San Francisco 49ers: Will Alex Smith Remain as Quarterback?

Keith MathewsCorrespondent IIIApril 1, 2012

Alex Smith During NFC Playoff Game
Alex Smith During NFC Playoff GameJamie Squire/Getty Images

On March 21, 2012, several sources reported that the San Francisco 49ers had again signed quarterback Alex Smith.

The deal totaled $8 million a year for $24 million over three years, with $9 million guaranteed, and has been touted as proof the 49ers were comfortable with their present quarterback. This would be a huge contract for me, but for NFL quarterbacks—not so much.

Several facts and events seem to challenge a firm commitment to Smith, especially over the longer term. I am not so confident the comfort level is a high as is generally supposed.

First, quarterback Josh Johnson was signed to a two-year contract by the 49ers the day after Smith was signed, adding a third backup to two other quarterbacks already on the squad.

It is prudent to sign talent to back up a starting quarterback. Too many teams lose a season because the starter goes down to injury or illness, and no competent backup is available to finish out the season. And having at least two quality backups just makes good business and sporting sense.

Johnson had been the backup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and being from Oakland he decided to return to his home turf in the Bay Area. It is reported that he wanted to work again with coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh and Johnson had some success at University of San Diego from 2004 to 2006.

Johnson will join Colin Kaepernick in the competition for the starting quarterback job, though the presumed front-runner is Smith. Johnson’s advantage is that he is already familiar with the coaching style and the playbook Coach Harbaugh uses. The coach has mentioned him favorably several times since joining the 49ers.

The next factor is a clause in Smith’s contract that allows the 49ers to opt out of his contract on April 1, 2013, April Fools’ Day. This clause essentially makes a one-season commitment to Smith. The contract just becomes “curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice commented. No team includes opt-out clauses without the expectation of invoking them.

According to Pro Football Weekly commentator Hub Arkiss, the opt-out clause, if invoked, would leave Smith with less money than he would have made if the 49ers had given him a franchise tag instead of allowing him to become a free agent. That does not seem to be the way to treat a franchise quarterback.

“There’s something about Alex Smith, I don’t know what it is, but they just won’t get married . . .” Arkiss remarked.

The 49ers now have four quarterbacks on their roster with Smith, Johnson, Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien.

Tolzien will probably drop onto the practice squad to be held in reserve. But both Kaepernick and Johnson are set to assume the starting quarterback job if Smith falters or is injured. Kaepernick has spent the 2011 season training and preparing for just this competition. Some fans love his arm strength and would like to see him get a chance to prove his mettle.

And then there is Johnson, with his familiarity with both the coach and the playbook as well as a stellar college record to brag about: USD career passing records with 113 touchdowns, 724 completions and 9,699 passing yards.

If Harbaugh is to be held to his word, the position is openly competitive and is Smith’s to lose. The preseason should therefore have its share of quarterback controversy, which fans and pundits alike love.

The 2013 season will very probably see a quarterback change, that is if it does not occur this next season. Contractual clauses are in place to make a transition easy and inexpensive, and the talent is on the team awaiting the chance to be promoted to starter.

Not since Steve Young chomped at the bit behind Joe Montana have 49er fans had a quarterback controversy as loaded as this one promises to be.