Alex Smith and San Francisco 49ers Offense: Showing Signs of Life

Joseph BurkeyAnalyst IMarch 31, 2010

PHILADELPHIA - DECEMBER 20:  Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers lays on the ground after being sacked against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on December 20, 2009 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

In the words of Alfred Pennyworth , "Why do we fall, sir? So that we might better learn to pick ourselves up."

It seems a perfect metaphor for Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers. The once-proud franchise saw steady decline until hitting rock bottom with a two—and—fourteen record in 2004. The two victories came in overtime against the lowly Cardinals.  Good enough for dead freak'n last in the whole league.

The silver lining of that terrible year (aside from weeding out fair-weather fans) was the No. 1 overall draft pick; SF took Alex Smith.

Smith then began a bumpy path through the NFL school of hard knocks, being taken in and out of the lineup by then-head coach Mike Nolan Smith played in nine games in his rookie season, recording just one touchdown pass while throwing 11 interceptions.

Smith went into the 2006 season with Norv Turner as the second in a series of new offensive coordinators (OCs) and an improved set of offensive weapons around him (Vernon Davis, Frank Gore.) He threw for 16 TDs, 16 interceptions, 2,890 yards and a 74.8passer  rating—well above what would normally be expected of a 22-year-old-quarterback.

Then Turner left for sunny San Diego's head coaching position. Smith did not retain the momentum. 

After a good start, Smith would miss most of the 2007 season with a grade-three shoulder separation. The injury would carve a rift between Coach Nolan and Smith as Nolan didn't appreciate the severity of the injuries impact on Smith's performance.

Three years—and a new OC for each year—later, Smith was cast back into the role of front man in a 2009 game against the Houston Texans.  With a refurbished Vernon Davis and brand-new receiver (on whose contract the ink was probably still wet when he suited up) Smith came in and threw for 200 yards in the second half. The 49ers narrowly lost the game, but an identity was found.

Smith finished the season as the starting QB for rookie head coach Mike Singletary.

Now, Smith has something he hasn't had since college: the same OC two years in a row. For now I'll call it the Raye effect, after last last (and this) year's OC, Jimmy Raye. And the effect is real.

"Hitting the ground running" is how he's described his performance after the first of this year's voluntary OTA practice. The norm over Smith's career had been more like "hitting the ground hard."

Smith is now guiding and teaching the offense to the team rather than learning it as he goes.  Barking orders and explaining the situations to teammates should cultivate respect from all around.

And as for his young receiver? At this time last year Crabtree was still wondering who would draft him and where. Now, the studious pass catcher is learning the finer points of the position in the NFL.

"I even got my playbook in the bed" he says. This means the rookie phenom who ended a ridiculous holdout last year only to come in and be an instant sensation should be steadily improving?

Not only that, but Crabtree says the next step should come this summer. He plans on working out one-on-one with quarterback Alex Smith to establish a rapport.

This is all good news to a franchise and quarterback who are dusting themselves off and picking themselves up after failing and falling for a decade and a half-decade respectively.

The last piece of the puzzle—the offensive line—also has good news to share. Alex Boone, a member of last season's practice squad, arrived at the OTAs with a slimmed-down physique. Boon should compete for the starting spot at right tackle, and given the talent in this year's draft, he's going to need every advantage he can get.

Things are looking up, for now, as a rebuilt franchise offense is showing some serious signs of life.


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