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What if: Jim Druckenmiller vs. Jake Plummer

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The 49ers could have had their post-Steve Young answer.

Jim Druckenmiller

On Monday, we posted a “what if” considering what might have happened if the relationship between Jim Harbaugh, Trent Baalke, and Jed York had not deteriorated. I was only planning on doing that one hypothetical, but I thought we’d turn this into a week-long look at notable hypotheticals in San Francisco 49ers history.

The quarterback position has been a question mark for much of the past two decades. Jeff Garcia succeeded Steve Young as the team’s starting quarterback, but after a pair of playoff appearances, things went south in a hurry. Alex Smith was given the keys to the car, but was eventually replaced by Colin Kaepernick. Now, we wait and see what Jimmy Garoppolo can do.

But let’s take a trip in the way-back-machine to 1997. That April, the 49ers had the 26th pick in the first round of the NFL Draft. They selected Virginia Tech quarterback Jim Druckenmiller, with the hope that he would be the guy to eventually replace the already aging Steve Young.

Instead, Druckenmiller made one start for the team, and appeared in five other games. He went down as one of the biggest busts in 49ers draft history. And yet, it did not necessarily have to be that way.

One common refrain has been that Bill Walsh preferred Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer in the 1997 NFL Draft. Walsh was serving as a general assistant to the offense, eventually taking on the GM role in 1999. But in 1997, he did not have the proverbial trigger. In fact, Carmen Policy was team president, Dwight Clark was the team’s director of football operations, and Vinny Cerrato was director of player personnel.

The Arizona Cardinals ended up selecting Plummer 16 picks after Druckenmiller. Druckenmiller made one start and appeared in four games as a rookie, while Plummer made nine starts and appeared in ten games as a rookie. While Druckenmiller was a complete bust, Plummer was a little all over the place. He completed only 53 percent of his passes as a rookie, throwing for 2,203 yards, with 15 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He took a step forward his second season. He started all 16 games, completing 59.2 percent of his passes for 3,7,37 yards, 17 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. More importantly, the Cardinals jumped from 4-12 to 9-7, and earned a playoff berth.

Jake The Snake had his moments in Arizona, but his best years came after he signed with the Denver Broncos. The Broncos earned three straight playoff berths, and in 2004, Plummer had a career high 4,089 yards, with 27 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. He walked away from the NFL following the 2006 season, finishing his career with 29,253 yards, 161 touchdowns, and 161 interceptions.

The what-ifs surrounding Jake Plummer and the 49ers are fascinating, and I actually think considerably under-discussed. Steve Young was coming off his third straight season leading the NFL in completion percentage, and in 1997, he would lead it for a fourth straight year, while also leading the league in yards per attempt and adjusted yards gained per attempt. Suffice to say, he was still at the top of his game.

Young left the league after one last concussion in 1999, but that would have meant two full seasons of Plummer sitting behind and learning from Young. The 49ers were 2-1 when Young got hurt in 1999, and finished the season 4-12. We’ll never know for certain how Plummer would have compared to Garcia, but with two years learning from Young, I don’t think it’s out of line to think the team would have done better with Plummer in place over Garcia.

If Plummer had worked out, maybe the 49ers have a smoother transition away from Young. Steve Mariucci ended up leaving due to various disagreements with the York family. I don’t know how that would have played out, but at the very least, maybe we don’t see a team, coached by Dennis Erickson. And, of course, that knocks over a host of dominos from Mike Nolan through today.

But just imagine Jake Plummer with Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and J.J. Stokes in 1999? By comparison, his receivers in Arizona that year were Frank Sanders, David Boston, and Rob Moore. Adrian Murrell was his leading running back (553 yards that season), while in San Francisco he would have had Charlie Garner (1,229 yards that season).

It’s all hypotheticals, and we don’t know what kind of butterfly effect this has on everything else. And yet, it remains one of my favorite what-ifs. Plummer had the ideal combination of arm and mobility the 49ers could have used to replace Young. Who knows how it actually would have played out, but it’s not hard to be optimistic about what might have been.