San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has always been a smart guy. One doesn’t graduate from the University of Utah in just two years with a degree in Economics while accumulating a 3.71 GPA by spending the time away from practice playing “Madden” on the X-Box.
The 2004 Mountain West Conference Player of the Year and the first overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft, Smith further proved his mental dexterity by reportedly scoring a 40 (out of a possible 50) in the Wonderlic, the league’s aptitude test for draft-eligible players.
Not only does such a score equate to genius-level intelligence, but it was head and shoulders above the rest of the quarterback competition in the 2005 draft class, with the passers averaging a score of 23.25 on the test.
Unfortunately for Smith, his play on the field has been anything but brilliant. In his rookie season he threw just one touchdown to 11 interceptions.
A promising sophomore campaign under the tutelage of Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner saw him improve to 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, while taking every offensive snap and leading the 49ers to a 7-9 record.
An injury-riddled 2007 season, where Smith played just seven games, curtailed that progress and was just a precursor for Smith’s nightmarish 2008. He suffered a broken bone in his shoulder during preseason and missed the whole year on injured reserve.
Having only recently celebrated his 25th birthday, Smith is already at a career crossroads.
There is heavy skepticism from fans and front office people alike that after two major operations on his throwing shoulder he’ll ever regain the arm strength he had coming out of Utah, and it’s not like Mel Kiper Jr., the league’s draft guru, ever likened Smith’s arm to Brett Favre’s to begin with.
There’s also his less-than-impressive statistics to consider: An 11-19 career record as a starter, with 19 touchdowns, 31 interceptions, and a 63.5 quarterback rating.
Once the man hand-picked by then 49ers coach Mike Nolan to turn around the franchise’s sagging fortunes, Smith is now the decided underdog to win the starting job away from Shaun Hill, a career journeyman who has won seven of ten games as San Francisco’s starter the past two seasons.
Not only does Smith have to prove his shoulder is fully recovered at last, but he has to absorb and quickly master the playbook of Jimmy Raye, Smith’s fifth different offensive coordinator in as many years.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but one can’t help but think: how can someone as smart as Smith not have foreseen the potential pitfalls in being drafted by such a hapless organization as the 49ers were in 2005?
Wouldn’t he have been better served staying in school one more season, without the classroom demands on his time, to further develop his craft and maybe put some meat on his lithe frame?
We sat down with Smith after practice at the team’s facility in Santa Clara to get his thoughts on his rehab, his tumultuous history with Nolan and what he thinks he can accomplish this season and beyond.
1. First and foremost Alex, how’s your shoulder feeling? Have there been any setbacks or do you feel like your old self?
2. Would you say your arm strength and accuracy is where you want it or is there still some progress to be made?
3. What, if anything, has Head Coach Mike Singletary told you about competing for the starting job this season? Will the competition last through training camp or extend all the way through the preseason?
4. Do you feel you are on equal footing with Shaun Hill or do you see yourself as the underdog for the job, where you’ll have to significantly outplay him to win it?
5. Obviously so far your career thus far hasn’t been as successful as you thought it’d be coming out of Utah in 2005. There have been injuries, coaching changes, a lot of setbacks. Knowing all you know now, do you wish you stayed in school for another season to further develop your game before coming out?
6. Speaking of the 2005 draft, you reportedly scored an impressive 40 on the Wonderlic, a genius-level score. Vince Young, the highest drafted quarterback in 2006, reportedly scored a six on his first attempt. Do you think you could take the test right after suffering a concussion and still double his score?
7. I realize you want to turn the page and look forward, but I’d like to ask you a few questions about your ex-coach, Mike Nolan. It has been rumored that prior to the 2005 draft, when he visited with you, that he didn’t ask you any football related questions at all, but rather just wanted to know how willing you’d be to follow orders. Can you set the record straight on that?
8. Is it true that he ordered you to hop on one leg, a la Eddie Murphy’s arranged bride in the movie Coming to America?
9. Why do you think he questioned your opinion of the severity of your shoulder injury in 2007 and did you feel he put you on the spot to play when you clearly were unable?
10. If the injury turned out to be career-ending in its severity, would you have given thought to suing Nolan and the team’s medical staff for negligence in putting you on the field?
11. On a scale or one to 10, with one being an average football fan, 10 being Bill Walsh at his peak, and zero being a toaster oven, where would you rate Mike Nolan’s understanding of the quarterback position?
12. Fast forwarding back to the present, how do you feel you are coming along in your understanding of Jimmy Raye’s offense?
13. Do you ever feel like you should’ve majored in Lingustics instead of Economics, having to learn the terminology of five different complex NFL playbooks in five years? How do you keep them all apart?
14. Have your struggles both on the field and with your shoulder caused you to lose any confidence or do you still feel you can be a franchise quarterback in the NFL?
15. Finally, in spite of everything that’s happened, do you still believe you can succeed and live up to all of the fan expectations here in San Francisco, or do you ever think that maybe you need a change of scenery and a fresh start to progress your career?