If there are any college math students out there who double as sports fans and you're looking to do a thesis on a nice, safe sports topic where the content will keep you interested and the various regression analyses will always -- ALWAYS -- end up supporting your cause, use this as your hypothesis:
An NFL franchise must have a good quarterback to be successful.
It sounds basic, teams know it, but supporting it with actual data is simultaneously scary and eye-opening. Frankly, that tenet on quarterback play is the basis for what drives teams to underwrite borderline insane transactions, the latest slew of which over the last twelve months I've documented in this space before.
This brings us to the 2010 offseason, and to a once-proud franchise called the San Francisco 49ers. For many years back in the post AFL/NFL merger era, they were a laughing stock. It wasn't until they caught lightning in a bottle with a third-round pick out of Notre Dame named Joe Montana, paired with the architect of what became the West Coast Offense (Bill Walsh), that they went into franchise beast mode. Four Super Bowls later, Montana begat Steve Young, who would go on to tack on Super Bowl number five (both were kind enough to carry George Seifert along for the ride on a couple of those), and the San Francisco 49ers 1982-1995 were officially a dynasty.
Even throughout the late `90's into the third millennium, the Niners maintained a level of respectability with Jeff Garcia at the helm, winning the occasional division, hanging around the upper part of the league for the most part, like the steady poker player pulling the occasional pot. Once the team decided to go in a different direction at quarterback and part ways with Garcia, the occasional blip that we saw in 1999 and 2000 (when they went a combined 10-22) became an alarming trend.
Since the opening of the 2004 season, here's what the 49ers' dance card at starting quarterback has looked like (with number of starts for each player):
2004 -- Tim Rattay 9, Ken Dorsey 7
2005 -- Alex Smith 7, Rattay 4, Dorsey 3, Cody Pickett 2
2006 -- Smith 16
2007 -- Smith 7, Trent Dilfer 6, Shaun Hill 2, Chris Weinke 1
2008 -- J.T. O' Sullivan 8, Hill 8
2009 -- Alex Smith 10, Hill 6
This is what happens when you draft Jim Druckenmiller as your quarterback of the future in 1997 with the 26th overall pick. This is what happens when you make Giovanni Carmazzi (Who?....Exactly.) the second quarterback taken in 2000. This is what happens when you use the first overall pick in the draft on Utah/Urban Meyer spread product Alex Smith.
Basically, this is your QB roster....Montana, Young, Garcia.
This is your QB roster on drugs....Rattay, Dorsey, Smith, Pickett, Dilfer, Hill, Weinke, O'Sullivan.
Not surprisingly, with a talent roster like this at the quarterback position, the Niners' record over that time went like this:
To be fair, the 49ers' defense in many of these seasons was near the bottom of the league as well, but it wasn't until Mike Singletary came along in the middle of the 2008 season and started willing this team to wins that they've started to turn it around.
Hell, even former number one overall pick Alex Smith showed signs of life last season. After coming in and nearly bringing the 49ers all the way back in a second-half comeback bid right here in Houston against the Texans, Smith started the rest of the season for the Niners and completed a somewhat respectable 60 percent of his passes and threw 18 touchdowns against 12 picks.
To be clear, by any measurement, Smith's career as a body of work is still an utter failure, but for the first time since he endorsed the back of his first NFL paycheck, it appears the light at the end of the Alex Smith Career Tunnel might NOT be an oncoming train.
All of that said, it didn't stop the 49ers this past week from showing just how utterly insane NFL teams can be when it comes to attempting to reduce their margin for error at the quarterback position. It's ironic that the first mention of the Texans in this post also includes the first mention of the words "number one overall pick" because last week the 49ers decided to throw a two-year contract worth around $6 million ($8 million with incentives) at former Houston Texan flameout and (wait for it)...former number one overall pick, David Carr.
Yes, Texan fans, that agony you feel in the pit of your stomach is your knowing that you can evaluate talent at the quarterback position better than yet another NFL front office (throw San Francisco onto the pile, right on top of the Giants, the Panthers, and Charley Casserly).
Who are the winners and losers in the 49ers philanthropic $6 million donation to the David Carr's Offspring College Fund? Let's take a look....
WINNER (by first round knockout): Carr. So let me get this straight, the 49ers saw enough in Carr's four starts in Carolina (1-3 record, 3 TD, 5 INT's in 2007), and his 45 pass attempts in two seasons mopping up after Eli Manning to throw a seven-figure-per-year deal at him? I'm convinced that after the pounding he took behind the Texans' offensive line in his five years here (much of which was self-inflicted by his holding onto the ball too long and taking sacks), Carr went out and got a really good personal injury lawyer, and these gigs he's getting around the league are part of an elaborate injury settlement. The 49ers obviously drew the next short straw and will pay the next $6 million.
Seriously, I don't get what NFL general managers see in Carr. Eight seasons, 23-56 career record as a starter, 65 TDs, 70 INTs, sacked roughly 20,000 times. Really? It's like in The Karate Kid where Daniel Larusso is a skinny kid from New Jersey with feathered hair, a voice like an eight-year-old, and he routinely gets his ass kicked every day by bullies at school. And yet he pulls Elisabeth Shue?!?
So yeah, basically, David Carr is Ralph Macchio and NFL general managers are Elisabeth Shue. Finally, somebody said it.
LOSER: Shaun Hill. He was the starter going into last season for the Niners until Alex Smith came into the Texans game and nearly brought them back from three touchdowns down. Now with Smith as the starter (tentatively), Carr locked in for two years, and Nate Davis still a prospect (only 25 years old; Hill is 30), Hill would appear to be the odd man out.
LOSER: 49er fans. They've watched their team bungle the quarterback position so badly the last decade or so, it's almost like this signing is a reminder of their ineptitude as opposed to an antidote for it. And yet.....
WINNER: 49er fans. Not so much with the Carr signing (okay, not at all with the Carr signing), but with respect to the free agency signing period thus far, the scary thing is the Niners are now the favorites in the NFC West. With the mass exodus of talent in Arizona (Warner, Rolle, Dansby, Boldin), with Seattle rebuilding under Pete Carroll, and the Rams likely rebuilding for at least another couple years (around Sam Bradford, it would appear), the Niners SHOULD win the NFC West next season on defense and running game alone....if their quarterbacks don't screw it up.
Which raises the question -- the 49ers have two picks in the first round of the draft (13 and 17). If you're the 49ers, you already have the fourth-rated defense in the league. You've had total upheaval at the quarterback position for years now, with eight non-descript losers starting games for you over the last six seasons. Hell, you feel like you just UPGRADED the position by signing David F-ing Carr. If Bradford is going to be off the board as the number one overall pick to the Rams (which is the buzz right now), why not use one of your two first-round picks (or if necessary, package them) and move up and go get Jimmy Clausen from Notre Dame?
Clausen is a guy who has not yet thrown for NFL scouts this off-season because he's coming off toe surgery, but he was ultra-productive this past season (both throughout games and late in close games) behind a mediocre offensive line, he's had to fight through adversity during his career at Notre Dame (taking a pounding as a freshman on a 3-9 team), he's tough (played almost the whole season with the busted toe), he's been under the microscope since his junior year in high school, and most importantly for an NFL team whose last high QB draft prospect came out of a gimmicky college offense, Clausen is easily the most pro-ready in terms of reading defenses and taking snaps under center of all the quarterback prospects in this year's draft. (For some great detailed analysis on Clausen versus historical prospects, check out this piece. It's the quintessential "wow, I didn't realize..." overview on a prospect.)
Above all else, Clausen is flat-out better than anything you have at quarterback already, Niner Fan. On top of that, in a mediocre NFC West, you can still win the division while starting and grooming him with live bullets flying. Hell, in the last two years, rookie quarterbacks have started and led the Falcons, Ravens, and Jets into the playoffs. Sure, the Niners have multiple needs, every 8-8 team does, but you've got the draft firepower (multiple first-round picks) to finally put an end to the "carousel of suck" that your quarterback position has become.
Looking at the NFL draft over the last decade, teams have used the number one overall pick on a quarterback seven times. It's still too early to tell on Matthew Stafford (2009, Lions), but he appears to be trending towards "legit NFL quarterback." Eli Manning (2004) won a Super Bowl. Carson Palmer (2003) has the Bengals relevant again, and when healthy he has been really good. Mike Vick (2001) was on his way to superstardom when he decided to branch out into dogfighting, so you almost have to assess him separately.
This leaves David Carr (2002), Alex Smith (2005), and JaMarcus Russell (2007). Two are now in San Francisco, one is in Oakland. It's official -- the Bay Area is now, for all intents and purposes, a leper colony for failed quarterbacks selected first overall in the NFL Draft.
Can someone get Tim Couch's people on line one? Al Davis would like to talk to them about a backup quarterback job.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the Sean & John Show, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.