3 Key Reasons Why Alex Smith Won't Finish the Season as the 49ers' Starting QB
Alex Smith will open the season as the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Over the second half of training camp and in the 49ers' final preseason game against the Chargers, Smith distanced himself from Colin Kaepernick.
It has become clear that Smith has a stronger command of the offense and also understands opposing defenses much better than Kaepernick. As the 49ers' second-round draft pick, Kaepernick has a world of talent and athletic ability, but he is just not ready to be a starter in the NFL.
However, let's take a closer look at three potential reasons why Smith might not end the season as the 49ers' starting quarterback.
3. Alex Smith Suffers a Major Injury
It will be important for the San Francisco 49ers to have a productive and healthy Alex Smith. With opposing defenses targeting the quarterback, this may be easier said than done.
A key for Smith and the 49ers will be the play of the offensive line. The line has had two decent preseason games and two awful ones. In the two poor efforts, the quarterbacks were repeatedly hit on almost every pass play.
If this trend continues, it's unlikely that Smith will stay healthy. No quarterback can take the constant pounding that Smith and the other 49ers quarterbacks often endured this preseason.
Good offensive-line play is also important to get the running game going. With Frank Gore, Anthony Dixon and Kendall Hunter, the 49ers have running backs who can get the job done if they're given some running lanes.
The result will be fewer obvious long-yardage passing downs, where the defense can just pin their ears back and rush the passer. We can expect the 49ers to execute quicker passes and more three-step drops when the 49ers offense is not facing 3rd-and-long situations.
The play of the offensive line will be a major determining factor as to whether Smith stays upright and off the injury list.
2. The 49ers Get off to a Poor Start and Are out of the Playoff Race
We saw last year how a team can implode if it gets off to a poor start. It will be very important for Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith to get the 49ers off to a good start in 2011.
The 49ers open their season with two home games, first against division rival Seattle and then the Dallas Cowboys. These are both winnable games for the 49ers, but I'm certain the opponents view these games as winnable for them also.
This first game against Seattle is a big one. Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh have a history of contentiousness dating back to their Pac-10 coaching days. You know Carroll will have the Seahawks focused and flying high against his nemesis.
Every win the 49ers get early on will build confidence and belief in this team. However, the flip side is also true. Every loss will chip away at the psyche of the 49ers, and it will be hard to avoid the "here we go again" loser mentality.
Following these first two games, the 49ers will go on the road for three of their next four. The road has been very unkind to the 49ers in recent history, and it's entirely possible that the 49ers start 1-5 if they to lose those first two contests.
If the 49ers play inconsistently or incur a series of injuries that get them heading in the wrong direction, changes will likely occur. In the worst of all scenarios, the 49ers start 3-8, and Harbaugh will cut bait on Smith as the starting quarterback.
I hope this does not occur, but if it does, Harbaugh could very well decide to give rookie Colin Kaepernick some valuable experience in preparation for the future.
1. Alex Smith Is Ineffective and Loses His Job
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has staked his reputation as a quarterback guru on whether he can develop Alex Smith into a decent NFL quarterback. The lack of preparation time due to the lockout has hurt the 49ers and makes Harbaugh's job even tougher.
I see two big inadequacies in Smith's game. The first concern is his lack of accuracy. Smith often misses open receivers and is particularly bad when under a heavy pass-rush. In addition, when he does connect with his receiver, he rarely hits him in stride.
We have been spoiled by Joe Montana, Steve Young and even Jeff Garcia. They almost always hit their receiver in stride so he didn't need to make an adjustment to catch the ball. This enables him to continue running at full speed, and YAC (yards after the catch) is maximized.
The second concern is Smith's propensity to make the big mistake at the most inopportune time. The 49ers should be in a lot of close games because their defense is solid, so Smith cannot make the critical turnover to lose the game.
If Smith plays poorly, he will be replaced at some point during the season. Harbaugh is a bottom-line, results-oriented guy. He will not tolerate consistently poor play at any position and will not be afraid to make changes when they are mandated.
The 49ers Are a Work in Progress
The biggest factor for the San Francisco 49ers and head coach Jim Harbaugh will be the play of Alex Smith. I hope that Smith plays well, because if he's injured or plays poorly, the 49ers are in trouble.
If for whatever reason Smith is out, Harbaugh will have a tough decision to make. Colin Kaepernick is simply not ready to start in the NFL. In four preseason games, he has no touchdowns and has thrown five interceptions. Most of those interceptions have been throws forced into coverage.
It is very apparent to me that Kaepernick needs at least one and maybe two years to sit and learn the nuances of the NFL game. The fact that he came from the Pistol offense and is now trying to learn a pro-style system is tough, but he also needs to learn how to read defenses and make better decisions.
In reality, if Smith does go down, Josh McCown should be the starting quarterback. He is a veteran and will have a much better chance to win games than Kaepernick. The only reason I would play Kaepernick is if the 49ers are so bad that they fall out of the playoff chase in the NFC West.
Preseason is over, and the games will be for real. Let the games begin!
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