QB Shaun Hill ready to lead Niners through final two games
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Although Mike Nolan has already shown he doesn't know much about what his quarterbacks are thinking, the San Francisco 49ers coach is fairly certain Shaun Hill is happy to be a starter after six years holding a clipboard.
The Niners certainly are thrilled by Hill, who's providing a late boost to one big downer of a season.
Hill, the 27-year-old third-stringer who got his first NFL start Saturday, was outstanding in the 49ers' 20-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, passing for 197 yards and accounting for two touchdowns. Nolan said Hill will start the final two games for the 49ers (4-10), including Sunday's home finale against Tampa Bay.
After a disappointing season featuring a prolonged public miscommunication between Nolan and Alex Smith over the severity of the former No. 1 draft pick's shoulder injury, Hill's steady play was a respite from the surge of bad news around the coach, whose future with the club is in jeopardy after just three seasons.
"I'm very pleased to see the way he's played," Nolan said Monday. "He will make us a better football team one way or the other, whatever his role."
The soon-to-be unrestricted free agent provided six quarters of the 49ers' most competent quarterbacking of the season, including a strong second half against Minnesota the previous week. If Nolan isn't fired in two weeks, he knows he'll be under pressure to re-sign Hill and allow him to compete with Smith next year.
The 49ers approached Hill with talks about a new contract earlier in the year, but he elected to wait until after the season, a decision that could pay big dividends if Hill is able to string together two more quality starts. At the least, he's likely to make more than the NFL's minimum salary, the only pay scale he's ever known.
Hill isn't thinking that far ahead after beating the Bengals with a seriously injured index finger on his throwing hand. His first start since a 2003 stint with NFL Europe's Amsterdam Admirals was something he'll remember.
"I really missed this for a long time," Hill said after going 21-of-28 without an interception. "It's so much fun to go out there and win a game. It's been a long time since I've been out there and experienced that."
With 27 points in 1½ games under Hill's direction, the 49ers aren't even the league's lowest-scoring team any more. They held the distinction for most of the season, but their 20-point output against Cincinnati gave them 191 for the season, passing the Atlanta Falcons (188).
San Francisco had two 76-yard touchdown drives against the Bengals, with Hill running for one score and hitting Vernon Davis for another. Hill's poise in the pocket and ability to look off his receivers are simple attributes, but they haven't been seen much in San Francisco this season.
Hill's six seasons as a backup in Minnesota and San Francisco prepared him for the job, and his coaches saw enough from him in practice to keep him around longer than the average player's entire career. Norv Turner, who ran San Francisco's offense last season, was a particular fan of the longtime backup who never got the chance.
"It's the same thing that keeps a lot of guys there," Nolan said, mentioning Kurt Warner and longtime Rams backup Marc Bulger. "There's been several guys over the years that have waited in the wings and done their thing. Quarterbacks and kickers have been the two positions where people get overlooked the most as young players."
Smith returned to the Bay Area on Saturday night after undergoing surgery in Alabama on his separated right shoulder, which occurred Sept. 30. Smith, who had a disappointing three-game stint before shutting himself down for the year amid a public dispute with Nolan, will require three months of rehabilitation.
Nolan said he hadn't spoken to Smith since his return, but planned to do so later Monday.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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