When coach Mike Nolan and personnel chief Scot McCloughan inherited a two-win team more than a decade ago, their first act together was to draft a player they envisioned as the 49ers’ quarterback of the future.
The 49ers under Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch took a different approach this offseason. They determined it was best to bring in a bridge quarterback, improve the roster at other positions and push back their hunt for their franchise signal-caller until the second year.
That’s how the 49ers ended up with Alex Smith in 2005 and Brian Hoyer in 2017.
McCloughan, this week’s guest on The 49ers Insider Podcast, spoke about Alex Smith’s steady and consistent rise to being a standout NFL starter and the decision long ago to select him with the No. 1 overall pick – 23 spots ahead of Aaron Rodgers.
“It was partly my fault, if I could’ve traded back two or three spots, which I was trying to do, but no one would come up, I would’ve taken Aaron at three or four, hands down,” McCloughan said.
Instead, Rodgers was still available when it was the Green Bay Packers’ turn to select at No. 24. Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson called McCloughan, who previously worked with Thompson in the personnel departments of the Packers and Seattle Seahawks.
“They’re on the clock,” McCloughan said. “And he’s like, ‘What’s going on here?’ And I was like, ‘Ted, the guy is a really good football player.’ He said, ‘What do you think?’ I told him, ‘If I were in your spot, I’d take him at three or four, and they’re sitting at where they were.”
McCloughan selected Smith with the belief he was not a quick-fix answer. Shortly after drafting Smith, who had yet to turn 21, McCloughan stated that Smith would not begin to hit his peak until his seventh NFL season.
Sure enough, Smith’s seventh season in the NFL was in 2011 – two seasons after McCloughan was no longer with the 49ers. After never having the same coordinator or offensive system in full back-to-back seasons, Smith started to find continuity in 2011, and his career has flourished.
In 25 starts with Alex Smith under Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the 49ers went 19-5-1. After Harbaugh benched Smith following a concussion in 2012, the 49ers traded him to the Kansas City Chiefs to clear the way for Colin Kaepernick.
“The plan was with (then-49ers offensive coordinator Mike) McCarthy and with coach Nolan, the first year, we were going to sit him,” McCloughan said. “Of course, we weren’t going the right way, and guys were getting hurt and he ended up playing solid his rookie year.
“I always knew with him he’d fight through adversity, which he did. I’m so proud of him. First of all, he’s a great person. Second of all, he’s a really good quarterback and he’s having the success he deserves.”
Smith’s career has taken off since Andy Reid and then-Kansas City general manager John Dorsey acquired Smith in a trade from the 49ers. In Smith’s 65 starts with the Chiefs, the team is 45-20. Kansas City (4-0) is currently the only unbeaten team remaining in the NFL this season.
McCloughan knows Reid and Dorsey very well, and they called him to get his assessment of Smith before making the deal with the 49ers before the 2013 season, McCloughan said.
“You can’t miss on this guy from the standpoint, he shows up every day and he’ll be the same guy every guy,” McCloughan said. “He’s A-class character, and he’s got talent. Now, if you want him to throw it 35, 40 times a game, he might not be your guy. But he’s going to get everybody lined up, get them in and out of the huddle, and they’re going to respect him from a leadership standpoint (and) a toughness standpoint.”
Meanwhile, the 49ers’ new regime decided to postpone their quest for a long-term answer at quarterback until next offseason – when there are likely to be better options available on the veteran and rookie markets.
Of the 32 quarterbacks who have attempted 90 or more passes through Week 4, only rookie Deshone Kizer (50.9) and Joe Flacco (65.0) have lower passer ratings than Hoyer (67.9).
McCloughan said Hoyer is the kind of quarterback who has the ability to manage a game and give his team an opportunity to win against most teams. But Hoyer is not likely to ever carry a team to victory.
“The thing with Hoyer, he reminds me of Colt McCoy,” McCloughan said. “He’s not a front-line guy, but he’s played a lot of football and is intelligent. If the guys around him are good enough, you’re going to win more than you lose because of what they say about Alex. He’s a game manager.”
Shanahan said on Monday he is sticking with Hoyer as the 49ers’ starter ahead of rookie backup C.J. Beathard. McCloughan said has a high opinion of Beathard as a player who can ultimately develop into a starter down the road.
“I liked him a lot,” McCloughan said of Beathard. “He’s one of those guys, kind of like Matt Hasselbeck. Right away, he wasn’t a starter. It took a couple of years.”
Hasselbeck was a sixth-round draft pick of the Packers in 1998 who did not become a starter until 2001 with Seattle.
“They’re just intelligent guys,” McCloughan said. “It’s so important at that position, don’t make mistakes. It’s not bad to punt. You have third and 8, and everything is covered, don’t force it. I think that’s the way Hoyer is for sure, and I think Beathard has really good upside.”