From Joe to Jimmy, Part 3: The Curious Case of Alex Smith and the 49ers Quarterback Room
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A study of the 49ers backup quarterback position
The 1980s and the 1990s saw a bevy of backup quarterbacks go through the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback room and go on to have successful and semi-successful careers playing elsewhere or even coaching their own offenses and teams. The foresight of Bill Walsh and his front office to continue to look for good quarterbacks, even when hall of famers were atop the depth chart, did not continue into the 2000’s.
A lack of finding a true successor for Jeff Garcia (or even letting him leave for the Browns in the first place) or placing way too much confidence in Tim Rattay left the team with the number one draft pick in 2005. Everyone knew they were taking a quarterback, just not which one. Alex Smith, or Aaron Rodgers? Mike Nolan would make a choice that would affect the direction of the franchise for the next decade.
One of the smartest and most personable quarterbacks to play in the NFL, Alex Smith was made the number one draft pick in 2005 out of Utah. Stories say that Nolan believed that Smith, not Rodgers, would mix with his strong personality better. After drafting him first overall, Nolan pulled Smith in and out of the lineup, giving Smith seven starts over nine appearances. Smith won just two of those seven starts while throwing one touchdown pass against eleven interceptions. At the end of the season, offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy left the 49ers for the Green Bay Packers head coach position and to unite with Aaron Rodgers.
Year two saw Smith play under a new offensive coordinator, something he did every single season he was a 49ers quarterback. This time with Norv Turner’s offense, Smith took hold of the starting quarterback position and became the first quarterback in 49ers history to take every single snap in a season. The team improved to 7-9, but Smith still threw for only 2,890 yards with 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His play improved, but the 49ers also added Vernon Davis in the draft and placed Frank Gore next to him in the backfield. The highlight of the season was a win against the Seattle Seahawks, in Seattle, on Thursday Night Football. Trailing 7-3, Smith led the team on three fourth-quarter scoring drives, beating the Seahawks at their home. Two weeks later, Smith led the team in a fourth-quarter comeback win against the Denver Broncos, knocking them out of the playoff race.
The following offseason, Turner left the team to become the head coach of the San Diego Chargers. Alex Smith led the 49ers to a final two-minute come-from-behind victory against the Arizona Cardinals in the season opener. Smith suffered a separated shoulder later in the season and ended up needing surgery, limiting him to only seven games, of which the team won only two. It was seen as a huge regression for Smith, and the team wasn’t sure if they had their quarterback of the future anymore.
Smith went on to miss the next season due to a broken bone in his shoulder, after losing the starting position to J.T. O’Sullivan. Even though Nolan had decided to move on from Smith, his career wasn’t over in San Francisco. The front office decided to let Nolan go and was able to retain Smith in the offseason on a renegotiated contract.
With the ouster of Nolan, Smith was in position to compete with Shaun Hill to be Mike Singletary’s starting quarterback. Smith lost that battle, but in Week 7 he was inserted into a game against Houston at halftime after Hill had led them to a 21-0 deficit. All Smith did was step in and lead the team on three touchdown drives, all culminating in touchdown passes to Vernon Davis. Even though the team still lost 24-21, after the game Singletary announced that Smith would be his starting quarterback moving forward. His fifth season ended with Smith cementing his position as the 49ers’ starting quarterback going into his sixth season.
Season six saw poor offensive performances early in the season and then another shoulder injury forced Singletary to move on to Troy Smith while Alex Smith healed on the sideline, then watched the team win a couple games with Troy Smith at the helm. After he regained the starting position, the Alex Smith-led 49ers went on to demolish the Seahawks 40-21. The two Smiths went back and forth starting for the team as the team’s performance went up and down. Singletary was fired, and Alex Smith finished the season as quarterback and found himself a free agent for the first time in his career.
Two big things happened between the 2010 and 2011 seasons. First the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh as their new coach. Second the league was going through a lockout. Before the coaches weren’t allowed to have contact with the players, Harbaugh let Smith know he wanted him as his starting quarterback and gave him his playbook to study, even though he wasn’t signed. Those leadership traits that Nolan saw going into the 2005 draft proved to be true, as free agent Alex Smith organized offseason workouts for the 49ers, while the coaches weren’t allowed contact with the players.
All that led to was the best statistical season of Smith’s career at the time and a NFC championship game appearance after leading the team to a 13-3 record with 3,144 yards, 17 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. Those five interceptions would be a franchise record and the lowest in the league that year. Everyone remembers the special team’s gaffes against the New York Giants in that NFC Championship, but if you don’t or you would just like to punish yourself, here it is. Before that disappointment, Smith led the 49ers to possibly his most exciting win of his career, beating the New Orleans Saints 36-32 with Smith throwing for three touchdowns along with a 24-yard touchdown run. At the end of the game, which was played on the 30th anniversary of “The Catch,” Smith hit Vernon Davis with the game-winning touchdown.
After leading the franchise to its best record since Steve Young and oh so close to the Super Bowl, Smith found himself ready to cash in as a free agent quarterback. Smith visited the Miami Dolphins with intent to sign a contract while the 49ers flirted with Peyton Manning, but after Manning spurned them for the Denver Broncos, Smith returned to the red and gold and signed a three-year contract.
Even though all Smith continued to do during the 2012 season is win games, the “game manager” moniker continued to follow him and the fans saw Harbaugh insert backup Colin Kaepernick from time to time to run a play or two while Smith watched from the sideline. Going into Week 9, the 49ers were 6-2 and it looked like Smith was leading them to another playoff appearance and possible Super Bowl run. In that Week 9 game against the Cardinals though, Alex Smith suffered a concussion and lost his starting position to Kaepernick. He helped coach Kaepernick on the way to Super Bowl XLVII. Smith, the consummate teammate would often be seen going over offensive plays with the young quarterback during games.
In the offseason Harbaugh made the decision to keep Kaepernick atop the depth chart and trade Smith away to the Kansas City Chiefs, a decision that altered the path of the 49ers and possibly led to Harbaugh leaving the NFL. All Smith has done since then is lead the Chiefs to four playoff appearances in five seasons with an overall record of 50-26, making him one of the winningest quarterbacks over those five seasons and throwing 102 touchdowns to 33 interceptions. Unfortunately for Smith, he was once again passed over for a younger, more dynamic quarterback, Pat Mahomes.
2018 saw Smith traded to the Washington Redskins where he signed a four-year contract. Smith began to lead the Redskins towards a NFC East titlein the first ten games of the season, posting a 6-4 record, and with the least amount of talent around him since his first years in San Francisco. In Week 11, and on the anniversary of Joe Theismann’s career ending injury, Smith endured a grueling broken leg injury against the Houston Texans. Since the injury Smith has had to have twelve surgeries to not only fix the break, but also to remove infection in the wound. It’s possible that Smith’s career has ended.
For his career Smith has gone 94-66-1 as a starting quarterback with 34,068 yards, 193 touchdowns, and 101 interceptions for an 87.3 career quarterback rating. Hopefully Smith, a player many fans loved to hate throughout the years, gets to add to those career wins next season after recovering from his broken leg.
Personally I will always respect Smith and remember him as a consummate teammate who always gave everything he had to the 49ers organization, even when the organization didn’t treat him the same. Even though he lost a lot of games, was jerked in and out of the starting lineup, Smith deserves to be remembered in the 49ers quarterback hierarchy. His game against the Saints was epic, and his 22 career game-winning drives should eliminate the “game manager” moniker pundits love to throw on him.
Dilfer was drafted sixth overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1994 draft, and was used sparingly during his rookie season, appearing in five games and starting two, losing both. He then went on to start 74 games straight for the Bucs, getting them to the playoffs and earning a pro bowl berth during the 1997 season. Dilfer, arguably the best quarterback the Bucs had since Steve Young, won more games than any other Bucs quarterback in team history while averaging 2,729 yards a season. While with the Bucs, he also became the only quarterback in league history to be ejected from a game after he threw a punch at Vikings defensive tackle John Randle. After being injured in the tenth week of the 1999 season, Dilfer’s career in Tampa Bay was over.
In the offseason Dilfer was signed by the Baltimore Ravens to back up Tony Banks. After Banks showed he could not engineer a scoring drive, Dilfer was inserted into the starting lineup. In his first game starting with the Ravens, Dilfer appeared to not be much of an improvement over Banks, as he also was unable to lead the team on a touchdown drive, but that would be the last game the Ravens lost all season. Dilfer led the Ravens to seven straight wins down the stretch and earned a wild card berth with a lot of help from the Ravens top-ranked defense. Dilfer went on to lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory over the New York Giants, completing just 12 passes for 153 yards and one touchdown – less than elite stats for a Super Bowl winning quarterback. After the Super Bowl the organization decided that they needed a more dynamic quarterback to lead their offense and signed Elvis Grbac as their quarterback. As past and future 49ers quarterback passed through the night, Dilfer became the owner of another dubious record – the only Super Bowl winning quarterback not to return to his team after the Super Bowl (excluding retirement).
The Seahawks saw an opportunity to add talent to their roster and signed Dilfer as their backup to Matt Hasselbeck. Due to a Hasselbeck injury Dilfer found himself taking over the starting role once again, and because of his solid play and Hasselbeck’s poor play, earned the staring position going into the 2002 season. At that point he had won 15 straight games dating back to his Ravens days. Fate would have other plans though and Dilfer would sprain his medial collateral ligament in his right knee and lost the starting job to Hasselbeck. He regained the starting position for one game before a torn Achilles tendon against the Dallas Cowboys ended his season. He remained Hasselbeck’s back up for the next two seasons, playing sparingly and winning two starts in 2004.
In the offseason the Cleveland Browns traded for Dilfer to mentor rookie quarterback Charlie Frye. Dilfer started for the whole season, going 6-10, but behind the scenes disagreements with offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon led to the end of his time in Cleveland after one season.
Seen as a perfect mentor for rookie quarterbacks, Dilfer was once again traded to mentor a young quarterback, this time to the San Francisco 49ers, and this time around it was Alex Smith who he would be mentoring. Once again, his stay on the bench would not last. After watching Smith take every single 2006 snap, the following season, due to Smith’s separated shoulder and then erratic play, Dilfer would end up playing in seven games, starting six of them. Surrounded by rebuilding-level talent, Dilfer went 1-5 in his six starts. His season and subsequently his career were ended when he suffered a concussion diving for a first down during a road game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Younger fans will know Dilfer from his post NFL days where he was an analyst for NFL Network until April of 2017. For his career he went 58-55 with 20,518 yards, 113 touchdowns, 129 interceptions and a 70.2 quarterback rating.
Never a big name quarterback, even coming out of high school, Shaun Hill ended up spending 15 seasons in the NFL. Hill did it the hard way, starting at a community college before moving on to the University of Maryland. After not being invited to the draft combine, the Minnesota Viking signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2002 and he spent the next few seasons as their third-string quarterback, entering a regular season game in the final game of the 2005 season to kneel the last two plays. Hill did get playing time in 2003 while playing with the Amsterdam Admirals in NFL Europe. While playing for the Admirals he led the league in yards passing and tied for second in touchdown passes. In the offseason between 2005 and 2006 the San Francisco 49ers signed him to be the third string quarterback behind Alex Smith and Dilfer. That is where he stayed for the 2006 season, not entering a single game.
In 2007 he found himself in the same place on the depth chart, but this season would give him the first opportunity to play in the NFL. After Smith and Dilfer both sustained injuries, Hill took over the starting duties, winning games in Week 15 and 16. He sustained a back injury in the Week 16 game, which sidelined him for Week 17. He had played well enough to earn a new three-year contract with the 49ers and the ability to compete with Smith for the starting position in 2008. Both players lost out to J.T. O’Sullivan in what many saw as a rigged competition. Due to Smith’s injured reserve placement, Hill was able to earn the backup position for the season.
After Mike Singletary took over for Mike Nolan, Hill was inserted as the starting quarterback over O’Sullivan for the final eight games. He went 5-3 in those games doing enough for Singletary to name him the starting quarterback going into the 2009 training camp. After his preseason battle with Alex Smith, he did indeed win that battle and started the season as the number one quarterback. Hill led the 49ers to a 3-0 record to start the season, but then lost the next three games. The last game was arguably one of his best, but Brett Favre magic happened in the last two seconds of the game and the Vikings overcame the 49ers to leave them at 3-3 on the season; a play that continues to crush 49ers fans in NFL commercials. The following week Hill lost his starting position to Smith, and he didn’t enter the field of play for the 49ers again. Even though he had gone 10-6 with an 87.3 quarterback rating in his time with the 49ers, Hill was traded to the Detroit Lions in the offseason in favor of Smith.
With the Lions he served as Matthew Stafford’s backup, but saw frequent time as Stafford went from one injury to another. He was in fact the quarterback who threw the incomplete pass, which led to the “Calvin Johnson Rule.” Hill spent four seasons backing up Stafford before he signed a one-year contract with the St. Louis Rams to back up Sam Bradford. To everyone’s surprise, Bradford sustained a season-ending ACL injury in the preseason and Hill was named the starter for Week 1. After poor performances he was benched in favor of Austin Davis, before being reinserted as the starting quarterback due to Davis’ poor play. For the season he started eight games, going 3-5.
Hill returned to the Vikings the next season for his second stint with the team, this time as Teddy Bridgewater’s backup. Hill played in one game that season, relieving Bridgewater after he had sustained a concussion. Going into the 2016 season, Hill was named the starter over newly-acquired Sam Bradford when Bridgewater was placed on injured reserve during the offseason. Hill held the starting position for only one game, in which he threw for 236 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions in a win against the Tennessee Titans before Bradford took over for the remainder of the season.
Hill was able to spend 15 seasons in the NFL, mostly as a backup quarterback, but he was able to earn 35 starts, going 17-18, earning most of his wins with the San Francisco 49ers during a time when the franchise didn’t win that much.
After pursuing a baseball career and never making it out of the minor leagues, Weinke returned to college and played quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles before being drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the fourth round of the 2001 draft. Taking maybe the strangest path to starting NFL quarterback, Weinke is the oldest person to win the Heisman (28).
He started all 16 games his rookie season, winning the first and losing the next 15 games. After his rookie season he backed up Jake Delhomme until 2007. With the Panthers, Weinke won his first game, lost his next 17 (second longest losing streak by a quarterback all time) and then won his last game with the Panthers.
He was signed midseason of 2007 by the San Francisco 49ers after Alex Smith, Trent Dilfer, and Shaun Hill all went down due to injury. There he started one game, losing the season finale to the Cleveland Browns 20-7. While with the Panthers he broke a few team records, though hardly any of them are brag worthy. He had the most pass completions in a game, most pass attempts in a game, most interceptions in a season, and most times sacked in a game. He also broke the NFL record for most passes thrown per game by a rookie quarterback (which has sense been broken).
After his one game stint with the 49ers he was not resigned by any team and started to pursue a coaching career. He first teamed with John Madden to become the director of the IMG Madden Football Academy. Then in 2015 Weinke was hired to be the quarterback coach for the St. Louis Rams, a position he held until 2017 when he was replace by non-quarterback playing Greg Olson. He spent 2017 as an offensive analyst for the University of Alabama before moving to the University of Tennessee to be their running backs coach in 2018, a position he still holds.
Martin was another journeyman quarterback who joined the 49ers at the twilight of his career, like many quarterbacks who suited up in the Alex Smith era of San Francisco. Martin was not drafted out of Weber State, but was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Los Angeles Rams in 1993. A career that saw him play for the LA/St. Louis Rams (1993-96), Amsterdam Admirals (1995), Washington Redskins (1997), Jacksonville Jaguars (1998), Cleveland Browns (1999 – Practice Squad), the Jaguars again (2000), the Rams again (2001-2002), New York Jets (2003 – practice squad), the Rams again (2004-2005), New Orleans Saints (2006-2007), and then finally the San Francisco 49ers in 2008.
Although he had good longevity in the league, before he signed with the 49ers he had started only eight games, going 4-4 in those starts. He had played in 53 games over the years and thrown 541 passes, completing 355 of them for 3,814 yards, 20 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. The 49ers signed him as a backup with Alex Smith placed on injured reserve for the season and served as the third string quarterback behind J.T. O’Sullivan and Shaun Hill. Martin was brought in because of his familiarity with Mike Martz, the 49ers’ offensive coordinator and former Rams head coach.
A true journeyman quarterback, O’Sullivan spent every single season after his second season with a different team. A first team All-American in college, he was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the sixth round of the 2002 draft. He spent his first two seasons of professional football as the Saints third-string inactive quarterback for all 32 games. After that he played for 14 teams in three different leagues.
O’Sullivan spent the 2004 NFL Europe season starting for the Frankfurt Galaxy and played rather well. His 91.9 passer rating was second best in the league and he helped lead his team to the World Bowl XII against the Berlin Thunder. Although they lost, he played well, throwing for 210 yards and three touchdowns along with two interceptions. O’Sullivan played well enough to pique the Green Bay Packers’ interest and they traded for him before the fifth week of the season. He continued to be a third string inactive quarterback until the final game of the season when he was activated for the first time in his NFL career and entered an NFL regular season game for the first time, although only to kneel twice at the end of the game. He re-signed with the Packers in the offseason, but was unable to make the 2005 squad.
He spent the next season on the Chicago Bears practice squad until the Minnesota Vikings signed him off of it after Daunte Culpepper suffered a season ending injury. He spent the final eight games of the season as an inactive third quarterback for the Vikings. He spent the next season splitting time between the New England Patriots’ and Carolina Panthers’ practice squads before returning to the Frankfurt Galaxy and the Chicago Bears for the 2007 season. He again played well in Europe, throwing for 2,201 yards, 16 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in ten games. He was named co-offensive MVP and earned ALL NFL Europe honors, while leading the Galaxy to World Bowl XV, which they lost again.
O’Sullivan signed a one year contract in the summer of 2007 with the Detroit Lions, and due to injuries to Dan Orlovsky and Jon Kitna, O’Sullivan played most of the preseason snaps and earned himself the primary backup roll behind Kitna for the season. O’Sullivan saw the field in four games that season in relief of an injured Kitna, although never a full game.
In the 2008 offseason the Lions offensive coordinator, Mike Martz, moved on to the San Francisco 49ers, and O’Sullivan followed, beating out Alex Smith and Shaun Hill for the starting quarterback position. He had finally earned himself a real chance at playing in the NFL, and in Week 2 threw for for 321 yards and a touchdown in a 33-30 win against the Seattle Seahawks, becoming the first quarterback wearing red and gold to throw for over 300 yards since 2004. Although a Coach Nolan favorite, he turned the ball over too many times and was benched in favor of Shaun Hill by interim head coach Mike Singletary.
At the time he had thrown for 11 interceptions and fumbled the ball 11 times, both the most in the league at the time. In fact, O’Sullivan had committed more turnovers by himself than any other team in the league at the time. For his eight regular season games with the 49ers, O’Sullivan threw for 1,678 yards 8 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, wining two out of eight games. He was not re-signed in the offseason.
In 2009 he served as the backup quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals before being waived and picked up by the San Diego Chargers where he was their inactive third string quarterback for the first six games before being released.
The 2010 season was his last in the league, and he spent it as the Oakland Raiders third-string inactive quarterback for five games before leaving the league in the offseason to join the Saskatchewan Roughriders for the 2012 Canadian Football League season. He was unable to crack the starting lineup there either, serving as their third string quarterback, and retiring after being released on March 8, 2013.
After a school record-breaking career as a three year starter, Davis left Ball State after his junior year to be drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the fifth round of 2009 draft. Davis, a pre-season MVP player, never took a regular season snap for the team, but led them to two preseason victories where he led five touchdown drives in a little more than a games worth of action.
He was signed to the 49ers practice squad where he spent two seasons. Following the 2010 season the Seattle Seahawks signed him to a future reserve contract, but he was not able to make their roster. Next the Indianapolis Colt signed him to a two-year contract, but again he was unable to make their roster and found himself out of the NFL. Davis’ playing career did not end there though, as he has spent the last six years playing arena football across a couple of different leagues. In 2012 he signed with the Kansas City Command and then moved to the Orlando Predators, both of the Arena Football League.
In 2013 he signed with the Amarillo Venom of the Lone Star Football league, where he was a two-time Lone Star Bowl champion (2012 and 2013) and the co-Offensive MVP (2013). After moving to the Rio Grande Valley Sol of the X-League Indoor Football before moving back to the Amarillo Venom, who had moved on to the Champions Indoor Football league where he has played since 2015. In 2017 he made the first team for the CIF Southern Conference
Although no longer in the NFL, Davis is continuing to follow his dream of playing professional football, and albeit in small leagues, he has had some great success.
Unlike everyone else on this list not named Alex Smith, Carr was the first pick in his draft, chosen first overall by the Houston Texans in the 2002 draft. Although he spent ten years in the league, his greatest achievement is probably tutoring his little brother Derek Carr, current quarterback of the Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Raiders.
Carr was the starting quarterback for the Texans his first five seasons in the league, starting every game outside of an injury-shortened second season. In those five seasons, Carr had a record of 22-53. After the 2006 season Carr was signed by the Carolina Panthers to take over backup duties from Weinke. He happened to earn four starts that season, going 1-3, when Jake Delhomme went down with an injury.
He spent only one season with the Panthers and never started another game in the NFL. He spent 2008 and 2009 backing up Eli Manning for the New York Giants. In the offseason following 2009, Carr signed on with the 49ers to back up Smith. He saw action in one game on the year, relieving an injured Smith against the Carolina Panthers. He played poorly and was released by the 49ers in the offseason.
His last two seasons in the NFL was spent back with the Giants, once again backing up Eli Manning. Although he did not play a single snap all season, he left on top in a way, earning a Super Bowl ring in 2011 when the Giants beat the Patriots 21-17.
Carr found his way into coaching when he was hired to be the offensive coordinator for Bakersfield Christian High School and keeps busy with his six children. One fun fact about the Carr family, David is not the only ex-49er. Derek and David’s uncle, Lonnie Boyett, played for the 49ers for one season as a tight end in 1978.
Troy Smith was an incredible college athlete who started out as a running back before taking over the quarterback position part way through his redshirt sophomore season. Smith won the Heisman trophy over Darren McFadden and Brady Quinn in 2006 while receiving 91.6 percent of the first place votes, a record that still stands today.
Smith entered the 2007 draft as a damaged product after losing the BCS championship game to Florida (41-14). After his hometown Cleveland Browns decided to pick Brady Quinn over him, the Baltimore Ravens, towards the end of the fifth round, finally drafted Smith.
As a rookie, Smith earned third string duties behind Steve McNair and Kyle Boller. He moved up to second string after McNair was lost for the season. He saw action when Boller was injured, having relative success, but providing a much more exciting option than Boller. The excitement of his athletic abilities saw many Ravens fans call for him to be the starter over Boller, something that finally happened in Week 16.
The 2008 season saw Smith lose his designation of quarterback of the future when the Ravens drafted Joe Flacco and Smith earned the second-string position. Smith’s athleticism forced the coaching staff to find some way to get him on the field, and the league saw some early wildcat like offense with Smith lining up at wide receiver and under center at times. He returned to the Ravens in 2009 to back up Flacco, but saw limited time, and was only active for four games. After that season the Ravens signed Marc Bulger to replace Smith and the former Heisman saw his professional career starting to disappear.
Mike Singletary came to the rescue and signed Smith to back up Alex Smith. His athletic ability once again forced his coach’s hand and he had mixed results as the 49ers quarterback. He won his first two starts, outdueling Sam Bradford in his second start by throwing for 356 yards and one touchdown, while throwing no interceptions. Troy Smith went 3-2 in his starts, leading the team to half of their wins in only a third of the season’s games. He brought excitement to a franchise that had been living in the loss column.
With Singletary being replaced by Jim Harbaugh, Troy was not re-signed and saw his NFL career end after only four seasons. He never reached the Kordell Stewart “Slash” sensation that many fans thought he would, but he did continue playing football, first for the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League in 2011 and then the Montreal Alouettes in 2013 and 2014. In between those two teams the Pittsburg Steelers signed him in the offseason before the 2012 season, but he was not able to make the roster. Smith retired from professional football after the Alouettes released him 2014.
After a long and trying college career, Tolzien excelled his senior year at the University of Wisconsin - winning the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award in 2010 over finalists Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Christian Ponder, and Ricky Stanzi after completing an amazing 74.3 percent of his passes. This led to the San Diego Chargers signing him as an undrafted free agent, but he failed to make the team during the final day of cuts. This led Harbaugh to pick him up off waivers to serve as the 49ers third string quarterback behind Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick.
Tolzien served as the third-string quarterback for two seasons, but never entered a regular season game. He was on the active roster for the 49ers Super Bowl loss to the Ravens in 2012. After the Super Bowl loss, Tolzien was released by the 49ers and signed by the Green Bay Packers to serve as their third-string quarterback behind Aaron Rodgers and Seneca Wallace for the 2013 season.
After Rodgers suffered a clavicle injury, Tolzien was brought up from the practice squad to serve as the second-string quarterback behind Wallace. After Wallace was injured early in a game, Tolzien entered his first regular season NFL game and earned the next two starts, going 0-1-1. In his first start he threw for 339 yards, but also threw three interceptions. He was relieved in his second start by Matt Flynn and would back up Flynn for the remainder of the season.
Tolzien saw no game time in 2014 with the Packers and then threw one pass in three games of reserve work in 2015, also with the Packers. The Packers did not re-sign him after the 2015 season.
Tolzien then spent two seasons backing up an oft-injured Andrew Luck, starting one game in 2016 and the season opener in 2017. After throwing two pick-sixes in the opening game, Jacoby Brissett relieved him and he spent the next 15 games as his backup before being released at the end of the season.
The Birmingham Iron recently drafted Tolzien in the third round of the Alliance of American Football League, where he will be competing for a starting position for their 2019 season.
Quite possibly the most controversial quarterback in league history, Kaepernick was drafted with the fourth pick of the second round in 2011 after the team traded up with the Denver Broncos. Kaepernick spent his rookie season in virtual hiding, backing up Alex Smith and only attempting five passes.
The 2012 season brought a whole new angle to the 49ers offense, with Jim Harbaugh using him here and there in specific packages designed just for him. That all changed in week ten when Alex Smith went down with a concussion and Kaepernick took over, completely. After tying the Rams in that game, he got his first start the following week on Monday Night Football against a very good Bears defense. All he did was complete 16 of 23 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns. Even though Smith had been playing extremely good football before the concussion, ranking third in the NFL with a 104.1 passer rating and led the league in completion percentage with an incredible 70 percent mark, Harbaugh chose to stick with Kaepernick.
At the end of the regular season the 49ers had earned a playoff berth, getting a bye in the first round. In their first playoff game Kaepernick was dynamic, throwing for 263 yards and two touchdowns with one interception while running for an NFL record 181 yards and two more touchdowns. The mark was the most rushing yards in a game for a quarterback, breaking Michael Vick’s record of 173. The following week the 49ers beat the Atlanta Falcons to reach their sixth Super Bowl in team history. After falling behind early in the game, Kaepernick led a furious second half comeback before the coaching staff called three fade passes in a row to Michael Crabtree instead of allowing Kaepernick or Frank Gore to run it in from the 2-yard line. Before the three incompletions, Harbaugh called a last second timeout before the ball was snapped on a run play that looked like Kaepernick would have scored on.
In the offseason Alex Smith was shipped off to Kansas City and Kaepernick was handed the keys to the castle. The 2013 season saw Kaepernick and the 49ers continue to improve and steamroll opponents. He threw for 3,197 yards, 21 touchdowns, and eight interceptions along with rushing for 524 yards and four more touchdowns in a 12-4 season. A controversial roughing the passer call against the 49ers in a game against the New Orleans Saints late in the season cost them the division and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Kaepernick was less explosive in the 2013 playoffs, but led the 49ers in a wild card win against the Packers (23-20) and then the Carolina Panthers in the Divisional round (23-10). The Kaepernick led 49ers then lost to eventual Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks 23-17, ending their season the same as the year before with a possible touchdown pass to Crabtree in the end zone not hitting its target. After the game Kaepernick stood up for Crabtree stating he was one of the best wide receivers in the league and he would throw it to him any time.
In 2014 we saw the decline of the Harbaugh-led 49ers. It was rumored his rough style of coaching was starting to lose the locker room. Although Kaepernick was still making incredible plays like his 90 yard touchdown run against the San Diego Chargers, the 49ers ended the season 8-8, missing the playoffs for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era. Kaepernick threw for 3,369 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions while rushing for 639 yards and the 90-yard touchdown.
After the season the 49ers began to fall apart. Pat Willis retired. Navarro Bowman was not able to return fully from his gruesome knee injury a season earlier during the NFC championship game. Frank Gore left. Chris Borland retired after his rookie season, and finally Jim Harbaugh left to coach the University of Michigan, no longer able to co-exist with general manager Trent Baalke.
Kaepernick and the 49ers regressed greatly in the 2015 season under new head coach Jim Tomsula. After being benched in favor of back up Blaine Gabbert, Kaepernick was placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. At the end of the season Tomsula was fired and replaced by Chip Kelly. Kaepernick expressed interest in possibly playing for a different team, but he was retained to run Kelly’s fast-paced offense.
Even though he had been two yards from being a Super Bowl winning quarterback and probably Super Bowl MVP, he entered that 2016 season in a quarterback competition. While still trying to recover from the shoulder injury that ended his 2015 season, Kaepernick lost the starting position to Gabbert. In Week 6 he regained the starting position from Gabbert until Week 13 when he was benched against the Chicago Bears after completing only 1 of 4 passes for five yards. Kelly flipped back to Kaepernick the following week and he finished the season as the 49ers’ starting quarterback.
After the season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract after a meeting with new head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch where he learned he was not in the team’s future plans. Kaepernick drew some interest from Denver, but was not able to get a contract from any NFL teams. Whether you believe Kaepernick is currently being blackballed from the league or not, his career stats of 12,271 yards, 72 touchdowns, 30 interceptions, and an 88.9 passer rating along with 2,300 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns in 69 games are starter-level statistics in the NFL.
The Cleveland Browns drafted McCoy in the third round in 2010 to develop behind Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace. Injuries to both quarterbacks left McCoy starting his first NFL game in Week 6 of his rookie season. He ended up starting eight games his rookie season and entering the next season (2011) as their starting quarterback, a position he held for the first twelve weeks before sustaining a concussion against the Pittsburg Steelers.
McCoy spent the entire 2012 season backing up rookie Brandon Weeden after the Browns had given up on McCoy being their quarterback of the future. During the offseason he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers where he served as the backup quarterback to Kaepernick. In his lone year in San Francisco, McCoy threw one pass, which he completed for 13 yards.
The 49ers decided not to re-sign McCoy in the offseason, and he signed with the Washington Redskins to back up Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins. He saw another opportunity to be a starter in the league when he was inserted in the game at halftime against the Tennessee Titans due to Cousins’ poor performance with Griffin already sidelined due to injury. McCoy played well, rallying the team and leading them to a second-half comeback win. He earned the right to start the following week and didn’t disappoint, throwing for 300 yards and rushing for a touchdown in an overtime win against the Dallas Cowboys. The following week Griffin was reinserted into the starting lineup with McCoy as his backup. After the team sustained three straight losses, McCoy regained the starting position for the last three games, but lost all three.
McCoy spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons backing up Cousins and this past 2018 season backing up Alex Smith, until Smith’s broken leg. McCoy started two games for the Redskins, until he sustained his own broken leg, ending his season. McCoy is currently signed with the Redskins through the 2019 season.
Once seen as the future of the Jacksonville Jaguars organization, he was taken tenth overall in the 2011 NFL draft. The third quarterback taken behind Cam Newton and Jake Locker, Gabbert took the starting spot from Luke McCown in Week 3 of the 2011 season and started the final 14 games, going 4-10. Although he struggled as a starter his rookie season, he did become the youngest player (22) to start 14 games in a season and threw a then-career best 74 yard touchdown pass to ex-49er receiver Jason Hill.
The 2012 season was a lost one for Gabbert when he went on injured reserve after the tenth game after playing with multiple injuries, including a torn labrum in his shoulder,and 2013 wasn’t any better. Gabbert played only three games on the season. He started the regular season with an injured thumb and then suffered a bad cut on his right hand in the season opener, which forced him out of the next week’s contest. Gabbert returned only to injure his hamstring and his tenure as the Jaguars’ future ended.
In the offseason the San Francisco 49ers traded a sixth-round draft pick for Gabbert to back up Kaepernick. He appeared in only one game that season, in relief of Kaepernick during a 42-17 loss to the Denver Broncos.
Gabbert re-signed with the 49ers and took over for Kaepernick for the last eight games of the season, going 3-5 as a starter. In 2016 he won the starting quarterback position over Kaepernick, until Kaepernick returned the favor of the previous season and took over as starting quarterback after six games. He later lost his starting position to Christian Ponder and his tenure with the 49ers was officially over. With the 49ers Gabbert actually played his best football with a passer rating of 80.2, almost eight points higher than his next best season.
In 2017 he moved on to the Arizona Cardinals to be the third-string quarterback behind Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton. Gabbert found himself the starter for the last six games of the season after injuries ended Palmer and Stanton’s seasons.
After drafting a rookie quarterback, Gabbert was not re-signed and he moved on to the Tennessee Titans to back up Marcus Mariota. This season Gabbert has seen action in five games, starting two due to Mariota’s injuries.
Another true journeyman, Johnson has played for 14 teams in three leagues since being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. After three seasons backing up Byron Leftwich and Josh Freeman and earning five starts due to their injuries, Johnson signed with the Jim Harbaugh-led 49ers during the 2012 offseason. He was unable to crack the 53-man roster though and signed with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League. He didn’t have to wait long to reenter the NFL; he signed with the Browns that season after Weeden and McCoy had sustained injuries. He backed up Thad Lewis during the last two weeks of the season.
He spent 2013 as a backup with the Cincinnati Bengals, entering the field during two games, but not throwing a pass. Harbaugh brought him back to the 49ers during the 2014 season. Johnson was routinely signed on Monday or Tuesday of the week and released Saturday, allowing the 49ers to more or less have a 54-man roster throughout the season. Johnson was never active for a game with the 49ers.
He then signed with the Bengals again, but did not make the squad and signed with the New York Jets practice squad before being signed to the Indianapolis Colts to back up Tolzien and Brissett after Andrew Luck was injured, but did not last the season and was released in October. He spent the rest of the 2015 season with the Buffalo Bills, his fourth team of the league year.
Johnson spent the 2016 offseason with the Baltimore Ravens before latching on with the New York Giants, and 2017 was spent with the Houston Texans. This past offseason Jon Gruden brought him into the Oakland Raiders quarterback room, only to cut him before the season. He was then drafted number-one overall by the San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football league, two rounds before Tolzien.
Johnson reentered the NFL on December 5 after the Washington Redskins lost Alex Smith and Colt McCoy to their broken legs. In his first game back in the league, Johnson took over for an ineffective Mark Sanchez at halftime. It has been announced that Johnson will be the team’s starter moving forward, a position many people are claiming should be held by Kaepernick.
After not being drafted in the 2015 NFL draft, Thompson was signed by the 49ers to be their third-string quarterback and was signed to the practice squad. After Kaepernick was placed on injured reserve, Thompson was activated to the 53-man roster to back up Gabbert, but he never entered a game. He was released following the season.
The Los Angeles Rams then signed Thompson before cutting, re-signing and cutting him again. He is currently out of professional football.
Ponder was drafted in 2011, two spots behind Gabbert, to be the future of the Minnesota Vikings. Expected to back up Donovan McNabb for his rookie season, Ponder was inserted into the lineup during the fifth game of the season and went on to start the final ten games, going 2-8 on the season. He started all 16 games his second season, going 10-6 although the record probably had more to do with Adrian Peterson nearly breaking the single season rushing record than Ponder’s play.
The 2013 season was the turning point for Ponders career, and not for the better. After starting 0-3, the Vikings’ fans began to turn on Ponder and he eventually lost his starting position to Matt Cassell, then Josh Freeman due to a broken rib. Ponder regained the starting position for the last six games, but it wasn’t enough to hold onto the team’s long term plans at quarterback.
The 2014 draft brought in Teddy Bridgewater and pushed Ponder to third on the depth chart. After Cassell was injured and lost of the season, Ponder moved up to second string, but did not see much action. He relieved an injured Bridgewater for one game and started another. The team decided not to pick up his fifth year option, making Ponder a free agent at the end of the season.
The Oakland Raider signed Ponder in the offseason, reunited him with ex 49er quarterback Bill Musgrave, his offensive coordinator the first three seasons of his career in Minnesota. In the final cuts of the preseason, the Raiders decided to not keep Ponder on and he was again out of a job. He worked out for several teams, but was not signed until Peyton Manning the Denver Broncos was injured. Denver signed Ponder as depth, but was never activated and was released from the team.
During the 2016 season Ponder was signed by the 49ers to back up Gabbert when Thad Lewis was lost for the season and with Kaepernick’s health up in the air. All three quarterbacks’ roads converged five years after they were the third, fourth and fifth quarterbacks taken in the 2011 draft. Ponder never entered a game, although many inside the team wanted him to play over Gabbert. At the end of the season Ponder’s professional football career was over.
After signing with the New England Patriots to compete for the backup quarterback position behind Tom Brady in 2009, Hoyer spent the next three years backing up Brady until he lost the position to second-year player Ryan Mallett. He was then signed by the Pittsburg Steelers after the team lost Ben Rothlesberger and Byron Leftwich in back-to-back weeks. He served as Charlie Batch’s backup for two weeks before being cut by the team. He was then signed by the Arizona Cardinals and became the fourth quarterback to start for the team after earning the final start of the season against the 49ers.
In the offseason he signed with the Cleveland Browns to back up Brandon Weeden, and eventually started three games due to a Weeden injury. Hoyer led the Browns to three wins which led to the release of Weeden in the offseason and Hoyer believed he had the starting position all wrapped up for the 2014 season. In Browns fashion, they drafted Johnny Manziel with the 22nd overall pick. Hoyer ended up starting 13 games that season, winning seven of them.
Hoyer’s contract was up at the end of the season. He decided to sign with the Houston Texans and was named starter over former Patriots teammate Mallett. Week one of the season saw Hoyer benched in the fourth quarter. Mallett went down with an injury during week five though and Hoyer took advantage of his opportunity, starting the final nine games and leading the team to their first division title and playoff appearance since 2012. Hoyer threw four interceptions in their wild card loss and was released by the Texans in the offseason.
Hoyer signed with the Chicago Bears for the 2016 season to back up Jay Cutler and ended up starting five games due to Cutler injuries. He threw for 300 yards in four of the five games, ending the season with 1,445 yards in five games.
After the season, Hoyer was handpicked by his former Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to be the 49ers starting quarterback of 2017. With no real competition he was handed the title. After going winless the first five games of the season, Shanahan benched him during the Week 6game in favor of rookie C.J. Beathard and was later released from the team after the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. He immediately signed with New England to be Tom Brady’s backup, a position he still holds today.
Selected by Kyle Shanahan in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft, Beathard ended up starting five games his rookie season after replacing the benched Hoyer. Beathard led the team to their first win of the season and it was said that Shanahan’s plan was to start Beathard the rest of the season, even after trading for Garoppolo, but a leg injury during the Week 11 contest forced Shanahan’s hand, and Beathard spent the rest of the season watching Garoppolo lead the team to victories.
Beathard entered his second season as Garoppolo’s backup, but became the starter after Garoppolo tore his ACL late in Week 4. After losing five games as the starter, Beathard injured his wrist, giving way to Nick Mullens. It is expected that Mullens will finish the season as the 49ers starter and Beathard’s future in San Francisco has become questionable. Beathard, a tough competitor, has shown a lack of decision making in his ten starts, winning only one.
Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi, Mullens came into the 49ers organization as the third-string quarterback. At Southern Mississippi he broke most of Brett Favre’s records, but in the NFL he spent his rookie season on the team’s practice squad. Liking what they saw out of him, Mullens was signed to a future contract after the season ended and entered the 2018 season as the team’s third-string quarterback, once again finding himself on the practice squad. After Beathard’s injured wrist, Mullens took over starting duties and proceeded to lead the team to a humiliating victory over the Raiders, throwing for 252 yards and three touchdowns, recording a passer rating of 151.9. Since then Mullens’ play has returned from superstar orbit, but he has done enough to keep the starting position from Beathard and assert himself as the plausible backup to Garoppolo next season.
Then there was one. Taken in the second round of the 2014 draft, Garoppolo was the highest drafted quarterback by the Patriots since Drew Bledsoe was drafted first overall. Garoppolo was the heir apparent to Tom Brady and everyone on the planet expected him to take over once Brady called it quits, that is, until 2017 when he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers for a second round draft pick. All he did was go on to win the last five games of the season on a 49ers team that had failed to win in ten of the previous eleven games. The team became dynamic again, scoring on a higher percentage of their drives than any other team in the league. He hung 37 points on the top-ranked Jaguars defense.
The 49ers made him the quarterback of the future in the offseason, and he entered the 2018 season as one of the darlings of the league. The season didn’t start well, with the team losing two of the first three games with Garoppolo starting under center. In Week 4, during a come from behind attempt against the AFC-leading Kansas City Chiefs, Garoppolo tore his ACL, ending his season. He remains under a team friendly contract into the near future, and is expected to pick up in Week 1 of the 2019 season where he left off at the end of the 2017 season.
Forty-one quarterbacks have worn red and gold between Joe Montana and Jimmy Garoppolo, slightly more than have started for the Cleveland Browns of 2000’s. We have all had our preseason favorites and have enjoyed the ride from Montana to Young to Garcia to Smith to Kaepernick to Garoppolo. Here’s hoping Garoppolo, Mullens, and Beathard can continue to grow together and lead the 49ers into being the 2020s team of the decade.
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