The things Alex carries
Alex Smith carries his six seasons through the professional football meat grinder everywhere he goes. He carries the old playbooks; the losses; the chants; the manipulative coaches; the shoulder surgeries.
Smith has gone through this 14-3 season hesitant to look back. It’s as if he doesn’t want to jinx what’s happening.
Seven offensive coordinators
Smith’s first offensive coordinator was Mike McCarthy, who pushed the team to draft Smith over Aaron Rodgers with the No. 1 pick in 2005.
One touchdown, 11 interceptions by Smith later, McCarthy scored the Packers head coaching job before his coaching stock sunk any further.
Norv Turner came next and guided Smith to a promising second season. Smith appeared to have turned a corner. It’s a reminder what good teaching can mean for a young quarterback. Smith wouldn’t learn that lesson again until 2011. Turner left after ’06 for the Chargers head coaching job.
Jim Hostler, Mike Martz, Jimmy Raye, and Mike Johnson followed Turner to disappointing results. Each man had a new idea of how an NFL offense should look and how Smith fit into their system. Some liked Smith more than others. Every spring meant a new playbook.
Smith’s seventh coordinator was the charm. Jim Harbaugh knows the quarterback position as well as any NFL head coach, but he also brought in a terrific staff to help him. It’s one of the most underrated skills a head coach can have. Can he choose the right men to assist him?
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman and quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst have both done a fabulous job with Smith. It was Chryst who took over the play calling late in the Divisional Round win over the Saints. Along with Harbaugh, the three men collaborate on one of the smartest offensive attacks in the league.
They create big play opportunities without taking too much risk. They accentuate what Smith does well and limit his weaknesses being exposed. They put Smith in position to succeed. That’s coaching.
2 misguided head coaches
Alex Smith’s rookie season was Mike Nolan’s rookie season as an NFL head coach. Both men looked comfortable in their new role.
Nolan ran the 49ers through fear. He often seemed unnecessarily paranoid and played misguided mental games. When Smith’s shoulder was hurt in 2007, Nolan implied publicly that Smith wasn’t fighting through the injury. Nolan came out told the 49ers team behind closed doors that Smith was using his shoulder injury as an excuse for poor play.
Smith fought back at the time by speaking out.
“I felt it was trying to undermine me with my teammates,” Smith said back then.
Smith wound up undergoing shoulder surgery after the season.
The next 49ers head coach was a defensive-minded motivational speaker: Mike Singletary. Singletary said multiple times he didn’t think quarterback was the most important position on the field. He once called Smith “meek.” After Singletary was fired, he was asked what he learned from the experience.
"You gotta have a quarterback," Singletary said.
These were the men in charge. They never believed in Smith.
Harbaugh saw something different in that first meeting with Smith. More importantly, he saw a quietly improved player on film. Harbaugh’s effusive and immediate praise of Smith almost seemed comical. (He once said Smith had “armadillo skin.”)
Smith, free agent, publicly expressed doubt he’d return to San Francisco before Harbaugh started recruiting Smith with regular meetings. No one in San Francisco knew what to make it. Why would the new hotshot coach stick out his neck for Smith?
“I’ve been studying Alex Smith and watching him and I believe that Alex Smith can be a winning quarterback in the National Football League,” Harbaugh said. “Very accurate passer. Very athletic. And a guy that has played and been durable.”
This was January of 2011. Harbaugh embraced the quarterback no one wanted. The message hasn’t changed since. The love affair has only grown.
Smith was benched for the following quarterbacks during his 49ers career: Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill, J.T. O’Sullivan, and Troy Smith.
Guys like Carr and Cody Pickett replaced Smith when he was hurt. Only Hill went on to a modicum of success after leaving San Francisco.
The following wide receivers have started games during Smith’s tenure in San Francisco: Brandon Lloyd, Arnaz Battle, Johnnie Morton, Kevin McAddley, Antonio Bryant, Bryan Gilmore, Darrell Jackson, Ashley Lelie, Isaac Bruce, Bryant Johnson, Jason Hill, Josh Morgan, Michael Crabtree, Braylon Edwards, Ted Ginn, Kyle Williams, and Brett Swain.
Change was the only constant in San Francisco’s passing attack. Personnel objectives changed annually with the rotating offensive systems. Players past their prime were brought in like Morton, Jackson, and Bruce. Failed draft picks from other teams were given a second chance like Lelie, Johnson, Edwards, and Ginn. Very little stuck.
Even today, San Francisco’s wide receivers struggle to beat man coverage. It’s a concern this week going against a Giants defense that can get pressure with their front four and played great man coverage last week in Green Bay.
Harbaugh knows all this. He built an offense around the run-game, his tight ends, and carefully orchestrated “shot plays” the wideouts wouldn’t have to win consistently on the outside. He relied on Smith’s accuracy and decision making.
When Harbaugh has asked Smith and his receivers to carry the offense – against the Giants and Saints -- they have found a way.
Smith deserves his share of blame for struggling until Harbaugh came along. Smith doesn’t have the big arm you’d expect out of a top pick. He’s a smart player, but he’s struggled to translate those smarts into instinctive play. He was deliberate making decisions.
Going back through five years of my game notes, the same word came up repeatedly describing Smith: tentative. He took the safe play. He didn’t have enough confidence in himself, his receivers, or perhaps his offense to make the difficult throw.
That slowly started to change this year. The 49ers are not an aggressive passing attack, but Smith has repeatedly played his best with the game on the line.
Back-to-back fourth quarter comeback wins in Cincinnati and Philadelphia kick-started things. Smith threw a fourth-and-goal game-winner to Delanie Walker in Detroit. An insane 41-yard toss to Michael Crabtree set up the game-winning field goal in Seattle.
In most of those games, the 49ers still coached around Smith. Their wins were more about the defense, running game and short, safe passes. Last Saturday against the Saints, the 49ers coaching staff gave the keys to Smith.
"The winning touchdown to Vernon Davis ... and I'm taking nothing away from Vernon Davis's catch ... the throw made that play, not the catch," NFL Films guru Greg Cosell said on KNBR this week. “He threw that ball before Davis even got past the underneath linebacker.”
The 49ers could have played for the tie, but they went for the win because of the confidence they had in Smith. It was the type of instinctive, anticipatory, gutsy throw we haven’t seen from Smith. Smith is starting to mix in aggression with his smarts. That could be a championship combination.
The other side
Alex Smith is Mark Sanchez if Sanchez went through another three years like the one he just had.
Smith took all the abuse we could hurl at him and emerged on the other side. He will never be Joe Montana, but that’s not the point. He’s here. He is one game away from playing in the Super Bowl. After what Smith has been through, he deserves to enjoy this moment.
Perhaps Smith will take a deep breath during the national anthem on Sunday and allow himself a peak at the opposing sideline. Giants backup quarterback David Carr will be standing there, representing the road more traveled.
When the anthem ends, Carr will reach to put on his backward hat. Smith will grab his helmet