At 1-6, there has not been a dull moment for the San Francisco 49ers, as they now approach the halfway point of the season. By defying playoff expectations in such a jarring fashion, there will be no shortage of drama and flux.
For starters, a good number of 49er fans' enthusiasm over Coach Mike Singletary's permanent retention two years ago has waned. Despite chronic instability at quarterback and less than stellar consistency, the team had a legitimate chance to make the playoffs in 2009 and were picked to win the NFC West division this season.
Quarterback Alex Smith, although in abbreviated fashion, put together a respectable career season under the tutelage of another new offensive coordinator, the now-departed Jimmy Raye, after reassuming the helm of a 3-3 team in the wake of Singletary's benching of Shaun Hill. 2010 was supposed to be Alex Smith's breakout season to usher in an era of stability. But Smith would be the first to concede that the NFL is no fairytale world.
With an underachieving Alex Smith back on the shelf for at least a couple of weeks due to a shoulder sprain against the Carolina Panthers last week in a 23-20 loss, Singletary essentially demoted backup David Carr. After his discouraging performance last week, Singletary decided in favor of third-string, 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. Smith, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, did not make Baltimore's final preseason roster in September and was soon signed by the 49ers, who needed the luxury of having plenty of options at the quarterback position. Smith gets the Sunday start against the Denver Broncos at Wembley Stadium in London.
Troy Smith's start comes at a critical moment and will define the rest of the season for the 49ers, a team who could find itself out of playoff contention with another loss headed into the bye week. The last two home games for the 49ers drew strong chants from nearly all corners of Candlestick Park for David Carr in place of a struggling Alex Smith. The fans were either ignorant of his struggles in Houston or quite desperate for a new face at the helm—a spark.
Facing the heat from Singletary and under threat of losing his job against the visiting Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5, Alex Smith finished the game with his best performance all season, coming up just short of a spirited comeback. His follow-up effort the next week was less than stellar, while hosting the cross-Bay rival Oakland Raiders. He benefited greatly from a stout defensive effort in a 17-9 victory and kept his job for another week until sidelined by injury. Carr did not earn the start with Troy Smith waiting in the wings.
In keeping with the unfolding saga of the season so far, earlier in the week Coach Singletary announced the benching of David Carr by expressing his strong confidence in Troy Smith. The benching was the latest in a provocative array of decisions as he tries to piece the season back together. The new Smith, in his fourth year, remains largely unscathed and thus an undefined variable in the equation because of his very limited NFL experience.
His performance and accolades in college reflect his potential to be a threat both in the air and on the ground. If Carr's stint last week is any good indication, then indeed, Troy Smith stood as a logical consideration to jump-start an offense short on results, but with an upside unrealized and untapped. His abilities seemingly present an opportunity to create a forward and vertical offensive scheme to complement production from Frank Gore.
As newly-minted offensive coordinator Mike Johnson mentioned, the team has an under-utilized arsenal of weapons, stunted, predictable play-calls, and personnel packages that are hardly imaginative. For all the touches Gore has seen, he has had little to show for his work-horse effort, netting just one rushing touchdown for his 573 yards on the ground and his passing threat out of the backfield.
The game plan will be schemed on a heavy reliance on Gore, executing on third downs and red zone opportunities, with a basic package of plays best suited for Troy Smith's abilities and potential. Fortunately for Smith, he will have an old familiar target downfield in childhood friend and former Ohio State teammate Ted Ginn, Jr. The duo could present a radical new look to a thus far anemic and spotty offense.
This week, 49ers owner John York echoed his son Jed and voiced his confidence in Coach Mike Singletary. He will be given the time to ride out the storm, spark a competitive revival in the team and perhaps resolve the quarterback situation. The gamble on starting a younger and more promising Troy Smith may very well be Singletary's defining moment thus far. True, Smith, who was signed just before the regular season, had virtually no reps with the starting offense until this week, which makes his start Sunday quite surprising. But when you are coaching an underwhelming 1-6 team and trying to keep your job, you need a spark.
Sources reveal the obvious: David Carr did not inspire much faith after losing a winnable game against Carolina. He's heavily damaged goods, to be kind. Carr himself said his frustrating tenure in Houston nearly sent him into early retirement. Singletary said Troy Smith handles himself with an aura of tempered cockiness and confidence—perhaps a confidence that Alex Smith and David Carr have lost in their veteran status. In that regard, the decision to start Troy Smith may be Singletary's best coaching decision all year, next to firing offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye.
The use of Smith's mobility will not be the overarching strategy. It is almost certain that using a limited playbook, the 49ers will see what kind of decisions Smith makes on the field and how effectively he connects with big targets like Michael Crabtree and perennial teammate Ted Ginn Jr. when the play is called.
Smith has a unique opportunity to assert himself in competition for the starting job. The franchise has been rebuilding for much of the decade. Fans want to see a contender and a return to glory. Alex Smith's injury (coupled with the boiling frustration from fans) may have spelled the beginning of the end of his service for the 49ers. David Carr signed on in a backup role as a stop-gap measure and does not figure to be in the team's long-term plans.
Given these considerations, Singletary is looking at every tool in the box. Desperate? Likely so. But practical? Yes. Because Singletary's job is on the line as well. This should bode well for the young Nate Davis and his vocal legion of fans. A loss tomorrow will effectively kill the season for good. Even assuming Troy Smith plays out of his mind and gets the win, Nate Davis, who leads the practice squad and enjoys a supportive constituency across 49er nation, figures to have a crack at the job sooner rather than later this season. The quarterback shuffle has begun.
49er fans remain undoubtedly spoiled by the bygone years of strong quarterbacks like Joe Montana, Steve Young and even Jeff Garcia. They will not stand for anything less than a high-caliber quarterback to lead the franchise back to glory. For Troy Smith, opportunity knocks at Wembley Stadium Sunday, and the whole world is watching.
Jonathan Cronin is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. He comments on politics, culture and sports. He can be reached at jcroninmail [at] gmail [dot] com.