This isn’t an unfamiliar situation for Shaun Hill.
For anyone else, this story makes for a movie tagline: “An undrafted, undervalued quarterback has to replace a first-round franchise quarterback on short notice. This is how he led a nation.”
The odds of an undrafted QB replacing a first-rounder QB happening once is astronomically small, but for Shaun Hill replacing Sam Bradford after a torn ACL, this is the third time he’s been asked to do it over his ten-year career.
Hill wasn’t wanted coming out of high school. He received a scholarship offer from Pittsburgh State University — for the punting position, not as a quarterback. Hill opted for the path of most resistance, however, and spent two years at a junior college (beating out five other quarterbacks in the process) becoming an All-American before being picked up by Maryland.
Even with the Terps, Hill had to earn his job. Calvin McCall started his short-lived career ahead of Hill until poor play resulted in Hill outshining him. Everyone remembers his senior year, though, where the Terps managed to get to the 2001 Orange Bowl against Florida and the #11 national ranking in Ralph Friedgen’s first year as head coach. He would finish with over 3,000 yards passing during his time at Maryland and be forever looked upon favorably in the eyes of most Terrapins. But Hill’s career at Maryland was just a blip of success a long time ago. He didn’t spent 4 years forging a legacy, he was a replacement QB who got a starting gig.
No one wanted Hill when he left college. Questionable arm strength, not enough statistically and low upside saw Hill not even sniff the NFL draft. Still, he managed to catch on with the Vikings as a practice guy. In 2004, the amount of Minnesota sports websites are somewhat scant, so articles on Shaun Hill as a rookie are hard to find. Still, in all it’s glory, an About.com preview of the Vikings QB situation in 2004, where Hill backed up then-superstar Daunte Culpepper and Gus stinkin’ Frerotte:
"Shaun Hill is penciled in at No. 3, but he doesn’t possess much upside, so I’m not sure the Vikings wouldn’t be better off filling this spot with a prospect with a little more potential for development. – About.com"
Hill took two knees for the Vikings, but when Daunte Culpepper got hurt in 2005 he was, in fact, a second-string backup to Brad Johnson. Still, Hill knew he wasn’t going to get his shot at playing on this Vikings roster, so he again opted for the tough route.
If you dig back far enough, you’ll see that Shaun Hill spent the 2003 season starring for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe (after the Vikings let him hang out on the roster) after David Rivers (you might remember him as Michael Vick’s backup) tore his knee up before the season began. That allowed Hill to step up and get noticed by the San Francisco 49ers for his stellar play in Europe (over 3,000 yards passing). But even in Europe, the knock on Hill was his inability to make deep throws, as he often underthrew Matt Hatchette, another NFL retread receiver. Read that as “Not NFL material.”
When San Francisco picked up Hill in 2007 he was a last-case scenario guy. Mike Nolan and the 49ers were still hoping their first round pick Alex Smith was going to pan out after his monstrosity of a rookie season and his awful sophomore campaign. Even if he went down, they had one of the best “stay out of the way so I don’t get cut” players ever — 35-year old Trent Dilfer — waiting in docking bay. And just to be extra sure Shaun Hill didn’t see the field, San Francisco signed 35-year old bust and free agent Chris Weinke to back up Dilfer.
Of course Alex Smith dinged up his shoulder and was deemed out for the season a few games into the year, and of course Trent Dilfer suffered a concussion a few games into his replacement stint, paving the way for Shaun Hill. Both Dilfer and Smith ended their seasons with the two worst passer-ratings in the NFL, so Hill didn’t have to do much to look good. Instead, he looked great in his first game:
"San Francisco’s league-worst offense and passing game have been so pathetic that Hill’s effort against Minnesota produced the club’s best passer rating of the season: 106.9, or nearly twice as good as the season numbers for Smith (57.2) or Dilfer (55.1).Hill is playing with a bandage on the dislocated index finger of his throwing hand, which swells up after practices and games. – KSL.com"
Hill ended up winning two of San Francisco’s five games that season in only two starts (including one against playoff-bound Tampa Bay, proving his worth for them and creating a QB controversy. Former Terp Vernon Davis even chimed in back in 2007 on the Alex Smith-Shaun Hill controversy:
"I think there should be a competition. Got to have a competition. Can’t have the No. 1 guy sit there feeling comfortable. Guys have confidence in Shaun. I like the way he lets the ball go. He throws it where you’re going to be."
Nothing is ever that easy for Hill, however, and San Francisco awarded the starting gig to sixth round draft pick J.T. O’Sullivan in the 2008 preseason. Nolan and offensive coordinator Mike Martz decided O’Sullivan beat out both Alex Smith and Hill in the QB competition, but the competition was fixed. Per a Michael Silver column for Yahoo! in 2009, regarding Nolan’s firing and the dysfunction of the Niners:
"With Martz orchestrating what amounted to a fixed quarterback competition that predictably swung in favor of O’Sullivan, a journeyman whose stint as a backup with the Detroit Lions made him the only candidate familiar with Martz’s system, Nolan appeared indecisive and disingenuous in his public comments. Hill, another career backup who signed a two-year contract with the team after performing well in the final two games of last season, was held out of training camp practices with what Nolan and Martz claimed was a tired arm; sources close to Hill say the assertion was totally fictional."
O’Sullivan was chosen because he ran Martz offense in Detroit, so Nolan kept relying on him for eight games before deciding that 2-6 was unacceptable. The 49ers also thought that was unacceptable, and fired Nolan in favor of a pants-less Mike Singletary, who finally gave Shaun Hill the starting job again. Hill led his team to a 5-3 record and threw for 13 TDs and 2046 yards over his eight starts, yet again outshining the person he was backing up.
In 2009, Hill finally looked like he had earned that coveted starting gig. Alex Smith was still breathing down his neck given how much money he was being paid, but Mike Singletary went with his guy in Hill. During six full games, Hill led the Niners to a 3-3 record, throwing 5 touchdowns to 2 interceptions and 943 yards. His lackluster performance against the Houston Texans in Week 7 (under 40% completion rate), however, saw his stint with the Niners come to an end when Alex Smith took over officially.
A trade with the Detroit Lions in the offseason (for a future seventh-round pick) had him in a familiar situation: backing up a first-round, first overall quarterback — Matt Stafford — with little chance of starting. But by now we all know Stafford’s injury woes, and Shaun Hill got his chance to go at it yet again just a few weeks into the 2010 season. Ten starts, three wins, 2,686 yards passing and 16 touchdowns later Hill broke his arm and was replaced by Drew Stanton for the Lions. He spent the next few seasons playing the backup role to Stafford, making only one tangible appearance in a comeback near-victory against Tennessee in 2012.
Not that that’s a bad career by any means, but it seemed like Hill’s starting days had run their course by now. He’d gotten starting chances and lost them by unfortunate circumstances (bad teams, coaches trying to save their jobs, first rounders breathing down his neck, poor play), so when St. Louis signed him this offseason, the expectations were low. Don’t get hurt and stay out of the way, much the same as Trent Dilfer and Gus Frerotte back in Minnesota.
Either Hill is a savant at anticipating positive scenarios for himself, or he’s incredibly lucky. Sam Bradford, another first round, first overall pick, went down for the St. Louis Rams over the weekend, pushing none other than Shaun Hill to the forefront once again. Oddly enough, the talk isn’t even about whether or not Hill can be a stop-gap; there are legitimate arguments to be made that Hill is as good as or better than the starter he’s replacing.
What’s past is prologue, as the say.
Because Hill is a Terp, his story is significant in this realm of the internet and gives pride to an alumni base that remembers his favorable performances at Maryland. But because Hill is an undrafted ten-year NFL player who just got another starting gig after taking over a spot reserved by a former first round franchise QB, his story is remarkable and impressive everywhere. A story about not giving up on your dreams and perseverance.
Hill is 34 now, and as soon as the Rams get the chance at picking up another young quarterback, they’re going to go for it. The minute Hill got that job the question wasn’t “How well can he perform?” but “Who will replace Hill this year?” It’s a story Hill’s heard before. Maybe this time he’ll get a full season to show his worth, or maybe he’ll get yanked in favor of a young player if the playoffs are out of reach. Expect more of the same from him, either way. He’s been consistent his whole career.
"This is not anything new, it’s not anything different. I keep the same mindset I’ve always had. I’ve always gone into every week as a backup as if I was going to play. That’s the only way I know how to do it. – Shaun Hill"