Alex Smith should’ve known what he was getting into when the 49ers made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft.
People around these parts grew up with Joe Montana. Even Steve Young did not get overwhelming support until the 49ers’ defense improved enough for the team to win the Super Bowl following the 1994 season.
And poor Jeff Garcia . . . all he did was earn trips to three Pro Bowls. So let’s just say the standard for quarterbacks is higher among 49ers fans than any place else in the NFL.
Smith still has a lot of work in front of him to get into the Garcia category. I’ll do my best to recap Smith’s first five seasons:
1) Horrendous rookie season. He looked tentative and overwhelmed, and showed virtually no promise of ever becoming a competent NFL quarterback.
2) He appeared much more comfortable with Norv Turner’s digit system. He became first QB in 49ers history to take every snap. He showed good progress with some glimpses of strong play, but was nowhere near as consistent as any team would like to see from its starting quarterback.
3) Got off to an OK start with a supporting cast of receivers who did him no favors. The 49ers were 2-1 when he sustained a separated right shoulder. Tried to return to action several games later but the pain in his shoulder was only rivaled by the pain of watching him try unsuccessfully to make simple throws. He ended season on injured reserve after shoulder surgery.
4) His shoulder never was right during the offseason, as the 49ers touted a QB competition between him and Shaun Hill. He eventually lost starting job to J.T. O’Sullivan, and Smith did not even make it healthy to the start of the regular season, as he again required season-ending shoulder surgery.
5) He could have escaped the 49ers and nobody would’ve been surprised. But he agreed to a reduced two-year, $6.5 million contract to remain with the 49ers. The rehabilitation went much smoother this time. He threw the ball well in the offseason and training camp. Hill was awarded the starting job at the beginning of the season. When Smith was summoned to action at halftime of the sixth game, he showed more flashes than at any point in his career. Then, his play leveled off later in the season. Still, he posted career-best numbers in every statistical category.
And that brings us to . . .
6) For the first time, he’ll have the same offensive coordinator in back-to-back seasons. Will that be enough to enable him to break into the top-dozen QBs in the NFL? He ranked 19th in the NFL in passer rating in 2009.
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From my viewpoint, Smith has not convinced anybody he can be a reliable quarterback in the league. But, as he turns 26 in May, he has not proven to be a total lost cause, either. Only people who are biased one way or the other have already made those determinations.
There’s no question he has progressed when he’s been on the field. He improved from his first season to his second. After his third and fourth seasons were virtually wiped out due to injuries, he was better in his fifth year than in his second. It’s hard to believe he’s reached his potential. But we also do not know how much higher he can go.
For the first time, he will not have to spend the offseason learning a new system. He has a better supporting cast than any point in his career. He must take that next step in 2010.
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While coach Mike Singletary did not rule out the possibility the organization could acquire a player to take over as the starting quarterback, all signs point to Smith as the starter. Team president Jed York said if a “Hall of Fame caliber” quarterback becomes available, the 49ers would investigate the possibility of acquiring him.
What seems obvious is that the 49ers do not need another quarterback competition. That does nobody any good. They either get their “Hall of Fame” quarterback and anoint him the starter (highly unlikely) or Smith is the unquestioned starter. If the 49ers draft a quarterback – regardless who it is – they would not expect the rookie to have any chance of playing in the first year.
Smith is the team’s best option for 2010. After all, as I’ve written, what he did in 10 ½ games last season is the baseline of what should be expected this year. Projected over a full 16-game season, his stats from 2009 would be:
343 of 567 (60.5 percent) for 3,581 yards with 27 TDs and 18 interceptions.
If he makes an improvement over those numbers in 2010, the 49ers should have an opportunity to win a lot of games.
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The 49ers will add a quarterback in the offseason, so they go to training camp with four players. The only question is whether they will add a draft pick or veteran to compete for a spot on the roster or if they sign an undrafted free agent as a “camp arm” who might be worth keeping around to develop.
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Alex Smith: ‘Nuff said.
Shaun Hill: His statistics over 5 ½ games were just a notch below what Smith did over 10 ½ games last season. While the 49ers love Hill’s leadership and moxie, the overriding concern among those in the organization is that he simply does not thrown the ball well enough to be a quarterback for the long-term future. He enters the final year of the contract he signed after getting his first significant NFL playing time at the end of the 2007 season.
Nate Davis: This offseason is crucial for Davis, who was a fifth-round draft pick and the seventh quarterback selected behind Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Pat White, Stephen McGee and Rhett Bomar.
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