The San Francisco 49ers are currently in freefall. After a contentious parting of ways with head coach Jim Harbaugh, the franchise has gone a combined 7-25. Jed York recently hired his third head coach in as many years. The low job security and organizational mismanagement has turned the Bay Area into one of the least desirable locations for potential head coaches. The pre-Harbaugh years proved just as cruel to fans. In the eight years before Harbaugh arrived, the 49ers went 46-82 and never enjoyed a winning season.
These recent lulls for one of the NFL’s marquee franchises have put some abysmal quarterbacking on display. Luckily, the other side of the coin ushers back memories of championships and glory. The 49ers are 5-1 in Super Bowls, the best winning percentage for any organization that has appeared in more than two.
Joe Montana and Steve Young are among the best signal callers to ever don a 49ers uniform, but who else joins them on the list? Having back-to-back all-time greats creates high expectations. More often than not, starting quarterbacks for San Francisco have fallen woefully short of meeting them.
The team’s history dates back to 1946. Given 71 years of history, plenty of quarterbacks have come and gone with little impact. In an effort to sift through those players, only individuals with multiple starts or a “bust” designation received consideration for worst. The best, of course, played considerably longer, and everyone is up for debate. Here are the 8 Best and 7 Worst Starting Quarterbacks in 49ers Franchise History.
15 BEST: Alex Smith (2005-2012)
Don’t groan yet. Alex Smith isn’t a great quarterback. At times, he’s arguably not even good. That’s how steep the drop off is from the top five quarterbacks in 49ers history. Picked number one overall and considered a bust for at least half of his career, Smith ranks 6th on San Francisco’s all-time passing yards list (14,280) and 7th in touchdowns (81). The NFL is a place where consistency breeds success. How did the team foster Smith’s growth? He didn’t start a season under the same offensive coordinator from the previous year until 2010. That’s five seasons of change. Even then, Jimmy Raye, the coordinator from 2009-2010, was fired five games into the 2010 season. Smith’s fortunes finally turned in 2011 when the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh as head coach. Smith responded by helping the 49ers to a 13-3 record. Defense was San Francisco’s calling card, but Smith outdueled Drew Brees in the playoffs 36-32 with three touchdowns through the air and one on the ground. Smith lost his job after an injury the following year, despite getting off to the best start of his career and posting a 6-2 record. Yes – Alex Smith is a game manager, but who would take his spot at number eight? Steve DeBerg went 7-28 as a starter and threw 60 interceptions to 37 touchdowns. Steve Spurrier, a third overall pick, was essentially a non-factor during his tenure. There’s no one else.
14 WORST: Jim Plunkett (1976-1977)
Two-time Super Bowl champion Jim Plunkett is one of the worst starting quarterbacks the 49ers ever had. It all comes down to overall impact on the franchise. Sure, a player like Cody Pickett (0-2 record, 195 yards, zero touchdowns and four interceptions) deserves consideration, but he was a 7th round pick forced into action. Jim Plunkett cost San Francisco two first round picks in 1976, and a first and second round selection in 1977. He initially led the team to a 6-1 record, but lost his next five games while throwing three touchdowns and eight interceptions. His performance did not improve during a 5-9 campaign the following season. The team released him in 1978. In 26 games, he had completed 51.7% of his passes for 22 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. Plunkett signed with the Raiders and revived his career.
13 BEST: Colin Kaepernick (2011-Present)
There is not a team in 2017 that seems to want Kaepernick, but he was all the rage in 2012 and 2013. In fact, Ron Jaworski had this to say about the young quarterback during the 2013 preseason: “I truly believe Colin Kaepernick could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. I love his skill set. I think the sky’s the limit.” Whether it was due to a misguided effort to reduce Kaepernick’s scrambling or because Space Jam’s Monstars secretly stole Kaepernick’s abilities, something certainly changed in recent years. Nonetheless, Kaepernick deserves a place in 49ers lore. Only four 49ers quarterbacks have played in multiple NFC Championship Games. Only three have appeared in a Super Bowl. Kaepernick belongs to both groups. He has thrown for 12,271 yards, 72 touchdowns, good for 7th and 8th respectively on San Francisco’s all-time list. He served as a prolific dual-threat, defensive nightmare during his first season and a half as a starter. Since John Harbaugh’s departure, Kaepernick has spent two years battling Blaine Gabbert for first string on the depth chart.
12 WORST: Trent Dilfer (2007)
Trent Dilfer was the sixth overall pick by Tampa Bay in the 1994 NFL Draft. In his first full year as a starter, 1995, he threw four touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Let me repeat that for anyone skimming through these entries. In 16 games started – 415 attempts – he threw a total of four touchdown passes. He won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2000 simply by taking the field. The defense took care of the rest. Dilfer completed 12 passes for 153 yards and one touchdown in the big game. He collected his ring and became the first Super Bowl winning quarterback to be released by the team the following year. He spent the last season of his journeyman career on the 2007 San Francisco 49ers. An injury replacement for Alex Smith, Dilfer threw for 1,166 yards, seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions with a 1-5 record. He's now a poster child for the argument against rings as a metric for quarterback rankings.
11 BEST: Frankie Albert (1946-1952)
Frankie Albert graduated from Stanford University and served four years in the Navy before beginning his career with the 49ers. He became the franchise’s first quarterback, and he’s also listed as a punter. Albert threw 29 touchdowns in 1948 on his way to sharing the All-America Football Conference’s co-MVP with Otto Graham. The 49ers joined the NFL in 1950, a year in which Albert was named to the Pro Bowl. Albert split time at quarterback with Y.A. Tittle during his final two seasons. He retired with 10,795 yards, 115 touchdowns and 98 interceptions. He sits 8th in all-time yardage and fourth in all-time touchdowns for the organization. It’s a remarkable feat considering his era and years played.
10 WORST: Blaine Gabbert (2014-Present)
The Jacksonville Jaguars reached in 2011 when the team made Blaine Gabbert a top 10 draft pick. San Francisco made a low-risk move, trading a 6th round pick to acquire Gabbert in 2014. Unfortunately, Gabbert’s performance in Jacksonville ended up being a more accurate indicator than his scouted potential out of college. He took over the starting job in 2015 when Kaepernick was both injured and ineffective. He posted unremarkable numbers while going 3-5 during the second half of the season: 178/282 for 2,031 yards, 10 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Chip Kelly gave Gabbert the starting nod at the beginning of the 2016, but Gabbert’s numbers declined further. His completion percentage fell from 63.1% to 56.9%. He threw five touchdowns and six interceptions. With the team sitting at 1-4, Kelly handed the reigns back over to Kaepernick. Gabbert was far from a disaster in San Francisco, but he’s unlikely to start there or anywhere else again.
9 BEST: Jeff Garcia (1999-2003)
Jeff Garcia was never supposed to be the man for San Francisco’s post-Young plan. Considered too small for the NFL, Garcia went undrafted in the 1994 Draft. He then played five seasons in the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders. He signed with the team in 1999 and split time with Steve Stenstrom of Stanford after Young’s career-ending injury. The 49ers drafted two quarterbacks in the 2000 Draft, Giovanni Carmazzi and Tim Rattay. Garcia won the starting job anyway and threw for 4,278 yards, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He maintained his level of play the next year during a 12-4 playoff season. Despite another playoff trip in 2002, Garcia struggled under a new coaching staff during the 2003 season. He was released at the end of the disappointing campaign. He has the fourth most passing yards (16,408) and fifth most touchdowns (113) in San Francisco history. Not bad for a man in the shadow of Montana and Young.
8 WORST: Ken Dorsey (2003-2005)
Ken Dorsey was a record-breaking quarterback at the University of Miami. He led them to back-to-back National Championship appearances, winning in 2001 and falling to Ohio State in 2002. Despite his 38-2 collegiate record, concern over Dorsey’s arm strength dropped him to the 7th round of the 2003 NFL Draft. He started seven games during the 2004 season, losing six of them. Dorsey threw for 1,281 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions over the course of the season. He added another 481 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in 2005. The organization traded Dorsey and a 7th round pick to Cleveland for Trent Dilfer during the offseason. He lasted three seasons as a Cleveland backup before the team released him. Dorsey now serves as a Quarterbacks Coach for the Carolina Panthers.
7 BEST: Y.A. Tittle (1951-1960)
Y.A. Tittle began his football career on the Baltimore Colts. He became eligible for the NFL Draft when the team folded following the 1950 season. Tittle split time with Frankie Albert in 1951 and 1952 before becoming the full-time starter in 1953. He made four Pro Bowls as a 49er, received one Player of the Year Award, and is a member of the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame. Tittle also became the first professional football player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Despite his successes, Tittle never played in an NFL Championship Game with San Francisco. He was shipped to New York in favor of John Brodie and the shotgun formation in 1960. After four seasons and three Championship game defeats as a Giant, Tittle retired with 33,070 yards and 242 touchdowns. He remains one of the greatest quarterbacks in the NFL’s storied history.
6 WORST: J.T. O’Sullivan (2008)
J.T. O’Sullivan spent time on many teams and practice squads during his NFL career, but only one allowed him to damage their on-field product as an actual starter. O’Sullivan signed with San Francisco in 2008 due to his familiarity with their new offensive coordinator, Mike Martz. He won the quarterback competition against Shaun Hill and showed the world what he could do... turn the ball over. O’Sullivan lasted 8 games as the 49ers’ starter. He went 2-6, threw for 1,678 yards, eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions. At the time of his benching, O’Sullivan had fumbled 11 times and lost six of them. He personally accounted for 17 total turnovers, more than any other team in the NFL to that point. Shaun Hill remained the team’s quarterback for the final eight games. O’Sullivan spent two more seasons in the NFL before ending his career with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He owns the unflattering distinction of being the 49ers’ worst starting quarterback since the turn of the century.
5 BEST: John Brodie (1957-1973)
John Brodie is the longest-tenured 49ers player in franchise history. He grew up in the Bay Area, attended Stanford and played for the team his entire career. After becoming the full-time starting quarterback in the wake of the Y.A. Tittle trade, Brodie led a vicious passing assault against the rest of the league. He paced the league in yards (3,112) and passing touchdowns (30) in 1965, but San Francisco consistently failed to reach the playoffs. Finally, in 1970, the team won its first ever division title. Brodie was named MVP and again led the league with 3,941 yards and 24 touchdowns. However, the 49ers fell to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game in consecutive years. Brodie retired at the end of the 1973 season with 31,548 passing yards and 214 touchdowns. At the time, the yardage total stood behind only Johnnny Unitas and Fran Tarkenton. He also added a tournament victory and a US Open appearance as part of the Senior PGA Tour – just for good measure.
4 WORST: Scott Bull (1976-1978)
Scott Bull spent only three years in the NFL. A sixth round product out of Arkansas, Bull played behind Jim Plunkett and Steve DeBerg. He started seven games during his career. The bulk of those came at the tail end of the 1978 season, in which Bull went 1-5. He threw more interceptions than touchdowns in four of the six games he started that season, including a five-interception performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Overall, Bull threw three touchdowns and 17 interceptions during his career. He sustained a knee injury in the 1978 finale and spent the 1979 season on the injured reserve. Luckily for 49ers fans, that was the same year the team drafted Joe Montana. Their experience of circling the NFL drain was almost over.
3 BEST: Steve Young (1987-1999)
It’s not easy to replace a legend. The Miami Dolphins still haven’t done it. The Broncos went from John Elway to Brian Griese. Miraculously, the 49ers lucked into Steve Young. After the USFL closed its operations and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers declared Young a bust, he was traded to San Francisco for a second and fourth round pick. Young spent several years as Montana’s backup. When Montana missed the 1991 season with an elbow injury, Young initially struggled. He lost his position to Steve Bono and did not regain it until Bono suffered an injury late in the season. Trade rumors swirled around Young in the offseason due to Montana’s impending return, but the older quarterback was unable to recover for the beginning of the season. Young capitalized by winning the 1992 MVP award. His 49ers fell in the NFC Championship Game. The quarterback controversy persisted until Montana requested a trade that spring. With the team officially his, Young rolled off seven straight Pro Bowl seasons. He eliminated all remaining doubters in Super Bowl XXIX. Young threw a record six touchdowns during a 49-26 beat down of the San Diego Chargers. Multiple concussions forced him to retire after the 1999 season. Young left the game with 33,124 yards, 232 touchdowns and 107 interceptions as a 49er.
2 WORST: Jim Druckenmiller (1997-1998)
Jim Druckenmiller is the lone quarterback to appear on the list without multiple starts for the franchise. He belongs, instead, due to being a monumental disappointment. The 49ers selected Druckenmiller with the 26th pick in the 1997 Draft in order to groom him as Young’s successor. Coach Mariucci had enough confidence to start the rookie in week two after a Steve Young hand injury. Druckenmiller went 10-28 for 102 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. San Francisco won 15-12 in spite of him. He added one more interception in the team’s season finale against Seattle. That was the last game Druckenmiller recorded a passing statistic in the NFL. The so-called future of the team was not even a 49er when Young retired. San Francisco traded him to Miami, who cut him during the 2000 preseason. In 2008, ESPN labeled Druckenmiller the 11th biggest bust since the 1967 merger.
1 Joe Montana (1979-1992)
Was there ever any doubt? Joe Cool owned the 1980s. Hands down. Much like his biggest competitor for greatest quarterback of all time, Montana was overlooked in the draft. Every team had a chance to select him at least twice. He went to the 49ers with the 82nd overall pick in the third round. Montana split playing time with Steve DeBerg before starting all 16 games in 1981. San Francisco went 13-3, and Montana won the first of his four Super Bowls. Over the course of his career in San Francisco, Montana won three Super Bowl MVPs, two regular season MVPs, led the NFC in passer rating five times and was named to seven Pro Bowls (he earned another trip with the Chiefs in 1993). He never threw an interception in a Super Bowl game and currently holds the record for highest career Super Bowl quarterback rating (127.8). He also holds the 49ers’ record for passing yards (35,124) and touchdowns (244).