Much (perhaps, too much) has been made of the 49ers backup quarterback competition. I suppose there is good reason for that: The 49ers are primed for another run at the Super Bowl, and well, Jim Harbaugh has shown the ability to groom backups into championship caliber starters.
From a general perusal of 49ers-related blogs, it seems to be an almost forgone conclusion that Scott Tolzien and Colt McCoy are on their way out, while the newly signed Seneca Wallace and rookie QB/RB/WR/KR/PR/Gunner/All Around Great Guy B.J. Daniels are settling in. But, ultimately, I doubt this expectation reflects reality, nor am I confident it should.
Yes, the ol’ addage, “Trust your eyes,” certainly has value in this discussion. Both Tolzien and McCoy have looked like incompetent quarterbacks (at least, at times). But, with that said, what we see on the field doesn’t comprise the full story of what’s going on.
That is, because Tolzien or McCoy look to be playing poorly, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are. Likewise, just because the box score noted that Tolzien completed 37.5% of his passes against Kansas City, doesn’t mean that Tolzien failed as a passer.
To help create a fuller image of how the 49er backup quarterbacks have played, I have provided sampling of ProFootball Focus’ (PFF) game charting stats below. These are, in essence, the stats behind the stats. Though know stat can really tell the full story of a player or team’s performance, they can at least illuminate some misconceptions. That is, we can see how many incompletions were the quarterbacks fault, how pressures the quarterback faced, how many yards were gained by receivers after the catch and/or how long — on average — it took a quarterback to attempt a pass.
Perhaps Tolzien hasn’t been as bad as advertised. Through two preseason games, Tolzien has completed just 18 of his 34 total attempts, averaging a team low 5.53 yards per. In the box score, this performance reads as a passer rating of just 57. BUT, that rating doesn’t reflect Tolzien’s actual performance.
Tolzien has had seven passes fall in complete for reasons unrelated to accuracy. He’s had three drops, two throwaways, one ball batted away by a defender, and one ball misdirected because he was hit while throwing. With these stats accounted, no other quarterback on the 49ers has been as accurate as Tolzien — except for Colin Kaepernick, but the’s thrown a whopping six passes.
Tolzien has also been given an average of just 2.61 seconds to throw the ball before being pressured. This is the lowest among quarterbacks. Unfortunately, he hasn’t handled the pressure very well. He’s been pressured on 12 of his 40 dropbacks. On those 12 plays, Tolzien has completed just 2-of-6 passes for 27 yards. He also scrambled three times and took three sacks.
McCoy might be as bad as he looks on TV. He’s dropped back to pass 18 times, completing 6-of-13 for 76 yards — 45 of which were gained by receivers after the catch. In other words, McCoy is just 2-of-10 on passes of 10 yards or more (Tolzien is 5-for-9 on such throws). He’s incompletions are the result of inaccuracy (or perhaps the receiver running the wrong route). Which is to say, unlike Tolzien, McCoy neither threw the ball away, nor had a pass dropped by a receiver or batted down by a defender.
Granted, McCoy has been pressured on nearly 50% of his dropbacks. On those plays, he failed to completed a pass on three attempts. He also scrambled four times. Despite the pressures. McCoy has had, on average, 3.44 seconds to attempt a pass — the most of any quarterback on the 49ers.
Daniels is a difficult player to measure, given that he’s only attempted nine passes — all of which came against the third/fourth team of the Kansas City Chiefs. Still, he did complete six of those nine attempts, one of which went for a score — the only touchdown thrown by a 49ers’ quarterback this preseason.
Interestingly, 66.7% of Daniels’ total yards came in the air — the highest among quarterbacks. Four of his attempts were thrown to targets 10 or more yards down the field. He completed two of those for 28 yards and a score.
Daniels has taken two sacks, but on those plays aside, he’s had the quickest release of any quarterback, averaging just 2.1 seconds per attempt. When he gets rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less, Daniels completes 80% of his passes.
Wallace has a world of experience that no other quarterback on the 49ers can offer, so that fact might way heavier in the coaches’ minds than his preseason performance. Wallace doesn’t have much of a performance to weigh this preseason, as he only dropped back to pass eight times for the Saints. He attempted six passes, completing three of them for 32 yards — 31 of which came in the air. Wallace’s three incompletions were the result of one dropped pass, one throw away and one interception. He also took two sacks — one of which was the sack-fumble variety.
If I had to guess which two backup quarterbacks the 49ers carry into the regular season, I would choose Scott Tolzien and B.J. Daniels.
Tolzien might have struggled at times this preseason, but his struggles haven’t been solely his fault. He’s had the fewest time in the pocket to throw the ball and has had the most drops of any quarterback. This fact combined with his familiarity with the 49ers’ offense is enough to solidify his position with the team.
For reasons stated by BASG, McCoy simply hasn’t done enough to warrant a backup spot — even despite his experience as a starter. If it weren’t for some well-executed scrambles, McCoy would have been plain awful this preseason. Unless things change in Weeks 3 and 4, I don’t see how the 49ers can consider him one of their best 53.
I fail to see how Seneca Wallace will be a serious challenger for a position on the team. He was cut by the Saints (in favor of Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin) after throwing six passes against the Raiders third/fourth team defense. Think about that for a moment and think about what that’d mean if he became the team’s primary backup. My guess is that Wallace’s presence will be the equivalent to Josh Johnson’s last season.
Like BASG noted previously, Sunday’s game will help to end this debate. But beyond that, I’d imagine that one of these four backup quarterbacks will fall victim to the first wave of roster cuts, which occur on Tuesday, August 27th. Which is to say, we shouldn’t have to wait that much longer before we know who will be backing up Colin Kaepernick this season.