DURING a breakbetween practices in the first week of training camp, quarterback Alex Smith,the first pick of the 2005 draft, walked slowly toward a wooden bench outsidethe 49ers' locker room and sat down. He had black sandals on his feet, a largeice pack on his surgically repaired right shoulder and a disbelieving smile onhis face.
This is an article from the Sept. 1, 2008 issue
"I never in amillion years envisioned it would go like this," he said of the strugglethat has marked his brief NFL career. "When I left Utah early, I did sobecause I felt there was nothing left for me to accomplish [after leading theUtes to an undefeated season in 2004]. I could have gone back for another year,but I really felt I had hit this pinnacle and was ready to take that next stepin my development and get some NFL coaching. I was 20 years old and had a lotin front of me. That's what was in my head: I'm going to develop and have along career ahead of me."
Smith may yetdevelop and have a long career, but it's hard to believe much more of it willbe in San Francisco. Coach Mike Nolan announced in late August that sixth-yearjourneyman J.T. O'Sullivan will be the starter when the 49ers open the seasonon Sept. 7 against the Cardinals, all but signaling an end to the Alex SmithEra after three seasons. Smith, whom the Niners signed to a contract that paidhim $24 million in guarantees, was 11--19 as a starter. In seven games beforebeing sidelined by a separated shoulder after Week 10 last season, he threw twotouchdown passes and four interceptions and had a passer rating of 57.2. Smithlooked uneven in the first three preseason games this summer.
Nolan says Smithremains in the team's plans, but "right now," he adds, O'Sullivan has abetter command of the offense and gives the 49ers the best chance to win. Themere fact that Smith failed to beat out a player who has never started an NFLgame, has only 26 career pass attempts and was waived or let go by seven otherteams does not speak well for how Smith is viewed within theorganization—particularly after new offensive coordinator Mike Martz statedearly in camp that Smith needed to show more grit and resolve to be successful."He's got a real decision to make," Martz said. "I told him [thatputting the starting job up for competition] will either destroy him or it willmake him. He's got the physical ability, so he's either going to have toestablish that resolve and toughness and confidence that nobody can ever takefrom him, or he'll doubt himself the rest of his career and he'll never makeit.... This game will humble you, and he hasn't been humbled yet."
At the same timethat Martz questioned Smith, the respected coordinator admitted that few highlydrafted quarterbacks have faced the adversity Smith has. The 24-year-old hasentered every season with a new coordinator, a different No. 1 wide receiver(whose talent often didn't warrant the designation) and an offensive line thathas been in a state of flux because of injuries and poor performance.
O'Sullivan won thejob largely because he was familiar with Martz's offense, having served underhim as a backup when both were in Detroit last season. A 2002 sixth-round pickby the Saints out of UC Davis, he has appeared in five NFL games, but Martz,who praises O'Sullivan's vision and release, has no fear of going with anuntested trigger man after tutoring the likes of Kurt Warner, Trent Green andJon Kitna—undrafted or late-round picks who traveled the back roads tosuccess.
The Niners'special teams are solid, and the defense, which was good last season, wasupgraded by the signing of free-agent end Justin Smith and the return oflinebacker Manny Lawson from knee surgery. So it's not a reach to say thattheir season, as well as Nolan's future as coach, ride on the play of thequarterback. That J.T. O'Sullivan would be that quarterback is something theNiners could not have imagined.
PROJECTED STARTINGLINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH MIKE NOLAN (16--32 in NFL), fourth seasonwith 49ers
Isaac BRUCE [NewACQUISITION]
J.T. O'SULLIVAN[New ACQUISITION]
Bryant JOHNSON[New ACQUISITION]
SACKS 1 1/2
Takeo SPIKES [NewACQUISITION]
Justin SMITH [NewACQUISITION]
SACKS 1 1/2
2007 RECORD 5--11NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 27/32/32 DEFENSE 22/22/25
14 at Seattle
28 at New Orleans
5 NEW ENGLAND
19 at N.Y. Giants
10 at Arizona (M)
16 ST. LOUIS
23 at Dallas
30 at Buffalo
7 N.Y. JETS
14 at Miami
21 at St. Louis
NFL Rank: 18
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .484
Games against playoff teams: 6
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the 49ers' units.
Three candidates for the job, but are any of them the answer?
Gore produces—question is, can he stay healthy all year?
Might have found a sleeper in sixth-round pick Josh Morgan.
Davis has yet to justify being the No. 6 pick in '06.
Losing Larry Allen hurts big time; fixing this unit is a priority.
Brought in free-agent Smith in search of quarterback pressure.
Willis is a tackling machine; would help if Lawson stepped up.
Burned regularly, largely because of weak pass rush.
Good kickers; return and coverage teams short on speed, talent.
The free-agent pickup fills the hole left by theretirement of Bryant Young. Coordinator Greg Manusky will play Smith at outsidelinebacker in some 3--4 sets and on the ends in a 4--3 front. Smith had onlytwo sacks last year, but in Manusky's configuration he'll create one-on-oneopportunities for OLB Manny Lawson and DE Ray McDonald.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
December 24, 1990
YOU LOOK at the poster on the bedroom wall. You couldbe Joe Montana. Yes, you could. You throw your official NFL ball into the air,narrowly missing the model airplanes. You catch the ball and dive onto the bed.Montana to Rice! Touchdown! You could hear the same noises Joe Montana hears.You could do the same thing he does. Yes, you could.
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