Niners give Smith second chance, but will they use him correctly?
If he cares to, when
Smith being back among the land of the living is Week 8's most intriguing storyline shy of you-know-who's return to Lambeau Field. Named the 49ers starter once again on the strength of his eye-opening relief job of the benched
Talking to sources within the league this week, I found no one who could really come up with a similar situation from the recent NFL past, where a failed former first-round quarterback receives an unexpected second chance -- without having to change teams and start over in a new town.
It makes me think that before all is said and done this season, maybe we're going to wind up having been focused on the wrong former No. 1 pick quarterback who in essence missed the last two seasons of his NFL career. Maybe it will be Smith's less-dramatic comeback that will emerge as one of the stories of the year in the NFL, not
"If Alex makes it in San Francisco, that would be truly unique,'' said former Baltimore head coach
Smith entered the game at the start of the second half with the struggling 49ers trailing 21-0, and immediately provided a spark. He led San Francisco to three touchdowns on his first four drives, all of them capped by passes to tight end
But nobody's doing Smith any huge favors this week. He'll face the undefeated Colts (6-0), which happens to be the same team he made his starting debut against in Week 5 of his 2005 rookie season. That forgettable game -- four interceptions, five sacks and an 8.5 passer rating in a 28-3 loss -- served to set the tone for the first 30 starts of his NFL career.
But at the still-tender age of 25, here is Smith again, ready for his second close-up. Unlike the Smith who was burdened with the fortunes of a losing franchise from the day he stepped foot in San Francisco in 2005, and played like it, Smith against the Texans looked like a quarterback presented with an opportunity that may never come again. It was time to seize it.
"He was playing with house money the other day,'' Billick said. "What did he have to lose? It was like, 'What are you going to do? Shoot me twice?' But in that game, he's down 21-0, and they're throwing. But now it's back on his shoulders and the game's even [at] the start. Let's see how that goes.''
A different Alex Smith is what Singletary said he sees these days.
"Alex is a totally different guy today than he was even six months ago,'' Singletary said Wednesday. "I think his mindset is clear. The thing what spoke volumes to me about him was in the offseason he had a chance to move on and go to another team and make more money. But he decided to stay because he felt that he wanted to be a part of what was here. He wanted to finish what he started.''
Interestingly, Billick made a point of how much against the Texans the "new'' Alex Smith played like the "old'' Alex Smith from his high-flying spread-offense days at Utah. Forced to open it up by the 21-point halftime deficit, the 49ers gave their fans a taste of what might be possible in a quick-strike offense built around the first-round talents of Smith, Davis and rookie receiver
"I was very impressed with Michael Crabtree in [his first game],'' Billick said. "He's ahead of the curve. And with what they have there now, I think they have the pieces to run that kind of offense. Gore is a solid, single-back runner who doesn't really need a fullback. If you want to give Smith the best chance to succeed, that may be the way you have to go. What you saw from Alex Smith last Sunday, that's the Alex Smith we saw in college. That's his game.''
But that reality has the potential to create a conflict of sorts in San Francisco, because Singletary and his veteran offensive coordinator,
Billick, who had both Singletary and ex-49ers head coach
"Mike likes to anchor the offense around Gore, and that's Mike's persona right now,'' Billick said. "They spent a lot of time in the offseason and in camp saying, 'This is who we are. This is our mentality, and we have Frank Gore to run the ball with.' Do I think they'll change it? No. And I think they're going to lose because of it. In this day and age, more than ever in the league, you've got to have a quarterback.
"On Sunday, you saw what Alex Smith does well. He doesn't have a huge arm, but he's smart and fairly efficient with the ball. That lends itself to spreading things out. It's about giving your quarterback as many options as possible, and then letting him find the open man.''
As an example of the importance of building the right offense around your quarterback, Billick cites
"Can Mike [Singletary] give himself over to the so-called dark side?'' Billick said. "Can he say, 'I saw a style of play that can suit my quarterback, and we may have the complementary players to make that offense work,' and then embrace it? Or do they shove him in the I-formation and ask him to play that style? Because I'm not sure Alex Smith can prosper in that system any more than Warner did in New York, where you limit his options and ask him to make the big throw. I don't know that's who this guy [Smith] is, and he hasn't been to date.''
Once the 49ers fell behind with Hill at quarterback, their offense had little capability to play catch-up. But Smith nearly mounted a comeback from a 21-point deficit at Houston, and his skill set allows the 49ers to use their offensive weapons in a different way than Hill. In addition, Smith's mobility in the pocket allows the 49ers to cover up some of their shortcomings at offensive line, with him being able to duck under pressure and elude the rush far better than the pocket-passer that Hill is.
This much is clear: With these 49ers, Smith is surrounded by far more offensive talent than he has ever had at his disposal in San Francisco. Crabtree, Davis, Morgan and Gore could be something special together with the right quarterback pulling the trigger. But the time for talking about potential, Smith said, is over. It's time to play, and play well. His second, and maybe final chance has arrived.
"I probably had that excuse when I was younger,'' said Smith, of being judged more for his potential than his play earlier in his career. "Now I have to go out there and produce. Go out there and play. There's no more wait and see.''