In the past, Alex Smith's disappointing performances could be blamed on different offensive coordinators, coaches, playbooks and even roster changes.
The situation is a lot different this coming season. Jim Harbaugh is coming back, obviously. Greg Roman will be the offensive coordinator again. That not only means that the 49ers will run a lot of the same plays they ran last season, it also means that Smith won't have to learn a completely new playbook.
Finally, a lot of the 49ers' key players are coming back, meaning Smith may finally be able to experience some continuity in system and personnel for the first time.
Although Roman’s return is significant, considering Smith hasn't had a long-term relationship with a single offensive coordinator throughout his career in San Francisco, I'm more interested in the 49ers' wide-receiver situation and how it will affect Smith’s performance next season.
The 49ers used their first-round pick to select Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. This pick definitely surprised a lot of people (especially the NFL analysts who thought the 49ers would pick a center like Wisconsin's Peter Konz).
Though many people seemed to be confused about whether they should praise or criticize Trent Baalke and Harbaugh for this draft, I must admit I really like this pick.
The 49ers are giving Smith all the tools he needs to succeed. This is especially important considering the type of quarterback Smith is.
Despite the attempt to sign Peyton Manning and the drama that it caused, Harbaugh and Baalke still seem to have faith in Smith. They knew that he needed more weapons, more than Manning would.
Smith is not an elite quarterback, but he’s also not a bad quarterback. He had a passer rating of 90.1 and completed 61.3 percent of his throws. He helped the 49ers make the playoffs, something they hadn’t done in a long time. Without his incredible performance in the playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, the 49ers may not have made it to the NFC championship game.
Nevertheless, if Smith doesn't perform well this season, there won't be many reasons for the 49ers to keep him as their quarterback.
For the record, I don't think Smith will have a bad season. He has more than enough weapons. His favorite target is Vernon Davis. But Davis cannot be Smith's consistent deep threat, especially as a tight end.
At the same time, Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn are not necessarily Smith's best alternatives as deep threats (at least, they have not shown that they are that just yet). Consequently, the 49ers felt a need to sign Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and even re-sign backup receiver Brett Swain. However, they apparently knew this wouldn’t be enough, so they drafted Jenkins.
If the 49ers draft a good center, Smith may find himself in his best possible position as an NFL quarterback (not that he isn’t there already).
The 49ers' defense was one of the best in the league last year and their run game (especially Frank Gore) was also great. But one shouldn’t expect the defense and running backs to perform at an even higher level than last year and carry the team to another appearance in the playoffs.
This season, the 49ers' opponents will definitely prepare themselves better. Thus, the 49ers will need to give themselves more ways to put points on the board. This means that Smith will need to step up his game, meaning he can't just be a "game manager.”
It's unlikely that Smith will become complacent and not meet that challenge. With the addition of players like Jenkins, Manningham and maybe even Moss, he’ll more than likely take advantage of this opportunity.
If anything, I believe Smith is destined to have his best year yet.