San Francisco 49ers: Can Alex Smith Save Alex Smith?

Razi Syed@raz427Correspondent IJanuary 20, 2009

What a difference five years makes.

Five years ago, the San Francisco 49ers went 2-14 and had the number one pick in the draft. They fired coach Dennis Erickson and brought in Baltimore's Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan.

I will honestly tell you that I wanted Aaron Rodgers back on draft day. Rodgers played against a better conference and against a better defense in USC. However, Smith was versatile and had great athletic ability, but he turned out to be a product of Urban Meyer. I think because of what happened to Alex Smith so far in his career, Tim Tebow will be passed by many teams in the 2010 draft.

Mike Nolan had to make the most important decision in his brief coaching career with the 49ers. By the way, Nolan was fired midway through the 2008 season with a 2-5 record and a 18-37 record in three and a half years.

Back to the topic at hand, there is a tough question to ask: do you draft the QB who is very intelligent and possesses great athleticism in Alex Smith, or the QB who is a true pocket passer, possessing a strong and accurate arm with good mobility and can make plays with his legs?

Nolan believed that Smith was a part of a new generation of quarterbacks, someone who can make plays with his legs while still being a dominant passer.  He chose Alex Smith for the number one overall pick in the 2005 draft. In 2005, Smith was regarded as the new Rich Gannon, with superior leadership and intelligence.

In the 2005 season, Alex Smith had Mike McCarthy, current Packers head coach, as his Offensive Coordinator. Smith did not even make his first NFL start until Week Five at home, playing the Indianapolis Colts led by Peyton Manning. What a great way to have your NFL starting debut...versus a future Hall of Famer with two NFL MVP awards, at the time.

The final score was 28-3 and Smith completed only nine passes out of twenty three attempts, garnering 74 yards to go with no touchdowns and four interceptions. Just for the sake of comparison, Peyton completed 23 passes in 31 throws, for 255 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.

I kid you not, Smith finished the 2005 season with a 40.8 passer rating, one touchdown, and 11 interceptions in nine games, seven of which he started.

In his defense, Alex Smith did not really have an offensive play maker that season. His most productive wide receiver was Brandon Lloyd; who had 48 catches, 733 yards, and five touchdowns; and a broken down Johnny Morton at age 34. The 49ers finished the 2005 season with a total of 17 Offensive Touchdowns.

Frank Gore had only 608 yards, but a respectable 4.8 yards per carry. Gore was splitting time with Kevin Barlow, and rightfully so. He had a serious knee injury in his senior season at the University of Miami, so Nolan was cautious about him being the workhorse.

Moreover, Smith's offensive line was pathetic. Here are is his starting offensive linemen for the 2005 season: Left Tackle Adam Snyder, Left Guard Justin Smiley, Center Jeremy Newberry, Right Guard Eric Heitmann, and Right Tackle Kwame Harris. It is not very easy to come into a salary cutting franchise with few play makers and set the league on fire.

This season was a wash just because of the Quarterback-by-commitee approach that Mike Nolan used. The other quarterback, Tim Rattay, started nine games that season, taking time away from Alex Smith.

In the 2005 off-season, Offensive Coordinator Mike McCarthy left for greener pastures and became the Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers. Former Oakland coach Norv Turner, recently fired, was hired by the 49ers to call the offense for the 2006 season. In the 2006 draft, the 49ers tried to help Alex Smith discover his potential by picking Tight End Vernon Davis from Maryland. Davis ran a 4.38 40 yard dash and had a 42 inch vertical jump.

Also in that off-season, the 49ers signed troubled Wide Receiver Antonio Bryant in the hope that he would straighten his character issues out with a new team. Smith's second season leap was incredible. He went from one touchdown, 11 picks, and 40.8 rating in 2005 to a 74.8 rating, 58 completion percentage, 16 touchdowns, and 16 picks. Many thought this was a breakout season in which Smith figured out how to play in the NFL.

Norv Turner was instantly acclaimed a genius by many fans and experts. Bryant had 40 catches, 733 yards, and three touchdowns. Davis had 20 catches, 265 yards, and three touchdowns. Davis missed six games with an injury and was slow on the blocking schemes that were essential for a Tight End to learn. Gore had a breakout season with 1695 yards and eight touchdowns.

Turner also left the 49ers after the 2006 season to become San Diego Chargers Hed Coach after they fired Marty Schottenhiemer. Once again the 49ers and Alex Smith were left without an Offensive Coordinator. They chose Jim Hostler as Offensive Coordinator, the Quarterbacks coach in 2005 and 2006. However, they cut Wide Receiver Antonio Bryant, and once again Smith was without a number one Wide Receiver. Again they failed to improve the Offensive Line for Smith, who was getting punished in the 2006 season.

In 2007 Smith had to learn his THIRD offense in his first three years. Not to mention the lack of an Offensive Line, and no play making Wide Receivers were added. From the start Smith was in trouble, Hostler had lost this team quickly, and teammates were secretly admitting that they had lost faith in Hostler.

Smith's first game in 2007 was a comeback victory over Arizona on Monday Night Football. But in week four, Smith had injured his throwing shoulder after Defensive Tackle Rocky Bernard of the Seattle Seahawks landed on him. Smith didn't need immediate surgery and was told to play it through.

However, he would miss the next three games. When he came back in week nine, he had a poor performance. He completed 17 of 38 passes, accumulated 149 yards, for no touchdowns and three interceptions. Smith had told the media that he believed he wasn't ready to be back yet with the added pressure on Mike Nolan's job security. Nolan quickly rushed him back to start, thinking Smith was healthy enough to play out the remaining 2007 season.

Smith went for a second opinion, turning Dr. James Andrews, a highly skilled orthopedic surgeon. Andrews informed Smith and Nolan that the shoulder didn't heal in time as hoped for. Therefore, Smith had to get season ending surgery on his shoulder in December. 

To make matters worse, the team fired the offensive coordinator Jim Hostler and replaced him with offensive guru extraordinaire Mike Martz. Smith was excited to play in a Mike Martz system. However, Martz admitted to the media that Smith wasn't quickly learning the complicated offensive scheme and he was placed as a backup in a preseason game.

Martz brought his own Quarterback in from his days in Detroit, J.T. O'Sullivan. Smith entered Training Camp competing for the starting quarterback job with Shaun Hill and O'Sullivan. J.T. won the starting job hands down while Smith was struggling to learn the difficult offensive packages. This led to Smith being dubbed the backup Quarterback, for the first time in his NFL career.

Smith was labeled as a 'bust' by former NFL head coach Jim Mora. Smith made another step back in his career with a broken bone in the same shoulder previously injured. Neither the 49ers or Smith remember how this injury took place and as a result Smith had another season ending surgery in 2008.

General Manager Scott McCloughan said that the 49ers were willing to cut Smith before the 2009 season so they can escape paying him $9.6 MM. This changed with the firing of Mike Nolan in middle of the 2008 season. Smith will most likely be back in 2009 by taking a very hefty pay cut alikely have to earn the job from Shaun Hill. Hill played terrific in his audition, and likely will be the front runner in the 2009 job.

Here's my take. Yes, I have been hard as anyone on Alex Smith. Yes, I realize that he should belong with previous busts: Ryan Leaf, Joey Harrington, Akali Smith, and Todd Marinovich.

But, I have realized something. Instead of being the next Ryan Leaf, why can't he be the next Jim Plunkett? Plunkett was a former starting Quarterback with the Patriots; and then was cut by the 49ers; only to lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl 15 victory over Philadelphia, an MVP, and a Super Bowl 18 victory over the defending champions Washington Redskins.

This got me thinking, as great as the 49ers Quarterbacks whom played from 1979-2004, we as fans are spoiled. We think, just because those 25 years were the best in the history of this league, we should expect that Alex Smith will be the same as Montana, Young, and Garcia.

The truth is: had Montana, Garcia, or Young been given the same scenario: four new offenses in their first four seasons, no Offensive Line, and no big play making Wide Receivers, they would also suffer the same fate as Smith. It's very easy to criticize and say "Smith does suck" or "Smith's a bust."

But, I refuse to believe that, I think the 49ers honestly should bring him back for the following reasons: Warner or McNabb will not be testing Free Agency, Shaun Hill is a career backup, and finally, Smith will be motivated and focused more than ever in his football playing career starting from HS to Pro.

Players like Smith realize that everything is given to them, and you don't have to earn it. I think they should resign him for one year, paying him two million dollars, and tell him straight up: "Smith you will be a backup unless Hill falters, or if you win the job hands down in preseason." If Hill and Smith both perform below expectations you can cut them both and then go after the big prize in the 2010 Free Agency: Quarterback Carson Palmer, who wants to come back to California.

With Oakland and San Diego having franchise quarterbacks already there, Palmer will love to come and play for Singletary, Running Back Frank Gore, Tight End Davis, as well Joe Staley, a solid young Left Tackle, and Right Guard Chilo Rachal. No one would get hurt here.

There are not going to be any long term contracts to Hill or Smith if Palmer is going to test free agency in 2010. And why wouldn't he? Houshmanzadeh is about to leave, and Chad Johnson will most likely end up traded. Would he want to remain a Bengal with CEDRIC BENSON? I dont think so! 

Smith, who did not have Wide Receiver Issac Bruce, or Joe Staley, or Rachal, certainly did not have the trust of Mike Nolan. If Smith does come back next season and plays well, plays at a level where he won't be dubbed as a bust but more as a franchise Quarterback, then we as 49er fans should rejoice in that. Mike Nolan is now the Defensive Coordinator at Denver with new coach Josh McDaniels.

Think about it, Smith will WANT to shed off his label, he will want to prove Nolan and all the haters all wrong. There's a reason why this guy went from one touchdown and 11 picks to 16-16. It's not because of luck, or the scheme. It's because he has TALENT, and since 2006 he has not had the opportunity to meet that talent.

The only way that happens is if he can save his career and save his name and perform like a franchise Quarterback should.

Here's to you, Alex Smith! For your sake, and the organization's sake, I hope you get your career back on track.


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