49ers' Hill has bottom line on his side


Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Kurt Warner's record as the Cardinals' quarterback is 5-5 in his 10 most recent starts, counting playoffs.

The records are 2-8 for the Seahawks' Matt Hasselbeck and 0-10 for the Rams' Marc Bulger.

The NFC West quarterback with the best record over his last 10 starts is the only one of the four without a starting job for the 2009 season.

That's about right for the 49ers' Shaun Hill, who has proven much more adept at winning games than winning starting jobs.

Hill, 29, has yet to emerge from a training camp as the 49ers' starter in three previous seasons with the team. Coach Mike Singletary and new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye will make Hill sweat it out again this summer after the organization promised Alex Smith a chance to compete for the job in exchange for a reduced salary.

The case for Hill is a simple one.

San Francisco's record over the last two seasons is 7-3 with Hill in the lineup and 5-17 the rest of the time.

The 49ers will have a hard time overlooking such disparate records in choosing their starter. In the meantime, Hill finds himself in a holding pattern, eager to take charge of an offense that isn't yet his.

I caught up with Hill following 49ers practice Tuesday and sought his feedback on several subjects.

What he takes from starting the final eight games last season: "There is no substitute for playing experience. That was big. That was the main thing I'm taking into this. The playing experience, being the quarterback, being the leader for eight weeks. That is huge, too. It's awful tough if you haven't played to step into that role."

What he likes about Raye's offense relative to the one Mike Martz ran last season: "I like the freedom and the fact that we do have some checks that we can do -- run to pass, pass to run, pass to pass, everything. I like all the responsibility being put on the quarterback's shoulders. I do appreciate that. He wants the quarterback, whoever it might be, to kind of take control of the offense and have it become his, as opposed to, 'This is how it has to be.'"

What Hill thinks about the situation at receiver after the team added Brandon Jones and Michael Crabtree: "There are receiving corps out there that are more talented one through two or maybe three, but I feel like through seven or eight, we have a lot of guys who can play."

The 49ers haven't posted a winning record since the 2002 season. They've finished 7-9 three times, including last season. I think Hill can get them to 8-8 with a competent supporting cast because he's efficient, a natural leader and he generally avoids killer mistakes.

Even in defeat, Hill has generally not cost his team the game:

  • Week 10: Cardinals 29, 49ers 24. Coaches were largely to blame for the game-management fiasco that limited Hill's opportunities during the tumultuous final minute of a defeat at Arizona.

  • Week 12: Cowboys 35, 49ers 22. The 49ers settled for field goals early, including after a blatant no-call for pass interference, and their offense wasn't suited to keep pace after falling behind. Hill finished with 303 yards and a 100.9 rating.

  • Week 15: Dolphins 14, 49ers 9. The 49ers finished with a 25-11 lead in first downs while controlling the ball for longer than 38 minutes. Hill regretted the safe throw he made against an all-out blitz. He had a receiver open for a potential touchdown.

Other quarterbacks have stronger arms and better pure passing skills. The question becomes whether those relative limitations might prevent Hill from leading the 49ers to the playoffs and advancing. They might, but can the 49ers afford to worry about such things if Hill clearly gives them the best chance to become competitive more consistently? I'm not so sure they can.