SAN FRANCISCO -- The last time Shaun Hill started a regular-season pro football game was in 2003. He was working in NFL Europe, playing for the Amsterdam Admirals against the Scottish Claymores in Glasgow.
"The weather was bad," Hill remembered of the game. "We lost."
Following Saturday night's 20-13 victory over Cincinnati, we now know three things:
The Bengals' secondary must be worse than the Scottish Claymores' secondary.
Shaun Hill, the international man of mystery, has deserved to be more than a third-string NFL quarterback all along.
The weather in the 49ers' universe, if just for one evening, became a little warmer and less stormy.
Hard to believe. So hard to believe. For six seasons in the NFL, Hill couldn't even get on the field and was stuck as a third-stringer, first in Minnesota and then here. The only thing he had done was be sent into games to take a knee and run out the clock.
But now, thrown into the fire after seeing action in just one half of football last week as a relief quarterback, Hill was near perfect. He completed 21 of 28 passes for 197 yards and one touchdown and compiled a 105.8 quarterback rating -- better than any 49ers quarterback in any game this season.
"It was so much fun," Hill said. "I missed it."
He wasn't the only one.
Hill was hardly the sole reason for the victory. The 49ers' defense was as good as it has been most of the season.
So were the special teams. But the offense? Such a difference.
With Hill behind center, the offense looked organized, ran crisply and in rhythm. When a clutch decision and execution was needed on third down, Hill made it. In other words, it looked like a real NFL offense. The sight was a little jarring and disorienting.
And dare we say it, fun.
Give Hill credit for that, too. After he ran a naked bootleg around right end from the 3-yard line for the 49ers' first touchdown, Hill obviously was excited but didn't unveil an elaborate celebration.
"I scored one time in NFL Europe and spiked it," Hill explained. "I didn't need to do it again."
Instead, he tossed the ball to rookie offensive lineman Joe Staley, who somehow lifted his 306 pounds a foot or more off the ground and slammed the pigskin into the end zone turf.
"I've never done that before," Staley said. "But in the locker room before the game, Shaun said, 'If I score a touchdown, I want one of you linemen to come running up to me and spike the ball.' "
Adam Snyder protested while dressing at a nearby locker: "I didn't know that. Dude, you hid that from me."
And so it went. For the first time since the season opener, laughter was actually heard in the home locker room. Could one guy have changed things that much? Uh, maybe.
Speaking more seriously, Staley said of Hill: "We've all known he is a natural leader. We see it every day in practice. ... After everything that's been going on with this team, tonight was really good. The one thing about this whole team you can say is, no matter what, we've never given up."
Right on all counts. But it was Hill, playing only because of a shoulder injury to regular starter Alex Smith and a concussion to backup Trent Dilfer, who provoked the most curiosity.
Hill had the crowd on his side from the first series, when he picked up a fumbled shotgun snap but kept his cool, rolled left and threw back across his body for a 17-yard completion to Arnaz Battle.
Nothing to it.
Indeed, Hill made the offense work so efficiently and easily it made every person in the stadium wonder the same thing at the same time: Where was this guy earlier? And why couldn't the offense do this before with Alex Smith or Trent Dilfer as the quarterbacks?
After the game, Hill essentially was asked the same question: Why wasn't the offense this effective before Saturday?
"I don't know," he said. "I can't answer that."
It just shows you how flawed a science NFL talent evaluation is.
Hill wound up on the 49ers' roster before last season only because of former offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Hill was cut by the Vikings after the 2005 season and out of a job for five months before the 49ers signed him on the recommendation from Turner, who scouted Hill coming out of Maryland. Until getting the phone call from Turner in late May 2005, Hill contemplated quitting football and getting a real job.
"I was on the streets for a long time," he said. "So it definitely enters your mind."
So imagine his surprise, then, when he found himself at the end of Saturday's game, taking a knee on the last three plays to preserve the victory.
"I was joking about that in the huddle," Hill said. "I was telling the guys, 'You know, prior to last week, this is all I've ever done in a game.' "
Hill executed the kneel-downs flawlessly, of course.
For the international man of mystery, it was a snap.