Preseason Game Is Alex Smith's Super Bowl

Michael ErlerCorrespondent IAugust 22, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 14:  Quarterback Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers passes against the Denver Broncos during the preseason game on August 14, 2009 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

One of the easiest ways to look like a fool among your sports beat brethren is to suggest, even jokingly, that a preseason game, any preseason game, is meaningful.

The NFL's exhibition season has long been regarded as a running joke for fans and an annoying ordeal for the media. The stars play sparingly, if at all, and they don't really care how they do. The coaches reveal nothing, trotting out basic high school level game plans.

Us scribes have to prepare and study our media guides so we could memorize the names and numbers of guys who'll be in the Canadian league two weeks from now.

I've long been a proponent of extending the regular season to 17 or 18 games and shortening the preseason. To those who argue that it would mean having to pay players more money and that it would lead to fatigue-related injuries. I say that it's not my money and it's not my body.

Fans don't care about salaries or injuries (not unless it happens to an irreplaceable player), they just want their football. And if they're going to fork over regular season prices to attend games, then by golly they want regular season football.

For the time being though, preseason is our lot in life and at the risk of sounding like an idiot, I think this is a big game for at least one prominent San Francisco 49er.

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Of course I'm referring to the prodigal son, quarterback Alex Smith.

The former first overall pick (and eerie dead ringer for Edward Norton) might be taking the most meaningful snaps of his career tonight against a Raiders team that boasts an owner who's a creepier version of Emporor Palpatine, a coach who's a cheapshotting weasel, and fanbase made up entirely of drunks, felons, or drunk felons.

The product on the field doesn't get much more palatable for the Raiders, as they're led by a quarterback who can't be bothered to take offseasons seriously and receivers who choose to interpret "Look ma, no hands!" in a different manner than you or I. 

Frankly, Oakland is a mess.

That is good for young Alex.

Unfortunately they're much more of a mess on offense than defense.

That is bad for young Alex.

For weeks now 49ers head coach Mike Singletary has been insisting that the team's quarterback competition between Smith and Shaun Hill is Even Stephen.

Not to call the man a liar, but anyone who's been paying attention at all to training camp understands that Hill is the heavy favorite to be starter come September 13 at Arizona. At this point I don't think even Smith's immediate family would dispute the notion.

Singletary is a defensive coach and as such his biggest priority coming into games will be to give his defense a chance to succeed. That means controlling the ball and the clock on offense, minimizing mistakes and turnovers and making the opponents drive 80 yards for touchdowns as opposed to 15 or 20 yards.

For a guy like Singletary a punt is a winning play, a turnover is a losing play and any offensive possession that ends with points instead of a punt or turnover is cause for a brief chuckle. 

Hill is no star. He wasn't drafted, his arm is closer to Chad Pennington's than Brett Favre's on the ol' radar gun, and his primary responsiblity in games is to not be the primary reason the team is losing.

Yet for an NFL quarterback that task is far more difficult than it sounds and it is a role that Hill has handled very capably, going 7-3 in his brief starting career despite not being surrounded by much talent.

Singletary doens't love Hill, but he does trust him, and that's important.

Smith, on the other hand, is neither loved nor trusted.

He was the previous regime's draft pick, not Singletary's. The coach owes him nothing.

The whole idea of giving Smith a fair shot to win the job is being done more as a favor to the people upstairs, the ones who pay Smith's salary, than anything else.

The Yorks desperately don't want Smith to be a bust and when Singletary's only alternative is as wholly unimpressive physically as Hill, he's not really in the position to argue.

Or to put it another way, if the Niners were able to sign Kurt Warner in the offseason, he wouldn't be going through with the charade of battling for the job with Smith.

Smith does have a bigger arm than Hill (who doesn't?) and he is more of a playmaker, so that checkmark is in his favor.

However he's also far more of a playmaker for opposing defenses, having been extremely turnover prone thus far in his career.

His playing style will not endear him to most NFL coaches, and certainly not the ones who value their jobs.

So yes, Smith is very much an underdog, and he'll need to have the quarter of his life to be alive for another week in this contest. It would also help him immensely if Hill picks tonight to give his personal homage to Ryan Leaf.

If neither of these things happen, then expect Hill to start next week's preseason game at Dallas (the next-to-last game being the real tune-up for starters) and all the other ones that matter in September. 

The next hour will reveal much about Alex Smith. Not only is he auditioning for Singletary, but for the other 31 teams as well.

My advice: Throw to the guy Nnamdi Asomugha isn't covering.

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