Following an 8-8 performance in 2009, a Pro Bowl start by tight end Vernon Davis, the infusion of promising new talent in the 2010 draft, and now the approval of a brand-new stadium advertised as the premiere outdoor sports and entertainment venue on earth, excitement surrounding the San Francisco 49ers is sky high going into the 2010 season, for the first time in nearly a decade.
Perhaps the biggest question about the team going into the upcoming season is whether quarterback Alex Smith, a former No. 1 overall draftee, will able to build on his promising close to 2009 and effectively manage what could be a dynamic and punishing offense in 2010.
Much has been made of the first five years of Alex Smith's NFL career: first, that he has had five different offensive coordinators; and second, that he will finally break that trend in 2010.
I would argue that the second notion is in one way a little overrated. The buzz would have you believe that a boost in Smith's level of play is virtually a lock due merely to the fact that continuity will remain between him and Jimmy Raye.
I expect Alex to elevate his play in 2010, but I think that will mainly be a side benefit of the entire offense having a clearly defined starting QB from the very beginning of offseason workouts, and good depth and continuity at all positions (as I pointed out in a 49ers-evolution-from-spread-offense-to-spreading-stats">recent article ).
With these aspects in tote, the 49ers have been allowed to move through offensive drills with much more efficiency this offseason, being able to focus on details and execution, whereas in previous years they had to spend time mired in fundamentals as a revolving door at QB led to significant issues in the overall development of the offensive unit.
The early nod as defined starter has reportedly imbued Alex Smith with a newfound sense of confidence which coaches and teammates say they have never seen at any other point in his career.
This was reflected in his comments to NFL Network's Rod Woodson in a recent interview . As pointed out there, accountability should not be an issue, as the QB position in San Francisco carries enough of that inherently.
The difficulties associated with quarterbacking in a constantly revolving offensive system should not be underestimated, however. Raye said in a recent press conference that such a task must have been mind-boggling for Alex Smith, which leads to an interesting question.
Virtually since the moment Paul Tagliabue announced Alex Smith's name the morning of the 2005 NFL Draft, Bay Area fans have been grumbling that the nod should have gone to local favorite and Cal product Aaron Rodgers. But would that really have led to a better team?
Alex Smith's intelligence is well-publicized. He graduated with an economics degree from the University of Utah in just two years while leading his team to a Fiesta Bowl berth and earning the No. 1 overall selection. Alex scored a 40 on the Wonderlic exam, double the nominal average score of 20.
By contrast, Aaron Rodgers transferred to Cal from Butte Junior College and ultimately left Cal without a degree following his junior year, having majored in "American Studies."
He did post a 39 on the Wonderlic, but even despite having the luxury of learning from the sidelines behind NFL legend Brett Favre—something Alex Smith certainly never had—Aaron Rodgers had highly publicized difficulties learning the Green Bay Packers offense in his first season.
Given that, is the disparity in on-field performance between Smith and Rodgers to this point in their respective careers really a reflection of decidedly different athletic abilities, or a product of their NFL environments?
If Aaron Rodgers had difficulties learning a fairly constant offensive system from the sidelines, how well would he have fared learning constantly shifting systems while being forced to play early and having to run for his life?
If the 49ers had taken Aaron Rodgers, would they really be better off, or would any QB ultimately struggle facing the circumstances thrown on Alex Smith? In fact, is Alex Smith's unique intellect to thank for the fact that he remains a promising starter going into 2010.
Ultimately, we can only speculate on these questions, but given his production late last year and a competition-free offseason, one has to assume that with the circumstances finally in his favor, Smith has the opportunity to silence his pundits at last and prove his draft status.
If he can, there may be no stopping the 49ers in the years to come.
Keep the Faith!