Perhaps there is still hope for Alex Smith after all.
Under Smith, the 49ers have a 9-2 record, and he continues to have a career year. And for once, Smith is hearing cheers at Candlestick Park instead of the boo birds.
Smith's contract expires after this season, but before the front office makes any hasty decisions, they should take a step back and do their homework. Too many times teams have given out extensions prematurely, only to see the player fail to meet the expectations that come with those extensions.
Such was the case when the St. Louis Rams signed Marc Bulger to a six-year, $62.5 million contract. Marc Bulger followed that extension up by throwing more interceptions than touchdowns for the first time in his career, and the the Rams would go on to be 3-13.
The 49ers can avoid making the same mistakes by asking the following questions.
It took seven years, but it appears Alex Smith has been placed in an offense that he can succeed in.
Greg Roman recognized that Smith is not a gunslinger and designed an offense that capitalizes on Alex Smith's strengths as a game manager.
Instead of lining up in an empty backfield and four wide receiver sets, this offense has Alex Smith line up in an I-formation and two tight end sets.
These types of formations have opened up the once-dull 49ers running game, putting Alex Smith in 3rd-and-short situations where he can make safe throws.
And as suggested by the 49ers 9-2 record, the offense works. I wouldn't look into the Ravens' loss when deciding to re-sign Alex Smith—having to travel to the East Coast on three days' rest isn't fair.
But one has to ask what happens when the offense doesn't work and Alex Smith is asked to be more of a game manager? Well, Alex Smith answered that question against the New York Giants, when without any support from the run game (Frank Gore had zero yards), he orchestrated long drives, converted third downs and put the 49ers in a position to win the game.
What Alex Smith has not answered, though, is whether he can do this consistently. He followed up that with an off game against the Cardinals, when he completed only 53 percent of his passes and threw an interception in the end zone.
Another question worth asking is whether Smith's game against the Giants is the best we'll see. As mentioned above, Smith does not need to put up the numbers that Aaron Rogers and Drew Brees do, but he does need to improve in some areas of his game.
One such area is his accuracy.
Through 10 games, Alex Smith has a completion percentage of 62 percent. This is the average percentage for quarterbacks, but given the fact that Smith plays in a safe offense that emphasizes short passes, this number should be higher.
Smith also needs to take more shots downfield. I am aware that Smith leads the league in completion percentage for passes more than 25 yards. But that's because he rarely throws the ball more then 25 yards.
And it's not like Smith doesn't have a vertical threat. Braylon Edwards, when healthy, is known for his home-run plays, as is Ted Ginn, when he can actually catch the ball.
Also, defenses are starting to catch on to how safe the 49ers play, and as a result have focused more on stacking the box, much like the Giants did when they held Gore to zero yards. Taking more shots downfield will prevent opposing defenses from doing this.
The Competition Will Be a lot Tougher in the Playoffs
In my last article, I discussed how the 49ers are unconventional Super Bowl contenders.
They're unconventional because they don't have a gunslinger at the quarterback position.
Just look at the previous two Super Bowl champions and whom they had as their quarterback.
Even though the 49ers have defied the stereotype that you need a gunslinger quarterback to succeed in the NFL today, the playoffs are different.
Every pass that you throw, every third-down conversion and every game-winning drive comes with pressure 10 times that of the regular season. Those who can handle such pressure go on to win Super Bowls—those who can't earn the label "choker."
We've seen Alex Smith be clutch in high-pressure situations before, such as against the Saints last season, when with 2:12 left on the clock, he led an 82-yard drive to tie the game.
But we've never seen Alex Smith under the amount of pressure that comes with the playoffs.
What also comes with the playoffs is a much higher level of competition. Don't get me wrong—the 49ers have shown they can beat good teams, such as the Detroit Lions and New York Giants. But the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints will provide more of challenge.
The passing defense, which ranks only 22nd, will have its hands full with Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, and Smith will be given the responsibility of matching the points put up by those teams explosive offense.
And despite what I said in the earlier slide about not looking into the Ravens loss, Smith and his offensive line has to a better job of picking up the blitz, something that the Greg Williams defense is known for.
Smith doesn't need to be Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees with a top-five defense backing him up, but he needs to be able to maintain the type of success he's had thus far in the regular season. Maintaining this success will not be as easy with the added pressure and tougher competition.
Could This Guy Be in a 49ers Uniform?
If the 49ers do believe that Smith is capable of improving and succeeding in the playoffs, then they should not pursue a quarterback in the offseason.
But if they don't believe that the Smith can improve or succeed in the playoffs, they can look for one through the draft, free agency or trade market.
This is one of the deeper quarterback draft classes in recent memory, with Andrew Luck, Landry Jones, Robert Griffin III and Matt Barkley.
However, if the 49ers finish the season with one of the top records in the NFL, none of these quarterbacks will be available to them at the position they would be drafting.
Andrew Luck, whom scouts are declaring the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, is expected to go first overall. Matt Barkley and Landry Jones are expected to go in the top 10.
Earlier in the season, Robert Griffin III was expected to be taken in the later rounds. However, his stock has been soaring because of the year he has been having—just look up his 34-yard winning touchdown pass against top-ranked Oklahoma. The success that Cam Newton has been having in the NFL will only increase his stock.
There is always the option of trading up.
Many of the teams that are picking in the top 10 have already invested in the quarterback position, such as the Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers. They will be listening to offers from teams that are in desperate need of a quarterback.
However, trading up into the top 10 will cost the 49ers at least two first-round draft picks. Those first-round draft picks can be spent on improving other positions, such as the offensive line or secondary.
And trading up has often yielded negative results—such as when the Atlanta Falcons traded two first-round draft picks as well as other draft picks for Julio Jones. This shortage of draft picks left the Falcons thin in roster depth, and as a result, the Falcons have regressed from last season.
Now, before considering the 49ers' options in the trade market, you have to remember that this is the NFL, and trades rarely happen.
There is also the fact that to acquire a quarterback, a team has to give up a king's ransom (such as when the Chicago Bears parted with two first-round draft picks for Jay Cutler, or when the Arizona Cardinals parted with a second-round draft pick and their starting cornerback for Kevin Kolb, who was far from proven and only had 19 career starts under his belt).
One possible option is Peyton Manning.
Before you call me crazy, Manning's stock has never been lower. He still has not fully recovered from the nerve damage in his neck, and it looks like he only has three or four good years left.
No matter how many good years he has left, though, it isn't enough to carry an 0-11 team. Manning and the few good years he has left deserves to play for a Super Bowl contender. And with their 0-11 record, it appears the Colts will be picking first overall.
Picking first overall means the opportunity to draft Andrew Luck as well as the opportunity to succeed Manning with another potential Manning.
Now it's time to come back down to Earth. Even if the Colts draft Andrew Luck, it is doubtful that they will trade Peyton Manning.
Bill Polian is loyal to Manning, as he was responsible for drafting him 14 years ago. And Polian has said that he is open to keeping Manning on the team if he decides to draft Luck, which he can afford to do now with rookies making a lot less under the new bargaining agreement.
If the Colts are even willing to trade Manning, they would ask for a lot in return. If Cutler went for two first-round draft picks, imagine what a four-time MVP would go for.
There is also the question of how much Manning would contribute to the 49ers offense. As mentioned in the previous slides, the 49ers offense does not emphasize the passing game. Mannings' abilities would not be maximized in such an offense.
Manning would also have to learn a new offense for the first time in his NFL career. Lastly, we don't know if that neck injury will ever go away. And even if he fully recovers, Manning has shown to have trouble shaking off the rust, such as in the beginning of the 2008 season.
Moving on to free agency, the top quarterback available would be Jason Campbell.
But why replace Smith with another game manager? Like the 49ers offense, the Raiders offense depends on the running game, with Jason Campbell being asked to convert the occasional third down and not turn the ball over.
A more sensible signing would be Josh Johnson. Josh Johnson was successful under Harbaugh at San Diego, and Harbaugh loves his scrambling quarterbacks. But Josh Johnson isn't an upgrade over Smith and would most likely be brought in only as a veteran quarterback to back up Smith.
Even if Smith does not show improvement or struggles in the playoffs, the 49ers will be most likely better off bringing him back. The timing just isn't right for the 49ers to look for a quarterback through the draft, free agency or the trade market.
There is also the possibility of giving Kaepernick the reins, which brings us to our next slide.
Will Kaepernick Be Around to Succeed Alex Smith?
As mentioned in the previous slide, if the 49ers believe that Smith will struggle in the playoffs and not improve, then they could always give Colin Kaepernick the reins.
The 49ers would be wise not to rush Kaepernick into the starting role, though.
Kaepernick is a project and needs more then one season to develop.
Remember, Kaepernick came from the pistol offense, and transitioning from a spread offense to a pro offense is no easy task—just ask Alex Smith.
This showed in the preseason, when Kaepernick looked overwhelmed and could not make the reads an NFL quarterback in a pro offense has to make.
The 49ers would be better off bringing back Alex Smith at the very least to serve as a stopgap while Kaepernick develops. If the 49ers go this route, then they could have a situation similar to the one involving Joe Montana and Steve Young.
It is true that Montana was much more than a stopgap, arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Despite how well Montana played, though, Bill Walsh invested a good amount of his time in developing Young, and learning from the bench for a couple of years only helped Young's development.
Young would finally get his shot in 1991, and as we all know, Young would go on to win a Super Bowl and be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. And like Kaepernick, Young was known for his athleticism and scrambling ability coming out of college.
It should be noted, though, that I don't expect Smith or Kaepernick to be as good as Montana or Young were—such a comparison is not fair, but what I am comparing is a potential situation involving Smith and Kaepernick to the situation involving Montana and Young.
If Smith factors into the 49ers' long-term plans, the 49ers could always trade Kaepernick.
Such was the case when the Houston Texans traded for Matt Schaub from the Atlanta Falcons. Despite only starting in one game for the Falcons, the Texans gave up two second-round draft picks for Schaub.
If Kaepernick can start every now and then and get a couple wins, the 49ers could have a hot commodity on the bench.
The previous paragraph, though, brought up another important question—does Smith figure into the 49ers' short-term or long-term plans? The type of contract Smith signs will indicate this.
Alex Smith Could Get Paid As Much As Ryan Fitzpatrick
The two most important components of a contract are the amount of money and the years.
How many years and how much money the player asks for determines how much the player values the team.
It appears that Alex Smith wants to stay with the 49ers.
Smith has said before that he does not like to leave things unresolved, which is why he decided to sign a one-year contract with the 49ers despite all of his failures as a 49er.
It would have been easy for Smith to sign with another team and start anew, and the fact that he stayed shows a lot about his character—a trait that Harbaugh and the front office values (more on that later).
Smith is also aware that there might not be another offense that capitalizes his strengths as well as the 49ers offense does. Considering this, it is likely that Smith will be asking for contract in the range of four to five years.
Now to move on to the money issue.
Smith is not the type that would let money dictate his decision. He showed that when he took less money two years ago to compete with Shaun Hill for the starting job.
Still, quarterbacks do not come cheap, and Smith is having a career year. He could ask for a contract similar to that of Fitzpatrick, which was around $7 million in base salary. He also could ask for the same amount of guaranteed money that Fitzpatrick received—$24 million.
Whether the front office meets such demands depends on how much the front office values Smith.
The front office in the past has shown that they value Smith highly, as despite season after season of failing to meet expectations, they've always given him one more chance. You have to remember that this front office invested a lot into Smith when they made him the first overall pick.
Smith is also well liked by the front office and Harbaugh, as he isn't a prima donna, doesn't cause distractions off the field and despite facing major adversity, still competes his heart out.
You can't forget about the effect a player has on the locker room, and Smith is well liked by his teammates as well. Letting him walk could upset the team chemistry. Based on this, I expect the front office to pay whatever Smith asks for, just as long as Smith doesn't ask for an unreasonable amount.
It also depends on whether the front office sees Smith as the long-term solution to the quarterback position or a short-term solution. Even if the 49ers see Smith as the long-term solution, they should be cautious in giving Smith a contract for more than four years.
Remember, we have yet to see if Smith can consistently be productive, which is why the 49ers should also beware of including a large amount of guaranteed money in the contract.
That way, if Smith goes back to his old ways, the 49ers can cut him without suffering much of a cap penalty.
Even if the 49ers see Smith as the short-term solution, they should be cautious in giving Smith just a one-year contract. Smith has been playing on short-term contracts for the past couple of years and must be fed up not knowing whether he has a future with the 49ers.
A one-year contract would show a lack of faith by the organization, which could result in Smith doubting his future with the team and signing elsewhere.
Regardless of whether Alex Smith does what's asked of him in the playoffs or can't consistently produce, the 49ers would be wise to bring him back.
The 49ers have been able to win with him and his weaknesses, and it looks like there won't be any better options in the offseason.
It would just have to be a low-risk contract—a contract that includes barely any guaranteed money and is only for a few years.
However, if Smith shows that he won't get in the way during the postseason, then they should sign him to a medium-risk contract—a contract that includes a reasonable amount guaranteed money. Not too much, though, as the 49ers don't want to be put in the position where they can't cut their losses if Smith underperforms. This contract should last at least four years.
Having not to worry about the quarterback position in the long term can allow the 49ers to focus on their other weaknesses and will give Kapaernick the time he needs to become the 49ers quarterback of the future.
Still, the 49ers should proceed with caution—contracts can sometimes do more harm then good to a player's production.