Brian Billick believes Alex Smith has all the skills needed to be successful.
Then again, he felt the same way about Kyle Boller, the first-round flameout he coached for five seasons in Baltimore.
And Billick, the Ravens’ coach from 1999-07, has also scratched his head as plenty of other highly drafted, strong-armed, athletic signal-callers have never sniffed respectability, let alone a Pro Bowl.
“There’s absolutely no reason why Alex Smith can’t be successful,” Billick, now a FOX analyst, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Intelligence. Arm. Vision. Hard worker. I mean, it’s all there. It was all there for Kyle Boller. It was all there for (first-round bust) Heath Shuler. It was there for – I mean, you can go right down the list. It was all there for any of those guys.
“Why does it sometimes not add up somehow? Maybe it is the circumstance. With Alex, we’ll find out because I think he is in a good situation now.”
Billick, the offensive coordinator when the Vikings scored a then-record 556 points in 1998, knows quarterbacks. And he knows Smith well. He pored over plenty of current film preparing for the two 49ers games he worked on FOX last year. In one of those games, he saw Smith post a career-best 130.9 rating in a 40-21 win over the Seahawks at Candlestick Park. He’s discussed Smith with Packers coach Mike McCarthy and Chargers coach Norv Turner, among the most respected of the six offensive coordinators Smith has had in his six-year career.
So why does Billick believe Smith has yet to have much success? As he mentioned, it could be due to the circumstances often cited for Smith’s largely disappointing career: A so-so supporting cast and a laundry list of coordinators overseen by two-defensive-minded coaches in Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary.
But Billick believes those dreary days are over. He raved about Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who Billick hired as his assistant offensive line coach in Baltimore in 2006. Roman, of course, is working in tandem with Jim Harbaugh, whose in-game quarterback counsel won’t consist of “do better” delivered at 200 decibels. And Billick then ticked off the offensive talent “(Vernon) Davis at tight end, a healthy Frank Gore, a good solid receiving corps and I love the offensive line.”
Can Smith alter the trajectory of his career? Why not. That’s a phrase Billick used more than once in discussing Smith’s situation. But he doesn’t expect to see Smith suddenly transformed.
“He’s got some things to step up to, but it’s certainly an excellent opportunity,” Billick said. “Is there going to be this miraculous day-one conversion of Alex Smith? I don’t know that I’ve seen that before. That has less to do with Alex than it just doesn’t happen like that. I can’t think of a circumstance that all the sudden there’s this miraculous change in a player. Can he progess to that? Possibly. He’s a smart guy. He’s got all the tools.”
But does he have the intangibles – leadership, mental toughness, swagger – needed to move beyond mediocrity? Billick said Smith could put those question to rest with a stellar season.
“At the end of the day, the quarterback, more than any other position, leads by production,” Billick said. “So that is what you’re talking about — if you produce then all the sudden you have that ‘it’ factor.”
Billick said he’s intrigued to see what will happen should Smith come back for a seventh season in San Francisco, a possibility that now appears to be an eventuality.
He understands Harbaugh’s wooing of Smith. There’s the matter of the lockout limiting the Niners’ options, but there’s also the possibility of Smith, who just turned 27, becoming a top-end quarterback.
Billick isn’t necessarily convinced that will happen. And he suggested that not even Harbaugh is certain Smith’s tools will finally translate to success.
“Alex is going to be given every opportunity,” Billick said. “But they took Colin Kaepernick for a reason.”