Alex Smith

Why David Garrard isn’t the answer for the 49ers

David Garrard became available as a free agent after the Jaguars somewhat surprisingly released him yesterday, and within seconds of the news getting out many were suggesting the 49ers should jump at the opportunity to sign him. Very few people have confidence that Alex Smith will become Aaron Rodgers just because Jim Harbaugh’s worked with him for a few weeks, and behind Smith are two rookies — Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzein.

The thought of Smith settling into the starting job yet again, with absolutely no competition for the gig, is unsettling. But is the 33-year-old Garrard the answer?

Garrard vs. Smith

Based on the preseason, it seems like a lateral move. Garrard’s numbers (19-for-38, 216 yds, 0 TD and 1 INT) weren’t exactly stellar. Actually, they were almost a mirror image of Smith’s (20-for-36, 198 yds, 0 TD and 2 INT). Also, Garrard suffered a back injury on Aug. 4 that kept him out for a while, an injury many suspected Garrard only came back from because he felt pressure to keep his job with 1st-round pick Blaine Gabbert and Luke McCown looming.

Based on his overall resume, Garrard would seem to be a slight step up from Smith. Garrard’s career completion percentage is 61.6; Smith has only topped 60% once in his career (60.5% in 2009). Garrard has more experience, and even won a playoff game (although one could argue the Jags won despite him).

However, Garrard looks like a quarterback whose best years are behind him. His interception rate, impressive for most of his career, skyrocketed last year. Garrard’s INT%+ was only 86 last season (100 is average, the higher the number the better); Smith’s was 101. Smith also has an advantage over Garrard in terms of mobility and the ability to hold onto the ball. Garrard led all quarterbacks in fumbles each of the past two years, coughing it up 25 times in 30 games. Smith’s improved greatly in that area as his career has progressed, only fumbling 7 times in 22 combined games over the past two seasons. Then you have Garrard’s back issues.

An eye toward the future

However, this isn’t as much a question of whether Garrard is better than Smith (in my opinion, they’re almost interchangeable at this point in their careers). It’s whether the 49ers would rather groom Tolzein or bring in Garrard to make Smith’s life a little less comfortable, and whether the 49ers think this is a year where they should do whatever they can to win the mediocre NFC West. Or, if after a truncated training camp, new coaches and new schemes on both sides of the ball, this is a year to build and improve with an eye toward 2012 and beyond.

The 49ers can’t carry four quarterbacks. Well, they can but it wouldn’t make sense to do so with uncertainty at so many other positions. If they make Tolzein available, the accuracy and poise he showed during his college career in Wisconsin and the preseason would probably preclude the Niners from sneaking him onto their practice squad — although the fact Tolzein was sacked 8 times in limited run with the Chargers is definitely a question mark.

Also, is Garrard the type of influence the 49ers — and Harbaugh specifically — really want around right now? Harbaugh seems more interested in molding quarterbacks with high ceilings, which is why the 49ers reached for Kaepernick in the second round when most thought he was a third-rounder at best. It’s why the Niners swooped in on Tolzein days after witnessing him in person, jettisoning Josh McCown, who many figured would go into the season opener as the No. 2 QB ahead of Kaepernick.

Garrard’s a guy who’s used to starting and making big money (his $8 million cap figure was the main reason the Jaguars let him go yesterday). Heading to New England to back up Tom Brady would be one thing for a veteran like Garrard. But would he even be open to coming to San Francisco — a team with a hands-on coach in regards to quarterbacking — to fight with Alex Smith to start for a team that over the past decade hasn’t been any better than Jacksonville? The more I look at this, the less sense it makes to bring Garrard in. If the 49ers don’t make the playoffs this year (a distinct possibility), are we going to look back and decide that Garrard would have been the answer? Doubtful.

And if you care about the future of this team, would you rather have Garrard around contributing to the chances of an 8-8 season? Why not roll with the guys they have and see what happens? If Smith somehow figures things out — a longshot, for sure — then great. If not, especially with the new rookie salary scale making high first round draft choices so much less dangerous, a 4-12 year and an impact player high in the first round after this season may not be such a bad thing. The whole “suck for Luck” thing is ridiculous, but mediocrity shouldn’t be this team’s goal. This team’s seen enough 7-9 seasons over the past decade to last a lifetime.

One last unrelated note: while I don’t purport to know anything about player personnel, especially compared to professionals like Harbaugh and Trent Baalke, but I was disappointed to see the 49ers released Ronald Johnson the other day. He was chosen in the sixth round so it wasn’t a disaster like the Taylor Mays pick to lose him, and he didn’t show much during the preseason, where he had a hard time catching the ball and achieving separation. But he had a nice punt return and the Philadelphia Eagles grabbed him for their practice squad. Who knows, maybe Johnson will be forgotten by next year, but I’m predicting we’ll hear from him again.

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