San Francisco 49ers: In 2010, They Must Fire Their Engines, or Watch Them Rust
The Jeff Garcia era had ended just as quickly as it had begun. Garcia's play was declining, just as his contract was expiring.
The 49ers, rightly or wrongly, decided that they needed to once and for all, purge their roster and get out of the salary cap Hell they had found themselves within.
Garcia left for the cooler pastures of Detroit, and the San Francisco 49ers haven't had a winning season since.
The 49ers had lost all their key talent. They were a team that was hopelessly outmatched at almost every position.
They didn't have holes in their roster, but rather, their roster was one big hole; with the venerable Bryant Young left like a beached whale, alone on a deserted shore.
This talent depletion earned the 49ers the rights to the first overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft. Where they did the most obvious thing a team with the worst record in football should do, draft a quarterback.
Alex Smith's football is up in the air
Most believe Aaron Rodgers has already demonstrated clearly to be the superior quarterback to Alex Smith.
This seems obvious on the surface, when you look at the highlights and the passing statistics. The door on this debate looks like it was shut tight long ago, and justifiably so, it seems.
However, for Alex Smith fans, a case can be made, that a small beam of light still shines through a tiny crack in the door.
Alex Smith will be entering his sixth season with the San Francisco 49ers. But it also happens to be the first season he has been in the same offensive system with the same offensive coordinator for two years in a row.
But why should this matter?
One has to look a little deeper into the nature of Alex Smith to find the answer.
Smith made a name for himself while playing for Urban Meyer at Utah. His final season at Utah is what catapulted him near the top of the NFL draft in many scouts' eyes.
What is most intriguing about Alex Smith, however, comes in the form of a quote from coach Urban Meyer as the 2005 draft was approaching. A quote that has lingered around Smith and the 49ers franchise ever since.
To paraphrase Urban Meyer, “Alex Smith is non-functional at first, because he has to learn everything about the offensive system. But once he does learn it all, he plays 'lights out'.”
It is a strange thing to say a player is “non-functional” when you are trying your best to sell him in a positive light to the NFL. Urban Meyer might owe Alex Smith much of his successful career, and he certainly respected Alex Smith's ability on the football field.
So to hear something like “non-functional” come from his lips, obviously it was something that Urban Meyer thought was profound enough, that he felt he had to use such blunt terminology.
Nevertheless, the words came from the “horse's mouth,” and the implications are clear. The more Smith knows about an offense, the better he can play within it.
Just as the 49ers can only go as far as Alex Smith can take them, Alex Smith can only go as far as his grasp of the offense permits; and this is what makes the upcoming season, so intriguing for Smith fans.
This coming season, for the first time in his NFL career, Alex Smith has had an entire off-season to grasp and contemplate every last detail of an offensive system.
He has had an entire off-season to iron out the “non-functionality” from his game. Could this mean a breakout season is on the horizon for Alex Smith in 2010?
Critics might point out that a quarterback in the NFL must possess instincts and react off-the-cuff, and if you can't do this, then you won't make it in the NFL.
It's true, many of the better quarterbacks in the league are able to make plays when everything around them breaks down.
However, on the other side of that same coin, there have been plenty of good, and even Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, who were never really known for making miracles happen when placed within a fog of war.
Quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Troy Aikman, are and were, pocket passers with great ability, even though they might have lacked those Favre-like heroics, and Harry Houdini wizardry.
Does this mean Alex Smith has a chance to really be “the man”?
All the current evidence suggests the idea that Smith's true ability remains hidden, until his understanding becomes certain. In 2010, he finally has a chance to put that hypothesis to the test.
Yes, after six seasons, Alex Smith's football is still up in the air.
The question now becomes, where will it fall?
Near the “end zone”
In the NFL, nothing can be taken for granted. It is a cutthroat business, with busted ACLs and broken dreams.
Each and every week, you have to perform. If you don't, the whispers will start, then the talk will begin, then the moves will be made; and before you know it, you've reached the end.
During this journey, what any player can ever hope for, is a trip to the playoffs and perhaps a Super Bowl championship.
But that takes an entire collection of talent. A collection of talent that can play together for a limited amount of time.
Over the recent years, 49ers have acquired a distinguished collection of talent.
Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Justin Smith, Joe Staley, Nate Clements, Michael Lewis, Shawntae Spencer, Manny Lawson, and Eric Heitmann are a few of the key names who have been around for some time now. They are the core group of players who fans recognize and appreciate.
This core group of players have given the team a defensive unit which is near the best in the league in points allowed.
On offense, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis have already broken out as stars and made a name for themselves; and other young players, such as Michael Crabtree, are ready and eager to do the same.
The 49ers offensive line has been solidified at key positions and there is 10 times more talent and depth on the unit now then when Alex Smith came into the league in 2005.
Rookies Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati are looking to serve as the final mortar to a completed brick wall, a long time in the making.
The 49ers roster has gone from a giant hole, to a slab of Swiss cheese, to a solidified chunk of prime cheddar. There really aren't any more major areas of deficiency.
Every piece of the puzzle is there. It is complete. This is it. This is the team the 49ers have built.
But why not continue to practice patience? Why not relax, and let the team pack on even more cheddar?
Two reasons: Father Time and Mother Cap.
Some of the 49ers core group of players are slightly past their prime, and some of them are right now in their prime.
Each and every year, the 49ers core group of players is nearing closer and closer to the “end zone.”
Sooner or later, they are going to reach the end zone, where they will begin to slow down, and then hand the ball off to someone else.
Some players however, might be gone before they even get close to the "end zone."
Dashon Goldson, Manny Lawson, Aubrayo Franklin, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, Ray McDonald, Takeo Spikes, Eric Heitmann, David Baas, Chilo Rachal, Ahmad Brooks, Josh Morgan, Joe Nedney, Reggie Smith and yes, Alex Smith, are all either in their contract year or within one year of their contract year.
Depending on how a future collective bargaining agreement plays out, it might be very difficult to retain all of these players.
Despite the 49ers current cap space, many of these players are beginning to demand contracts that will put the team right up to its cap limit.
If this 49ers team can't win now, then when?
The end zone is drawing near for the 49ers.
The 49ers already have star players on offense. They already have a top defense. They have everything they could want, except for one thing. Time.
If the 49ers are not good enough to become contenders in 2010, chances are, they won't be contenders from 2011–15 either. In 2016 and beyond, all of their core players will either be gone, or entering the “end zone” and slowing down.
In the era of free agency, its not easy to find superstars like Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, or Vernon Davis, much less keep them all together on the same team for very long.
Each player is arguably the best at their respective positions in the history of the 49ers storied franchise; and their patience, followed closely by their morale, will grow thin, if they do not experience a winning season soon.
The 49ers built this hot rod. They spent a lot of money and time. Many of the key parts are top-of-the-line, but they might start losing them if the winning does not happen in 2010.
There is no more time for talk, no more time for preaching, no more time for building. Its time to race, and its time to win.
The pressure could not be greater. Then again, a little nitrous oxide juice, could be just the thing this hot rod needs, to reach its top speed.
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