The San Francisco 49ers have much work to do this season to have a shot at making their first return to the playoffs since 2003. One of the main questions is at the quarterback position. Should the Niners stick with mainstay Alex Smith, or should they go with newly drafted rookie Colin Kaepernick?
I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say Alex Smith will most likely start.
However, some people may be surprised to hear that Smith will be more important to the success of the Niners than their main offensive weapon, running back Frank Gore.
Here are five reasons why Smith will prove himself to be more valuable to the Niners' success than Gore in 2011.
It's one thing for a player to organize and lead player workouts during a lockout in order to keep everyone in shape during a slow offseason.
It's a completely different thing to do this while not under contract with the team.
While it's easy to rip Smith for not coming anywhere close to his expectations since his debut with the team, it's tough to deny his leadership and loyalty to the organization.
Other quarterbacks would take the rapid organizational shifting and the boos they received (49ers fans booed to get David Carr, of all quarterbacks, in the game!) and roll out of town as quickly as possible.
Smith stayed. That has to count for something.
It's pretty depressing going over the numbers for the past few seasons. When healthy, Frank Gore can stand as one of the league's most effective and dependable running backs.
But he hasn't always been healthy—and his efforts haven't always transformed into wins.
Since Gore's arrival in 2005, he has put up 1,000 yards in four of his first six seasons (including his 1,695-yard season in 2006, when he started the entire year).
Despite this individual success, the Niners have only held a .500 record once (in 2009).
The lesson here: Gore cannot carry the offense alone. For him to be successful, he needs support from the passing attack.
While Gore is plenty talented, he doesn't have to carry the full load—at least not this year.
This stems from the Niners finally acquiring a young secondary back who can take the pressure off Gore.
Hopefully, the addition of Hunter will reduce the wear and tear Gore has taken in the past few seasons.
While some rookie quarterbacks have been able to perform immediately after their drafting (looking at you, Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford), most quarterbacks are better served with about a year riding the pine.
This classification would seem to fit with newly drafted quarterback Colin Kaepernick. While he has put up decent numbers running the second-team offense during his first two preseason games, that is far from a selling point that he's ready to lead the team immediately.
His development may be better served in slowly developing with newly signed head coach Jim Harbaugh and waiting for his turn to take on a starting role.
Also interesting is the outlook of Niner legend Joe Montana. When asked about the quarterback situation, Montana said he was not sold on starting a rookie when an experienced quarterback was available:
Why would you want to start him? What you did in college doesn’t always transfer. That’s the biggest thing everyone expects. You bring in a guy like Cam Newton, the first pick of the draft, and they play him because they’re paying him so much money. Half the time they don’t want these guys to play yet. Some of those guys just aren’t ready. Some guys just don’t make the transition. So you can’t just stick someone in like that.
He may be able to make it; I don’t know. But I’m not sure if you want him starting over someone who’s played.
Coach Harbaugh has established himself as a great developer of quarterbacks, both in the college and pro levels. His major successes include working with Rich Gannon during the Raiders' Super Bowl run of 2003 and coaching future first-rounder Andrew Luck.
He now gets his chance to work his magic with Alex Smith.
While Smith has mostly struggled, as the Niners place him under his third head coach and sixth offensive coordinator since he was drafted, this could be the strongest pairing for Smith since his pairing with coordinator Norv Turner (his best statistical year).
However, in early play, Smith has been far from perfect. To put it nicely, Smith will need a little more time in the quickly forming West Coast offense to play to his best under Harbaugh.
Either way, Harbaugh's inclusion of Smith on the squad means he is putting his early pro head coaching success directly in Smith's hands.