By Clark Judge, CBS Sports Senior Writer
SANTA CLARA (CBS Sports) — Say this about Alex Smith: The guy’s resilient. The top pick of the 2005 NFL Draft, he’s still trying to prove the San Francisco 49ers right and make it as their starting quarterback.
And he will … for now … but let me explain.
While the 49ers seemed to write off Smith when they drafted quarterback Colin Kaepernick in April, this is not his team to take into the season. It is Alex Smith’s … again. Reporters regularly quiz new coach Jim Harbaugh on the position, asking who’s No. 1, but they know. It’s Smith’s job to lose, and that’s not happening. Not yet it’s not.
“Everyone’s asking who’s going to be the starting quarterback,” said tight end Vernon Davis. “Alex is going to be the starting quarterback. Coaches have a lot of faith in him and in everything he can do, and so do I.
“I believed in him since Day 1. He just has to go out and perform. Alex knows what he has to do. He just has to go out, do it and put it all together.”
But that’s the problem. He hasn’t. And if he had, there would be no Colin Kapernick pushing from behind.
The 49ers like the rookie from Nevada so much they tried to acquire New England’s draft pick at the top of the second round before striking a deal with Denver at the 36th spot. With that move, the message was clear: They envision Kaepernick as their starter. They’re just not sure when.
“Depends on how Alex plays,” said someone close to the situation.
So we’re back to 2005 when Smith stepped into the huddle. Only these 49ers are better, much better. As Davis said, “We have all the key components,” and he might be right. There’s talent on both sides of the ball, with Smith surrounded on offense by Davis, running back Frank Gore, promising tight end Delanie Walker and wide receivers Michael Crabtree, Braylon Edwards, Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn Jr. Plus, three of his five starting offensive linemen are former first-round picks. So there are, as Davis put it, “key components.”
In the end, of course, it comes back to the quarterback … just as it always has since Smith has been here. San Francisco has a history of stellar play at the position — with Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jeff Garcia the starters for 25 years — but that play has been underwhelming lately, and that’s where Smith comes in.
He was supposed to solve the game’s most important position, with the 49ers choosing him over Cal’s Aaron Rodgers, but Rodgers went to the playoffs the past two years and won a Super Bowl. Smith? He hasn’t gone anywhere, and, yes, I mean that literally. He hasn’t had a complete year of starting since 2006, missing more games the past four seasons (35) than he played (29), yet this summer re-upped with the 49ers for the third time.
He could have gone anywhere, and there are plenty of disgruntled fans here who wish he would have. But he chose to stay, playing it safe by signing a one-year deal that gives him and the club options to move on after the season.
As the man said, it’s all up to Smith.
Harbaugh talks highly of the guy, saying, “I believe he’s got the makeup to be very good.” So he told Smith he wanted him back. Smith thought about it, reviewed his options and decided to give it one more whirl — and don’t ask me why. As I explained to him, I think he needs a change to jump-start his career — basically, an opportunity to start where he doesn’t have a history.
Smith didn’t disagree. Only he thinks that chance could be here.
“I’d be lying if I said that [a change] wasn’t in my thought process, just going someplace and getting a fresh start,” he said. “I just thought that maybe it was finally time. But, in some ways, you feel like there’s a little bit of a fresh start here, with Coach Harbaugh and his staff coming in with a new offense. I just really wanted that one opportunity.”
But that’s all he ever wanted, and every year it’s the same story: New offensive coordinator, new system, same old Alex Smith. Which is why inquiring minds want to know why this season should be different from the others; why Smith can be more than someone who keeps the seat warm for Kaepernick until he’s ready.
“It’s a great question,” said Smith. “Not to say there aren’t going to be struggles in a new system with new verbiage. I’ve been kind of in the digit world in terms of offenses the last few years; now I’m back to a true West Coast [offense].
“Yeah, there are obstacles in the way, but I like what coach Harbaugh and his staff bring to the table, what they talk about, how they envision building this team, what they’re asking the quarterback to do in this offense and the tools they’re giving us. I just really felt like it was something I wanted to be part of. I wasn’t ready to go.
“All I was asking for was just the opportunity, just one opportunity. I wasn’t looking for a multiyear commitment. All I wanted was one more shot; just that opportunity to go out and compete for it and have a chance to start.
“Coach Harbaugh and the staff have been upfront with me from Day 1. They were very upfront about the situation heading into the draft and after the draft, and they still are very upfront about the entire situation and how they’re treating it. I understand the deal. No question. So it was something I was going to have to deal with and handle with my play.”
Though Harbaugh hasn’t named a starting quarterback, he did mention that there has been separation at the position and that Smith is moving ahead. But that’s how it’s supposed to be. He’s the experienced pro, and Kaepernick is the rookie trying to absorb the pro game in a year when there isn’t much time to absorb it.
So you go with what you know, and what the 49ers know is Alex Smith. He starts for a new head coach, but I don’t know how long he stays. It is something that Smith must, as he said, “handle with his play,” and good luck. The 49ers’ first two games are at home, and if he screws up, guaranteed the natives will be restless.
“They’ll probably boo his first incompletion,” said one person close to Smith.
Well, that’s what happens when your team hasn’t had a winning season since 2002. Harbaugh is supposed to change all that, and maybe he will. But it depends on his quarterback. He had a good one at the University at San Diego, and he had a good one at Stanford. The question now is: What does he have in Alex Smith?
Smith said that a right shoulder that required surgery in 2008, sidelining him that season, feels better than ever and “I’m not having issues anymore.” He said he’s more comfortable reading defenses, too. Most important, he said he feels confident … confident that he can become the quarterback the 49ers envisioned in 2005.
Well, then, it’s time to prove it. It’s his last chance.
“You’ve got to give him slack,” said Davis. “He’s been through so many offensive coordinators, so you can’t just blame him. What you can do is continue to give him a chance until everything is right.
“Everybody knows we’ve had a problem with the offensive coordinators in the past, but I can honestly say that this right here is what we’ve been looking for. It’s the answer. I strongly believe it’s the answer.”
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