SANTA CLARA — There’s been something unusual about this particular 49ers training camp.
It’s been relatively calm and drama-free at the quarterback position.
On Sunday, an offense led by Brian Hoyer went out on a practice field and systematically destroyed the secondary. The ball is routinely going to the right receiver, the pass is accurate.
A year ago, players and coaches would walk off the practice field almost looking defeated. Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick’s struggles seemed to impact the entire team. Neither quarterback developed a consistent rhythm in training camp. Punter Bradley Pinion was the team’s MVP in front of fans at a Kezar Stadium practice. Chip Kelly didn’t name Gabbert the starter until Sept. 3.
Two seasons ago, it was becoming clear Kaepernick’s play was trending in the wrong direction — the entire team was, for that matter. A wave of retirements slammed the roster and Jim Tomsula was clearly in over his head leading a team. Issues with the turf inside Levi’s Stadium made camp even more hectic.
Now? The 49ers look and feel like a normal NFL franchise. The dullness of training camp has been a welcome reprieve.
The biggest on-field change starts and ends with Hoyer. Without trying to over-inflate his value, the 31-year-old has brought a stability to the quarterback position. Writers tallied him going 14-for-17 on Sunday, and that was with one throwaway. Practice runs smoothly and he’s making plays, which in turn, sharpens other weapons on offense. Marquise Goodwin has been a direct benefactor of Hoyer’s steadiness.
And receivers are starting to learn more about their quarterback. Pierre Garcon had watched Hoyer for years, but didn’t realize his accuracy down the field. Long touchdowns have become a regularity three days into training camp.
“Before I got here, I didn’t know he could throw the ball that far,” Garcon said. “He loves throwing the deep ball. I didn’t know his arm was that strong. He’s definitely a great communicator. He’s definitely talking to guys after plays to see what we saw and get feedback.”
Additionally, the defensive backfield is getting a daily challenge it needs. Instead of Gabbert checking down every pass or Kaepernick misfiring behind a receiver, the secondary is getting pushed up against a wall. Granted, Jimmie Ward’s hamstring and Eric Reid’s right leg injury have drastically changed the lineup to start camp. But Rashard Robinson and company have their work cut out for them every day. That’s a good thing for this defense. It’s not going to get any easier in September.
And even though Hoyer is likely not the long-term solution at quarterback, this kind of dependability is the first step for the 49ers. They’re on a mission to climb out of the NFC’s basement, and that can not physically happen unless someone reliable is playing quarterback. You can go from a two-win team to a seven-win team if your quarterback is making the right decisions with the football. The 49ers believe Hoyer can do that.
Shanahan has been around every quarterback scenario you can think of. He’s seen Hoyer battle Johnny Manziel, he’s had a rookie quarterback in Robert Griffin III, he’s had a franchise guy in Matt Ryan, he’s had a veteran he clashed with in Donovan McNabb. He’s had success with Rex Grossman and Matt Schaub. When I say he’s seen it all, he’s literally seen it all.
What makes Hoyer special? What made Hoyer the guy Shanahan picked on Day 1 of free agency? Behind all the accuracy and the experience, it’s his competitiveness, a trait that sometimes goes away for older quarterbacks.
“Brian believes in himself,” Shanahan said. “Brian wants an opportunity and that’s what he’s looking for year in and year out. For him to come here, he’s moved his family a bunch and to come here, I know why he’s doing it because he wants an opportunity to play. He’s not a guy who’s happy with just sitting on the bench and being a comfortable backup. A lot of people get like that in this time of their career, but not Brian. He wants to play. He wants to be out there and I think guys feel that. When guys know that guys are doing everything they can to get in the game, get in the battle, those are guys people respond to and play hard for.”
Gabbert is currently battling to be a backup in Arizona, while Kaepernick is still (wrongly) out of the league. Kaepernick’s athleticism and arm strength can propel him in the right system. But if you get past the stats that Kelly has a tendency to prop up, the bottom line is Kaepernick was wildly inaccurate, often hesitated and threw to the wrong receiver and played best off the cuff — not within the game plan. It was one good game from Kap and then three poor ones in 2016. The film shows that more than his stats. And that can’t be tolerated.
Listen, Hoyer isn’t a star player. Other fans of NFL teams will roll their eyes when they see 49ers fans get excited about the quarterback.
But there is a sense of stability at the position for the first time in many years. That alone is a tremendous upgrade for this franchise.