Shaun Hill spent four years riding the bench in Minnesota.

This week, he returns to the scene of the pine.

The 49ers play in the Metrodome on Sunday. The key word for Hill is play. He was the Vikings' third-string quarterback from 2002-05 but threw as many NFL passes as you, dear reader.

Hill's career highlight in Minnesota is easy to unearth. In the last game of his last season, the quarterback was entrusted to run out the final 1:07 on the clock.

Hill took two snaps. He knelt down both times without incident.

"I did good," he recalled. "I got credit for two rushes and minus-2 yards."

Hill got his moment only because coach Mike Tice wanted starting quarterback Brad Johnson to get one last ovation from the home crowd. Tice dispatched Johnson to the field — then called him right back.

"Brad went out of the huddle. I came running in so the crowd could give him a cheer, although I thought the cheers were for me," Hill said, deadpan. "I then took two knees."

Hill can laugh about it now, but his four seasons of hibernation nearly cost him his career. Before he beat out No. 1 pick Alex Smith for the 49ers starting job, before he opened his career 9-3 as a starting quarterback and before he ranked among the NFL's best fourth-quarter passers, Hill nearly walked away.

His two kneel-downs at the end of the '05 season somehow failed to catch the attention of NFL general managers. Hill spent the ensuing spring waiting by a phone that never rang.

As June approached, Hill began wondering what his line of work would be.

"Yeah, I spoke to my agent about a possible Plan B. We didn't come up with a good one," he said with a laugh. "I was definitely going to stay in shape and give it a year, and hopefully someone would bring me in if injuries happened. I was going to stay ready to go at least for a year and then kind of revisit that Plan B."

The 49ers signed him on June 2, 2006, and it's felt like Plan A-plus ever since. Through injuries and circumstance, Hill finally got his chance and capitalized.

Now, the guy who never played heads back to Minnesota to face off against Brett Favre in the only matchup of the weekend between 2-0 teams.

The 49ers, of course, ask Hill to handle more than kneel-downs. But the perception persists that he doesn't do much more than that. This offense is Frank Gore's show, as evidenced by the running back's 207-yard performance against the Seattle Seahawks last week.

Hill, meanwhile, is thought of as the guy who just needs to avoid mistakes. He's described as "game manager" so often that it's easy to confuse him with Tony La Russa.

At Mike Singletary's news conference Monday, the coach was asked if Hill was capable of putting the team on his shoulders and winning a game by himself.

"Hopefully, we don't have to ask him to do that," Singletary replied.

But the question and the answer ignored the fact that in Week 1, Hill connected 9 of 12 passes for 72 yards and a touchdown during a game-winning fourth-quarter drive at Arizona, putting the team on his shoulders after the running game went nowhere.

It wasn't the first time. Since the start of last season, Hill has a 101.5 passer rating in the fourth quarter. The only quarterbacks with a higher fourth-quarter rating during that time are Dallas' Tony Romo (118.8), Buffalo's Trent Edwards (111.0) and San Diego's Philip Rivers (108.1).

As Hill explains it, he wasn't just twiddling his thumbs during his four seasons as a spectator in Minnesota. He paid attention and picked the brains of quarterbacks such as Johnson, Daunte Culpepper, Gus Frerotte and Todd Bouman.

"I learned something from all of those guys," he said. "They were very gracious to offer up the help to me, and obviously I was very willing to go to them for help.

"I've always tried to prepare as if I was playing, even back when I had a slim chance. And if the opportunity did come, then I'd be ready for that."