To my surprise and delight, the San Francisco 49ers have been one of the genuine surprises of the 2011 NFL season. Besides maybe the Lions and the Bills, no team has exceed lowly expectations as the boys in the red and gold. It’s been a while since the 9ers were a legitimate outfit. I grew up on the tail-end of Niners glory. Steve Young, Jeff Garcia, T.O. before he went completely nuts. The Niners were foiled by poor cap management which forced them to make some real tough cuts in 2004. The team of course gained the first pick in the 2005 draft and infamously chose Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers, who ultimately slipped to Green Bay at number 24. And then became the best player in the league.
This fact only enhances the flaws in the career of Alex Smith, a man who has underacheived by virtually every measure for a first overall pick. While he has not acheived Ryan Leaf and Jamarcus Russell levels of suckitude, he has neither demonstrated the capability to be anything more than a sometimes-average quarterback in the NFL.. That is, until this season. Smith is currently the 3rd-highest rated quarterback in the NFL, trailing only Rodgers and the Great Uggs Sponsor himself. Now, his passing has not been nearly as prolific as those two, or some of the other elite quarterbacks in the game. The point is, though, that he is playing efficient football. Winning football. And at this point, winning is all Smith can ask for.
Smith came to a 49ers franchise spoiled off of two decades of excellent play at the quarterback position. The pressure of that pedigree, and his selection as the firt pick, put immense pressure on Smith. Then-head coach Mike Nolan jerked Smith in and out of the starting lineup during his rookie season, one in which Smith threw just one touchdown compared to eleven interception. From that point on, Smith would have to light the world on fire to justify his selection as the first pick in the draft. The eventual rise of Aaron Rodgers only compounded the problem.
Light the world on fire Smith did not. He maintained through 4 separate coaching regimes and 5 different offensive coordinators in his first five season. He had to learn basically every type of offense under the book, never getting more than one season to absorb a scheme as the undisputed starter. He had to play for Mike Singletary. He had to play for Mike Martz. Norv Turner. Jimmy Raye. Who is Jimmy Raye? Exactly. Every guy had a different philosophy, the only common denominator being that they all sucked. It’s fair to say the conditions were not ripe for success.
Smith hung through every failed coaching regime, all the while flashing talent here and there only to have to start from scratch the next time around. Smith supporters insisted that this lack of continuity was more responsible for Smith’s shortcomings than suspect accuracy and decision making. With a real coach, they said, Smith still had a chance to be good.
In all honestly, my opinion had always been somewhere in the middle. Smith obviously had talent. Scouts may misfire, but that rarely has to do with talent and almost always has to do with focus and work ethic. He’s always seemed like a bright guy in his interviews, but when push came to shove there always seemed to be something missing. Too many other guys with the same amount of time had come into their own.
Enter Jim Harbough. Harbough came into San Francisco with a pedigree for coaching quarterbacks, and if the early results are any indication his approach has really benefited Smith. With 7 touchdowns to just one interception, Smith is playing the kind of mistake free ball that has eluded him even during the flashes. What’s even more encouraging is that this improvement actually spans back to last season. Over his last ten games, Smith has connected on 13 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He has an obvious chemistry with tight end and freak of nature Vernon Davis. Most importantly, he looks confident. Harbough has confidence in him to run the offense and move the ball down field. So far, this has made all the difference.
In the case of Smith, it’s important to realize that his shortcomings were as much a symptom of the 49ers recent ineptitude as they were reasons for it. The presence of a legitimate coach only hammers home the shortcomings of the previous regimes. If Harbaugh has taught us one thing is that attitude is everything. This 9ers team is as or less talented on paper than last years squad. Yet the team has played with a renewed vigor in all facets of the game. The offense has been crisp, the defense has been dominant and even the special teams play has been positive. Perhaps Yogi Berra was on to something when he famously offered the advice “90% of the game is half mental”. Frank Gore says the team follows Harbaugh almost religiously. Everyone is on the same page, and it’s making all the difference.
No one knows this better than Smith. No one ever truly supported him until now. It’s going to take a full season of excellence from Smith to start shaking the “bust” title, but for the first time in his career I’m truly encouraged. The 49ers weren’t really ready to win as a team until this season. It just might be that Smith is ready to win, as well.
(Photo via Flickr)