Numbers Game: Why the Fate of the 49ers Rests Squarely on Andy Lee

Patrick Goulding IIAnalyst IJune 20, 2010

The 49ers seem poised for big things this season. In fact, head coach Mike Singletary was so impressed with the progress and development of the team before training camp ever began that he was inspired to cut mini-camp a day short. Highly optimistic reports are prevalent (for once) and most of the pieces seem to be falling into place.

However, there remains one more metamorphosis that needs to occur before the 49ers can hope for any measure of true success in 2010 and beyond.

The near-term fate of the Red and Gold seems inextricably linked to the play of quarterback Alex Smith. Smith has certainly fallen short to this point in his career of living up to the expectations built in to his No. 1 overall draft selection. There has certainly never been a dearth of explanations—or excuses if you like—as to what has been holding him back.

He has had a different offensive coordinator in each season.

He has suffered major and potentially career-threatening injuries early in his career.

He never got the chance to sit and learn an offensive system before being forced into action with a questionable surrounding cast.

He has never been used in a system that plays to his offensive abilities.

Most of these issues seem to be solved going into 2010. Jimmy Raye returns for his second campaign in San Francisco, Smith is completely healthy for the first time in recent memory, and his performance at the end of last season proves that not only is he comfortable in the Raye offense, but has developed the capabilities to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

Couple that with a vastly improved offensive line, more balanced threats from the ground game, and an emerging receiving group, and 2010 must be the year that Alex Smith truly arrives as a legitimate NFL quarterback, right? Not so fast.

There may be one other thing still holding him back: his jersey number.

Think about it. Joe Montana instilled No. 16 with legendary status in his tenure in San Francisco, winning four Super Bowls and three Super Bowl MVP awards. Steve Young improved on Joe’s statistics while donning No. 8, though his individual post-season résumé is far less illustrious. Therefore if Joe was No. 16, and Steve was No. 8, the next great 49er quarterback will wear... No. 11?

I think not.

Alex Smith should swap jersey numbers with punter Andy Lee. This would continue the logical progression of quarterback jersey numbers and guarantee glory to Smith and the team. It does create a dangerous precedent of diminishing possibilities for QB numbers, as what are the 49ers to do after No. 1 inevitably hangs up the cleats? Still that gives the team a good 30 to 50 years before they must face such an eventuality.

Alex Smith’s number must be the last key to bridge the gap between his erstwhile career numbers and the promise of his draft status. If he switches to No. 4, the sky is the limit.

Keep the Faith!