During his final stint with the 49ers, Ted Tollner didn’t see much of injury plagued Alex Smith in action. But he clearly liked what little he did see.
And despite Smith’s career trajectory, Tollner, an offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach with San Francisco in 2007-08, maintains the best is yet to come.
“I think he’s real close to becoming a quarterback that can lead the Niners to a championship,” Tollner said this week. “And that’s just my opinion because I know he has athleticism. I know he can throw the ball with enough velocity. I know he works like mad on his preparation so that he can make good decisions.”
I spoke with Tollner, the former coach at USC and San Diego State and offensive coordinator for three NFL teams, for a story about quarterbacks making the transition from a spread offense in college to an under-the-center NFL system. Tollner, the Raiders’ passing game coordinator the past two years, has worked with a pair of former No. 1 overall picks, JaMarcus Russell and Smith, who had to make the adjustment.
Smith played in a spread at Utah. Russell didn’t operate from a spread at LSU, but spent much of his time in a shotgun formation.
Tollner, 70, didn’t believe playing in a spread was a huge impediment to NFL success. But what became clear in speaking with him is that he’s a huge believer in Smith, who didn’t play in a regular-season game during Tollner’s 22-game tenure from ‘07-08 due to shoulder injuries. Smith did play during the 2008 preseason before he was placed on injured reserve prior to the season opener.
Tollner, who recently retired after he wasn’t retained on Hue Jackson’s staff in Oakland, cited the usual litany of reasons for Smith’s lack of success: rotating offensive coordinators and offenses, injuries and so-so offensive talent.
“He’s had probably as difficult a time as you can,” Tollner said. “Yet I believe that he will overcome. I know people are questioning that. But he does everything else well. He prepares well. He works at it. He does all those other things and he has ability.”
He does everything else well? I asked Tollner about Smith’s flaws. Based on his experience, Tollner said Smith was sometimes slow to get rid of the ball and struggled with his confidence, but he cited the upheaval around the Niners’ offense as contributing factors.
Tollner believes the free-agent quarterback would flourish under Jim Harbaugh, who he got to know while broadcasting University of San Diego football games when Harbaugh was at the school.
“The organization hasn’t been what it once was and I think they’re getting very close to that again,” said Tollner, who served as the 49ers quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 2002-04. “I really do. I think they’re very close to being a quality team. So that will help (Smith) … (Harbaugh and his staff knows) what they’re doing and there’ll be some consistency there.”