We haven’t really seen the real Alex Smith since the end of the 2006 season – and the first three games of 2007. But at this stage, we have no idea who the real Alex Smith is.
The 49ers went after Kurt Warner and did not get him. Now, with Smith, Shaun Hill and Damon Huard on the roster, there are legitimate questions. The biggest question facing coach Mike Singletary is: Can he award the starting job to anyone other than Hill.
At this stage, Hill is the people’s choice. He earned that with a 7-3 record on a team that went 5-17 in games Hill did not start the past two seasons.
But there are some (perhaps, many) in the 49ers’ organization who believe Shaun Hill has a ceiling on how well he can perform as an NFL starting quarterback. After all, Hill is seen as a player who lacks the great physical tools. Many believe his lack of a big-league arm will prevent him from having success as a full-time starting quarterback.
Meanwhile, Smith – assuming he is able to bounce back strong from his two seasons of shoulder problems – has all those physical gifts. There is a reason he was chosen with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. There is a reason that if the 49ers did not take him with the top choice in 2005, he was not going to tumble out of the top-three picks in the draft.
Still, I find it difficult to believe Smith will be the starting quarterback from Day 1. The moment he is named the starter, the temperature will crank up on Smith. People will question why Hill’s accomplishments were overlooked. The first time Smith misses an open receiver or the 49ers lose a home game, the discontent will get louder and it will become even more difficult for him to succeed.
We still don’t know if Smith can cut it. At the end of the 2006 season, he seemed to be on the path to becoming a pretty decent NFL quarterback. But in the past two seasons, he has been able to throw passes in just three games without wincing in pain.
We don’t’ know any more about Smith today than we knew at the end of 2006. Since that time, his injuries problems have prevented him from proving whether he can or cannot play an effective form of quarterback in the NFL.
The best way to handle Smith is to ease him back in. Hill should be the starter from Day 1. Generally, the most popular player on a team is the backup quarterback. At some point, Smith will probably get an opportunity to prove himself in that backup role. When that chance comes, he will be afforded a longer leash.
If Smith never gets that chance, it means Hill was the correct decision all along.
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