As coach Mike Singletary and his staff evaluate the two candidates vying for the team's starting quarterback job, they see an interesting contrast in styles between the competitors. And who ultimately wins the tale of the tape could decide the 49ers' fate in the NFC West this season.
In accessing the competition, the differences between Smith and Hill appear to be as drastic as their draft position entering the league.
Smith, who was selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, was expected to be the 49ers' franchise quarterback after enjoying a stellar career at the University of Utah. The fifth-year pro possesses outstanding athleticism and physical tools for the position, but has been maddeningly inconsistent since his arrival. Smith has completed only 54.4 percent of his passes in his career, with 31 interceptions and only 19 touchdowns in 30 career starts. Those numbers equate to an abysmal 63.5 passer rating in four seasons, which is partially responsible for the 11-19 career record that Smith sports during his tenure.
In addition to his disappointing play on the field, Smith has been battling injury issues over the past year. He missed all of last season recuperating from shoulder surgery that was the result of an injury suffered near the end of 2007.
Hill, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent, took advantage of the opportunity created by Smith's injury to show team officials that he was capable of being a starting quarterback. In 2007, he guided the team to consecutive wins in two starts, putting up impressive numbers for a guy making his first start after five seasons on the bench. Hill compiled a 101.3 passer rating while completing 68.4 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and only one interception in three games.
With such a remarkable run to close the season, many expected Hill to make a serious play for the starting job heading into 2008. However, he wasn't afforded that opportunity after former offensive coordinator Mike Martz tabbed J.T. O'Sullivan to be the starting quarterback prior to the season opener. After O'Sullivan flamed out due to an inordinate amount of turnovers, Hill was appointed the starting quarterback in one of Mike Singletary's first moves after taking over for Mike Nolan.
The seven-year veteran went on to lead the team to five victories in the last eight games, finishing the season completing 62.8 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. While Hill doesn't dazzle or impress many with his physical ability, his in-game management is superb and the offense seemingly responds with him at the helm. With excellent leadership skills and a tremendous feel for the game, Hill's intangibles exceed his natural talent and yet are ideal for the position. Thus, new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye would appear to have an easy decision in selecting his starter.
Raye, a 32-year coaching assistant, is set to implement a run-heavy offensive system that features a vertical play-action passing game as a complement. The scheme emphasizes throws down the field or outside the numbers and are designed to take advantage of the single coverage that often accompanies the eight-man defensive fronts. Moreover, it also features a series of movement passes designed to take advantage of a quarterback's athleticism in the pocket. Throw in the multiple "at-the-line" checks that are a part of the package and the quarterback picked to direct the offense must have a wide variety of skills at his disposal.
"We like a guy that can create, that can stretch the field, that has good awareness, has all the areas of the game from a mental standpoint that he takes care of and then he can make plays with his arm and feet," Raye said during minicamp. "I think that those are the guys that are good players because some part of playing the position is being able to do things (that) are not coached."
While the scales heading into training camp appear to be tilted in Hill's favor, it's too early in the process to count out Smith. The former No. 1 pick is finally recovered from the shoulder injuries that have plagued him for two seasons, and he is beginning to display the talent that made him worthy of the lofty selection during the team's summer workouts. Team officials have been effusive in the praise of Smith's play during workouts, and the young signal-caller is beginning to display more confidence on the field.
Some of Smith's self-assurance could stem from the fact that Raye's system is eerily similar to the scheme used by Norv Turner in 2006. In that season, Smith completed a career-high 58.1 percent of his passes while throwing 16 touchdowns and compiling a 74.8 passer rating on his way to leading the team to a 7-9 record. Although those numbers aren't stellar, they represented a solid start for a young quarterback learning a new offense. With Smith returning to the offense where he enjoyed his most success, it's not out of the realm of possibility for him to supplant Hill as the team's starter.
In championship fights, they say that the challenger must knock out the champ. We'll soon see if Smith is capable of delivering the haymaker that changes the course of the 49ers' quarterback competition.