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Brian Hoyer's career as a starting quarterback began with Cardinals

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- It didn’t take Brian Hoyer long to figure out the key to his success during his short, two-game stint with the Arizona Cardinals late in the 2012 season.

“It definitely got you to the point where I remember just saying, ‘OK, where’s Larry?’” Hoyer said, referring to Cardinals’ star receiver Larry Fitzgerald. “Like, throw to No. 11. I remember him telling me that in the huddle. He was like, ‘Don’t worry, just throw it to me.’”

That was Hoyer’s fallback plan after he took over for Ryan Lindley in Week 16 against the Chicago Bears that season. In the season's final two games, Hoyer hit Fitzgerald with six of his 30 completions for 63 of his 330 yards, but he threw both of his interceptions when targeting Fitzgerald. And Fitzgerald wasn’t even Hoyer’s most successful target. That was Michael Floyd, who caught nine Hoyer passes for 175 yards and a touchdown, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Hoyer made his first NFL start in that Week 17 game against the San Francisco 49ers. It had taken him four seasons to get to there.

On Sunday, his career will come full circle when he visits the Cardinals as the 49ers’ starting quarterback.

“I think Arizona will always have a soft spot in my heart because it gave me my first chance to play, really,” Hoyer said. “I’ll always have fond memories. I was barely there. I think about it, I was there for basically three weeks at the end of the season. I came back out, basically up until the draft and I was there for a few workouts, and then I was gone.”

Hoyer was on the roster when coach Bruce Arians was hired in January 2013, but Hoyer asked former vice president of player of personnel Jason Licht for his release after Arizona traded for Carson Palmer. With Palmer the starter and Drew Stanton the presumptive backup, Hoyer knew his playing time in Arizona would be limited.

“I like Brian,” Arians said. “He’s very smart, fairly accurate and [the Cardinals] didn’t have him very long but was impressed with the type of quarterback he is because he’s a very cerebral quarterback that can beat you with his arm and his legs.”

Four days after Hoyer was released by Arizona on May 13, 2013, he signed with the Cleveland Browns, for whom he started 16 games in two seasons, including 13 of 14 games in 2014. That set off a run of Hoyer joining four teams in five years. But he was given an opportunity to start for those teams.

“Really, getting released by the Cardinals was the best thing that happened to me because I was able to go to Cleveland and play,” Hoyer said. “I don’t know if I’d have ever seen the field [in Arizona]. For me, when Carson was traded, it became pretty apparent that I wasn’t a part of their plans.

“Thankfully for me, I was able to go to Cleveland and get a chance to play. That kind of really got it rolling for me.”

After two seasons in Cleveland, Hoyer signed with the Houston Texans, where he played in 12 games and started 10 in two seasons. He started the 2016 season in Chicago as Jay Cutler’s backup and ended up starting five games for the Bears. Hoyer signed with San Francisco in March.

Soon after Kyle Shanahan was hired to be the 49ers head coach, he was left with no quarterbacks on his roster. He sifted through the available free agents, knowing he didn’t want to “handcuff” himself to a big contract. Shanahan coached Hoyer in 2014 as the Browns’ offensive coordinator, so there was familiarity and comfort between the two.

“The one thing I knew about Brian, being with him, I knew he was capable of running the offense,” Shanahan said. “I knew he had played at a high level in games before and hasn’t always been consistent, but I thought he played his three best games last year watching him at Chicago.

“I knew Brian gave us a chance to win.”

Although Hoyer hasn’t led the 49ers to a win yet in Shanahan’s first season, there’s promise. San Francisco put up 39 points in a Week 3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, the second most in a loss in franchise history. But it was a marked improvement from Weeks 1 and 2, when San Francisco scored a combined 12 points.

“Brian, he’s a gritty guy,” Fitzgerald said. “I really enjoyed my time with Hoyer. He’s kind of bounced around a lot of different places. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s competed and played good football. You saw what he did in Houston; he played good in Cleveland. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s got an opportunity, he’s played good ball and you have a lot of respect for Brian and I’m glad to see him playing at a high level.”

Life is different these days for Hoyer.

He’s had time to learn the 49ers’ offense. He’s working hand-in-hand with a head coach as the Day 1 starter. And, maybe most importantly, he doesn’t have to go into a huddle and ask where No. 11 is.

“I think for me, knowing that I came in and started a game in the NFL -- my first start ever -- after only being there for about a week-and-a-half, two weeks, it kind of proves that you just got to go out and play,” Hoyer said. “Know what you’re doing and go out there and just read and react. It’s something that I’ll always remember.”