Alex Smith will improve upon his 2011 campaign.
The NFL, as with any professional sport, is all about preparation and execution.
With the seemingly interminable 136-day lockout that endured from March through July 2011, adequate offseason preparation was essentially thrown out the window. This posed serious ramifications across the entire league, especially for coaches and quarterbacks.
What would the on-the-field product look like as a result of this lockout? Would we see an injury-riddled season highlighted by conspicuous lackluster performances?
The team posted a stellar 13-3 record under the leadership of first-year NFL head coach Jim Harbaugh, a dominant defense and the quarterbacking efficiency of Smith.
It advanced to the NFC Championship Game after an incredible Smith-orchestrated comeback and was minutes away from reaching the Super Bowl.
Now, keep this success in mind and then consider it in the context of a nonexistent offseason program before the season began. Imagine what could have been with a full set of organized team activities (OTA’s) and a proper training camp.
Ponder the statistics Alex Smith would have produced. Surely, a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 17-to-5and quarterback rating of 90.7 would only have room for improvement.
The San Francisco 49ers may not enjoy a 13-win season in 2012—teams in the NFL rarely lose a mere three games each in back-to-back seasons. However, Smith will not be the cause for any such decline.
Here are the five reasons why Smith will engineer a superior statistical output in 2012 and beyond.
The 49ers quarterback showcased his leadership abilities in what came to be known as “Camp Alex"—a set of workouts over the summer at San Jose State University in lieu of the team-mandated programs cancelled by the NFL lockout.
These were nice—ostensibly a means of galvanizing camaraderie between teammates and solidifying Alex Smith as a true leader.
But these could not be nearly as comprehensive or beneficial as formal OTA’s and a training camp.
Coaching staffs exist to plan, organize and implement an offseason program, one complete with playbook study, practice and execution.
These vital team activities can and will take place in mid-April and late July under the direction of Harbaugh and his staff. Smith will have an uncondensed playbook at his disposal to learn, master and execute.
It will capture the effective schemes of 2011 and improve and expand upon them for 2012.
Some believe Colin Kaepernick is the quarterback of the future.
Harbaugh underscored his commitment to Alex Smith after the 49ers season concluded.
He also emphasized that “everything is earned,” with the quarterback position being no exception.
Smith is undoubtedly the front-runner for the starting quarterback position, but that does not mean that he won’t have to compete and earn that spot. Harbaugh has said as much. (Let's qualify this as a powerful motivational tool.)
Incumbent backup Colin Kaepernick, Scott Tolzien and perhaps another veteran or quarterback acquired in the draft will provide ample competition for the starting role.
This may seem fairly ridiculous in light of what Smith accomplished in 2011, but Kaepernick has tremendous upside and four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning lurks in the distance (Hard to imagine the Niners not entertaining that prospect).
Smith has the opportunity to legitimately capture his role for a second consecutive offseason. He can prove to the coaching staff that he is indeed the man for the job once again.
Only the strongest survive, and Smith will do everything in his power to ensure that happens.
I fully expect that it will.
The 49ers will likely be in position to draft Rutgers' WR Mohamed Sanu.
Niner fans understand all too well the team’s lack of a viable weapon outside of Vernon Davis. One completion for three yards to a WR in the NFC Championship Game, anybody?
Michael Crabtree is clearly best suited as a No. 2 slot and possession receiver (if his hands will comply). Ted Ginn is a prolific return-man, not a starting wide out.
Kyle Williams belongs in the third- or fourth-string role. And Josh Morgan, if re-signed by the team, should be a complementary No. 3 target (potential for the No. 2 position if fully healthy).
That brings us to the 2012 NFL Draft and free agency.
There is a high probability that the 49ers and GM Trent Baalke will draft a quality wide receiver at the end of the first round. Kendall Wright, Nick Toon and Mohamed Sanu come to mind.
As for available veterans, Dwayne Bowe, Steve Johnson and Reggie Wayne are among a host of top-rated receivers.
A legitimate deep threat and a precise route-running, underneath target will provide Alex Smith with a bevy of offensive weapons when combined with Davis, Crabtree and Morgan. Opposing defenses will not be able to employ double-teams on singular threats.
These receivers will also complement an already effective rushing game.
Expect a slight increase in Smith’s interception total with an expanded passing attack, but more importantly, expect a rise in touchdowns with a capable red-zone target.
His touchdown-to-interception ratio will also remain among the best in the league with another year’s worth of guidance under Harbaugh and Greg Roman.
Luring Carl Nicks away from the Saints and his boy Drew Brees will be a challenging task.
The offensive line allowed 44 sacks in the regular season (tied for seventh-most in the league) and an additional seven in the playoffs.
It improved down the stretch but regressed in the postseason and is a more effective run-blocking group.
Look for the 49ers to upgrade in this area by adding depth at the right guard and center position, thereby allowing Adam Snyder to fill in as a versatile backup when necessary.
Potential draftees include Kevin Zetiler and Ryan Miller at guard, and centers Michael Brewster and David Molk.
Notable free agents include Baltimore’s Ben Grubbs and New Orleans’ Carl Nicks. Possible centers are Scott Wells of Green Bay and Houston’s Chris Myers (it remains to be seen if any of these big names are feasible options).
Smith will have more time within the pocket in which to locate the newly acquired receivers with a reinforced O-line, which will gel over a complete offseason training program.
The dynamic duo of Alex Smith and Jim Harbaugh.
Smith endured six painstaking years of constantly shuffling offensive coordinators and head coaches.
Narrow-minded coordinators like Jim Hostler and Jimmy Raye stunted his development.
Defensive-oriented head coaches in Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary failed to fully conceptualize the quarterback position and all its psychological elements, often belittling Alex Smith.
Enter Jim Harbaugh, the man who played quarterback in the NFL for 14 years. He understands the position implicitly—notably how important a full vote of confidence is for the most important player on the field.
He identified Smith’s potential and thoroughly grasped his nature as a person.
Before the season started, Harbaugh asked him directly if he wanted to play another season for the San Francisco 49ers due to his previously tumultuous seasons with the team.
Smith replied in the affirmative, and Harbaugh never wavered in endorsing his quarterback throughout the season.
He and Greg Roman developed a system that perfectly harnessed his skill set and put him in position to succeed.
And we can all recall the numerous times when the head coach pumped up his quarterback by patting him on the helmet and shoulders, further instilling confidence in his guy (not to mention the post-game locker room utterance of “clutch” and finger pointing in the direction of an appreciative and grinning Smith).
Jim Harbaugh believes in Alex Smith, and Alex Smith believes in Jim Harbaugh.
With a normal offseason and through their positively evolving relationship, these two will continue to make great strides in future seasons.