Alex Smith was the No. 1 overall pick by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2005 NFL draft. With that selection came huge expectations that Smith has been unable to meet. Simply put, Smith has never measured up to his high draft status and has been a big disappointment.
Following the 2010 season, the odds for Smith returning to the 49ers were astronomical. The 49ers’ management didn’t want him back, Smith had no desire to continue playing in San Francisco and the fans despised him. Somehow, when team owner Jed York and GM Trent Baalke brought Jim Harbaugh aboard as the new head coach, the thick block of ice between the team and Smith melted.
Although Smith is not officially a 49er due to the lockout, it is a virtual certainty that when the labor impasse ends, he will be signed and start the year as Jim Harbaugh’s quarterback. Harbaugh has frequently praised Smith and even given him a copy of the playbook, even though he was unsigned.
Smith has assumed a leadership role with the team, helping to organize and lead a four-day team training camp session that could best be described as an OTA. Smith worked with the offense, helping them get acquainted with Harbaugh’s complex playbook over the four-day mini camp.
There are many reasons why Alex Smith has not been very good for the 49ers. Let me start by recalling something his college head coach at Utah, Urban Meyer, said. Meyer stressed that Smith was at his best when he knew exactly what was expected of him and was totally confident in his understanding of the system.
With the 49ers, Smith had issues with both of those vital aspects of quarterback play. His two head coaches, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, had no understanding of how to teach or implement offensive football. Neither coach seemed to have confidence in Smith and his own self confidence waned as a result.
Both head coaches clashed with Smith and there were major lapses in communication. Smith also endured six different offensive coordinators in his first six seasons with the 49ers. That lack of continuity spelled disaster for a quarterback who needed to feel comfortable within a system.
Smith has a career completion percentage of 57.1, but was 60.5 and 59.6 in his most recent two years. There is talent there, but Smith also had the propensity for making the huge gaffe during crunch time to cost the 49ers the game. A key fourth quarter interception or fumble seemed to frequently derail Smith and the 49ers. The old cliche of “he played just well enough to lose”, which also applied to Steve DeBerg and Tim Rattay, was appropriate when analyzing Smith’s overall progress. Smith’s career record as a starter with the 49ers is 19-31. A lot of the blame for that poor showing is on Smith’s shoulders. However, the blame is shared with the entire 49er coaching staff and his fellow teammates. The defensive minded head coaches who meddled in the offense and six offensive coordinators in six seasons are issues I have already raised.
The 49er offensive lines have had severe problems with pass protection and even though they drafted two offensive linemen in the first round of 2010, their line often resembled a sieve. Left tackle Anthony Davis was thrust into the lineup before he was ready. Right tackle Joe Staley and starting center Eric Heitmann were injured and lost for the season. Left guard Chilo Rachal simply played poorly. Smith was frequently running for his life, as the line gave way far too often.
The wide receivers also did not help Smith out. Part of the problem was Smith’s accuracy because he did miss open targets, but there were many instances where I saw receivers not running their routes precisely or particularly hard. The fact that Michael Crabtree, a first round draft pick in 2009, basically missed his two training camps and has played in no preseason games meant that he and Smith developed no chemistry. The other starter, Josh Morgan, is best suited as a third or fourth receiver, but the 49ers have nobody better. When Smith is in sync with a receiver, such as tight end Vernon Davis, the pair can make plays. Davis has emerged as a Pro Bowl player and that’s with Smith throwing him the ball, so it’s not all bad.
New head coach Jim Harbaugh is a former quarterback and a very strong offensive mind. As a head coach with the University of San Diego, he developed Josh Johnson into an NFL caliber quarterback. Johnson is now entering his fourth NFL season and is a rising star. Harbaugh then went to Stanford, where also developed Andrew Luck. Luck is now the top quarterback in college football and would have surely been the No. 1 pick in the draft, had he come out this year. Under Harbaugh, Luck has become the most polished, NFL ready quarterback I have seen in many years. I fully believe that Andrew Luck will be a star in the NFL. He is already better than half the starters in the league today.
Jim Harbaugh knows quarterbacks and can develop them. He has watched an enormous amount of video and had several conversations with Alex Smith. The fact that Harbaugh believes in Smith and can guide him will go a long way in giving Smith the best chance of being successful. Colin Kaepernick, a second round draft pick in the most recent draft, is considered the quarterback of the future for the 49ers. However, he is a year or two away from being NFL ready, so Smith will get his chance.
Smith has sadly fallen well short of expectations thus far in his NFL career. Harbaugh gives him one last chance to redeem his career. I think we will see significant progress and improvement by Smith this year. For the first time in his career, Smith has a head coach who knows what he’s doing offensively. The one caveat I have is that the longer the lockout persists, the more difficult it will be for Harbaugh and Smith. No team needs the training camp time more than the 49ers and if that’s lost, it puts the 49ers way behind the other teams in the league.