Scott Tolzien took a crash course in pro football this summer and aced every test.
At one point, the Chargers rookie quarterback was compared to Drew Brees. At other times, coaches and teammates raved about his intelligence, his quick release, his accuracy and his leadership.
Clearly, the Chargers liked what they saw in the undrafted quarterback from Wisconsin, and hoped to keep him.
But this weekend, the Chargers gambled and lost -- and their loss was the 49ers’ gain.
The Chargers, caught in a situation where they couldn’t afford to keep three quarterbacks, cut Tolzien Saturday, then hoped they could re-sign him to their practice squad. However, San Francisco swooped in to claim Tolzien off waivers Sunday – a day after releasing veteran QB Josh McCown – to back up starter Alex Smith and rookie second-round pick Colin Kaepernick.
Tolzien rarely has impressed anyone with his arm strength or his running ability. But the 6-foot-2, 212-pounder was a proven winner (21-5 record) and leader at Wisconsin, where he ran the West Coast offense and was noted for his accuracy and intelligence. He completed 72.9 percent of his passes last season and compiled a QB rating of 165.8, both Wisconsin records.
In exhibition games with the Chargers, he completed 25 of 40 passes for 302 yards, a touchdown and an 83.5 rating. In his final appearance, against San Francisco Thursday night, he was 16 of 23 for 226 yards.
This summer, Tolzien said he had spent “every waking minute” studying film and reading the San Diego playbook, and his diligence showed in games and on the practice field.
Head coach Norv Turner, long considered a good tutor of quarterbacks, was impressed, particularly early in camp when Tolzien, because of an injury to No. 2 QB Billy Volek, was getting extra snaps in practice.
“He’s a sharp guy who has a quick release and is an accurate thrower,” said Turner of the Big Ten All-Academic selection. “So far, I like the decisions he’s making.”
Wrote Kevin Acee, the San Diego Union-Tribune’s longtime Chargers beat writer, of Tolzien early in camp: “This kid is sooo smart, so accurate, gets rid of the ball so quick. He’s Drew Brees without having to be forced into playing so soon.”
And, as cutdown day approached, Acee reported the Chargers were torn about whether to keep Tolzien – who had been “utterly impressive” – or an extra linebacker or defensive lineman.
Now Tolzien is joining the 49ers, a team he considered signing with after being passed over in the draft. But after weighing his options, he decided to sign with San Diego. Clearly, however, the Niners were keeping their eyes on him.
As Acee tweeted early Sunday, when asked by a reader if the Chargers would be able to slip Tolzien through waivers and sign him to the practice squad: “Don't be sure Tolzien makes it 2 Chargers …This was a risk. Teams r interested. Could be a 49er. SF liked him in July & he did well Thurs.”
Now with the 49ers, Tolzien is back in a West Coast system under head coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, the brother of Paul Chryst, the offensive coordinator and QB coach Tolzien played for in Wisconsin.
“The West Coast system is perfect for Scott,” Tolzien’s agent, Joe Panos, told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch. “It’s a thinking quarterback’s offense. You need a thinking quarterback. You need a smart quarterback. You need an accurate quarterback. Those are all Scott’s strengths.”
Branch also reported that Tolzien has two things going for him that Harbaugh admires: a high Wonderlic score and big hands. Tolzien reportedly scored a 38 on the Wonderlic – a controversial test of intelligence administered by the NFL – the second-highest score among NFL draft-eligible QBs this year. His hands also are larger than average, which Branch notes, makes Tolzien comparable to McLeod Bethel-Thompson, a rookie the 49ers had in camp this summer.
Upon signing Bethel-Thompson, Harbaugh had noted his high Wonderlic score and large hands as attributes.
So, will Tolzien make an impact this season? Probably not.
The Niners are invested in Smith as starter and took Kaepernick in the second round. And, should an injury sideline one of those two during the season, San Francisco could certainly sign a veteran QB rather than go with two rookies.
But the investment in Tolzien appears to be a good gamble for the future.