yeah. The coaches have kind of been on the ball here, it seems like, and gotten the playbook together in a timely manner and gotten it out to us. So, definitely some similarities obviously to the systems we've had in the past, especially with the terminology at this point going over a lot of that - the language we're going to be using for motions and formations, and the organization of the offense, so a lot of that is very similar to some of the things we've done in the past. There's obviously differences here and there but the overall sense of it is very similar to what we've done in the last couple of years."

RE: The last couple or was it the system?
"Yeah, I guess I would say more similar to the things we did with Norv [Turner], especially as far as language is concerned. But there are some similarities to things that was taken from other systems besides that but I guess I would say that that's the most similar."

RE: Have you spent any time, or much time, talking with Jimmy Raye?
"Yeah, a little bit. I've been around here. I've visited with him a little bit. Nothing major, just getting geared up for when we're going to start up here next Monday. Other than that, nothing major, but obviously I've gotten a chance to get acquainted with him a little bit and get a chance to introduce myself."

RE: Shaun Hill stepped in the last two years and played pretty darn well. Do you think that you really should be given a chance to compete for the starting job or do you think he's done enough to earn it?
"I guess I don't really know on either of those. All I do know is I am going to get a chance to compete and I'm excited about that. Shaun has played well. We're really good friends, and I think he's done a great job since he's stepped in. And I think that is obvious. The other part of that question - does he deserve to start, do I deserve a chance - I guess I don't really know. I do know that they are giving me the chance and I'm excited about that. So I'm glad it's against Shaun. He's a great guy. I can't think of a better guy to compete against so I'm excited about that. I'm excited that it's going to be...with me and him, it'll all be on the table. We won't have to worry about anything behind closed doors because we are so close. So I'm excited to compete against him."

RE: Last December when we talked to you, you talked about the fact that if you did stay with the 49ers it was going to be a bigger challenge. That it was probably harder to get a fresh start. You were going to bring some baggage into the competition. How do you feel about that now? Do you stay with trepidation or are you excited about it?
"I guess that's one of the things I referred to earlier when I said I feel like I'm in a better place. I have a better focus on things. I definitely understand that obviously. This is my fifth season, this is going to be my fifth season, which is hard to believe, but I came in here with a lot of expectations and when you're the number one pick that's kind of part of the territory so I guess I have a better focus that I'm not really going to worry about that. That's going to come and I'll handle it when it comes but until then I'm just going to work hard and work my tail off to get to where I need to be and competing. I'm not going to worry about the fans right now and what they're thinking. I'm hoping I get the chance to re-prove myself to them so I'm worrying about that right now."

RE: You think that you are in a better place. What makes you think the 49ers are in a better place than they've been in the past couple of years?
"I think it's pretty easy to see when you're around here, especially when I think back to my first couple of years and what was going on here and then the changes that have been made. From top to bottom, this organization is headed in the right direction. I definitely get that sense. I get that feeling around here, especially with Coach Singletary and some of the new things he's added, some of the new people he's brought in. I really feel like we're close, and when you look at last season and you look at what happened with Arizona, I think it's just a great example of the NFL and what can happen and the parity within this league. I think that's exciting. I really do feel like this is the best team that I've been a part of since I've been here."

RE: Can you take into account any risk on your part of signing before the draft because, who knows, they could take a quarterback tenth and suddenly it looks different. So where did that factor into your decision?
"I guess it didn't really factor in for me. Like I said, they told me I would get a chance to compete for the starting job and that's all I really wanted, all I really asked. Because I did want that chance because I knew if I could get healthy and get back out onto the field, I just wanted the chance to re-prove myself and not going to really worry about who else is out there, who they might draft. So it wasn't really a consideration of mine."

RE: A lot of athletes in your position when they're asked to restructure their contract downward, they rack out of ego and pride and maybe refuse to do it. And you, by all accounts, have done it willingly. There's no ego involved in this for you in taking a lesser contract?
"Absolutely not. Absolutely not. No, I guess I don't measure myself by my contract or what I'm making. I'm out there to play some football and having gone through what I've gone through the last couple of years and being on the sidelines, I guess I've had a chance to have a different perspective on this game and I just feel fortunate to get another chance to get back on the field. I'm tired of watching. I'm tired of being in that training room. I'm ready to get back out there. I'm thankful I've got the chance. So, no, when it came time to restructure the contract it wasn't anything that had to do with ego or how much money I was going to be making. I just wanted the chance to compete."

RE: What have you been doing throwing-wise in recent weeks, as far as just the types of throws, the lengths of throws, those sorts of things?
"I've been working with trainers since the season ended. [I've] been here rehabbing and obviously implementing into a throwing program. At first, it obviously starts with just playing catch and then you start backing up and you increase length and velocity to the point now where I try to set those guys up out there so I simulate some routes and spot-throwing, so to speak. So I try to get as much as I can done out there with them. I feel pretty good. I feel like I am where I need to be at this point. I feel like I can make quite a few of the passes that I'm asked to make. It being March now, there's no real point to stress it to the point where something could go wrong, not that that could happen, but staying within my limits. I guess I feel good. I'm out there throwing quite a few passes. I probably throw anywhere between 50 to 80 routes, depending on the day I throw, and I end up usually throwing a few days a week."

RE: Is it your understanding that this competition between you and Shaun begins in a couple of weeks with this mini-camp?
"I'm sure. I don't think there's any reason to delay it. I think it'll start from day one and obviously I think it will continue to heat up as we move towards the season. But yeah, I expect it to start right away."

RE: You talked about the fresh start. Is it safe to say that if there had not been a coaching change that you would not be back with the 49ers?
"I don't know. I've never thought about that. The coaching change happened so luckily I didn't have to go down that road. But right now, with Coach Singletary here, the decision was easy. I wanted to stay. I wanted to be a part of this. And luckily they wanted me back."