Many of us came to the conclusion that the 49ers January season ending drubbing of the Arizona Cardinals was Alex Smith's final game in a San Francisco uniform. We were ready to turn the page and change the chapter from his largely unsuccessful 49ers career. After all, the 49ers were going to be rebuilding or "re-tooling", depending on the way you look at it. Jim Harbaugh was brought in to change the culture, philosophy and bring his own style to the 49ers. Many of us, including myself, thought that it meant bringing in a QB of his own. Little did we know that the QB may be Alex Smith.
A large majority of 49er fans oppose Alex Smith returning to the 49ers in 2011, and this makes sense. His success(s) can be limited to five digits on one hand at this point, he has had multiple opportunities to prove himself and every single time Alex has fallen flat on his face. Mike Singletary and Co. thought that trade Shaun Hill and signing David Carr to reduce competition for Alex Smith was the right decision, well it wasn't. I don't want a starting QB on my team that seems to avoid competition and needs that competition taken away in order to improve as a QB; that makes little sense to me.
In six seasons with the 49ers Alex Smith has been a real indicator of the 49ers struggles. He has two more INTS (53) than TDs (51), is 13 games under .500 as a starter and has a career high QB rating of 82.1, this accomplished in 2010. However, it must be noted that Alex has improved over the last couple of seasons, having his best years in 2009 and 2010. During that span Smith has 10 more TDs than INTs, and has completed over 60 percent of his passes. Does this mean I support him returning as the unquestionable starter in 2011? Of course not!
On the surface it seems like the 49ers have unlimited QB options in free agency and via trade, but that is just on the surface. How many of us are willing to meet Philadelphia's asking price for Kevin Kolb? A QB that has not proven anything in the NFL and is nearly as risky as drafting an unproven rookie. Do you really believe that Kyle Orton is that much better than Alex Smith? Or worth a 2nd round selection? Carson Palmer has demanded a trade, but it remains to be seen whether the Bengals will honor that request. Most reports out of Cincinnati are that they won't. Then you have two older veterans who saw dramatic drop-offs that last couple seasons. Mike Shanahan was forced to bench Donovan McNabb in favor of the "bust" that is Rex Grossman. Matt Hasselbeck had one of the worse seasons of his largely mediocre career. In fact, there was a lot of talk about Charlie Whitehurst replacing Hasselbeck, yes that Charlie Whitehurst. Vince Young is too emotionally unstable to be counted on as a starter in the NFL. Given all of those indicators listed above, the options are not as great as one would tend to think. The best option out of the litter would seem to be Carson Palmer but him departure from Cincinnati cannot be viewed as imminent as of yet. So where does this leave the 49ers?
No QB in this poor draft class is going to be ready on day one; it just isn't going to happen, Troy Smith is way too inaccurate to be a solid NFL starting QB, and let me not even bring David "where did my arm go" Carr into the equation. The 49ers best option may actually be Alex Smith. Which brings me to another point and/or question; how many of you trust Jim Harbaugh to make the right decision in regards to the QB position? The venerable Monte Poole, in this article, suggests that Harbaugh has earned our trust. "Harbaugh would like the 49er fans to trust him and his teaching ability. At the very least, he deserves a chance to show he knows a quarterback when he sees one". How many of you would be inclined to agree with the aforementioned statement by Poole? Well, I would! Harbaugh has a history of success at both the college and pro levels in regards to developing good QBs. A brief overview will follow
As an Offensive Assistant with the Oakland Raiders in 2003, Jim Harbaugh saw Rich Gannon destroy Oakland Raider QB records. Harbaugh was not the QB Coach, however, he did play a vital role in helping Gannon take the next step. Rich Gannon, a journeyman NFL QB, threw for nearly 4700 yards and led the Oakland Raiders to the Super Bowl. Was this a sign of things to come for Harbaugh? Yes. Jim Harbaugh took over as Head Coach of the University of San Diego in 2004, and in 2005 led them to an 11-1 record and Pioneer League Championship. Josh Johnson, who is currently a back-up for Tampa Bay, set school records in nearly every category. Johnson completed over 70 percent of his passes, threw for nearly 3000 yards and had 31 TD passes. The following season Johnson added to those record numbers with over 3330 yards and 35 TDs compared to 5 interceptions. And, in 2007 Johnson had one of the most remarkable seasons in college football history, at any level. He threw for 42 TDs and 1 INT, yes folks a 42/1 TD-INT ratio. After a short stint with San Diego, Harbaugh took over a floundering Stanford Cardinal program, and we all know what happened there. The following statement sums up his impact with Stanford. Stanford, who was 1-11 in 2006, finished the 2010 season with a 12-1 record and Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech; Andrew Luck finished 2nd in the Heisman voting. If these three examples are indications of Harbaugh's ability to mentor and groom QBs, I have all the trust in the world in him, and Monte Poole is 100 percent correct!
I understand that many 49er fans will be opposed to bringing Alex Smith back in 2011, I may in fact be one of them. However, it isn't as clear cut as you may think. The 49ers may be a victim of the circumstances of the CBA in which possible free agents may have to return to their former teams. Additionally, the 49ers may not have a better option out there than Alex Smith. Personally, I would rather have Alex than a washed up Donovan McNabb or Matt Hasselbeck, unproven Kevin Kolb, or enigma that is Vince Young. The other two options, Carson Palmer and Kyle Orton, remain strong possibilities. However, things would have to work out perfectly in order for the 49ers to acquire either player. Is it really that bad of a thought to bring Alex back into the fold? I don't think so! That said, the 49ers would have to create competition for Alex Smith and not anoint him the immediate starter. In reality, the 49ers need to keep their options open, even if Smith does re-sign. By keeping their options open, I mean adding a couple QBs to challenge Smith in training camp. Josh Johnson comes to mind first. However speculative it may be, the only current 49er QB that I would even consider being on the roster in 2011 would be Alex Smith. And, that is a dramatic change from my thought process just two months ago. Sink or swim, in Jim Harbaugh I trust!!
2010 Statistical Comparisons
Alex Smith: 204 Comp- 342 Att- 59.6 Comp %- 2,370 Yds- 14 TD- 10 INT- 82.1 Rating- 13.7 Sack Ratio
Kyle Orton: 293 Comp- 498 Att- 58.8 Comp %- 3,653 Yds- 20 TD- 9 INT- 87.5 Rating- 14.7 Sack Ratio
Carson Palmer: 362 Comp- 596 Att- 61.9 Comp %- 3970 Yds- 26 TD- 20 INT- 82.4 Rating- 22.5 Sack Ratio
Donovan McNabb: 275 Comp-472 Att-58.3 Comp %- 3,377 Yards- 14 TD- 15 INT- 77.1 Rating- 12.8 Sack Ratio
Matt Hasselbeck: 266 Comp- 444 Att- 59.9 Comp %- 3001 Yards- 12 TD- 17 INT- 73.2 Rating- 15.3 Sack Ratio
Kevin Kolb: 115 Comp- 189 Att- 60.8 Comp %- 1,197 Yards- 7 TD- 7 INT- 76.1 Rating- 12.6 Sack Ratio