QB conversation -- analyzing Campbell, Smith


QB conversation -- analyzing Campbell, Smith

Sept. 8, 2011Follow @PGutierrezCSN Follow @MaioccoCSN
Paul Gutierrez Matt Maiocco
CSNCalifornia.com CSNBayArea.com

Hey, Paul, perhaps you've heard the news: Alex Smith is back as the starting quarterback of the 49ers.He enters his seventh NFL season with his seventh different offensive coordinator after the club made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft. The amazing part is he remains with the 49ers. Everybody, including Smith, figured the union would not continue this long.But plans have a funny way of changing. The 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh as head coach. Jim Harbaugh liked Alex or he saw no better options with a lockout looming. Smith liked Harbaugh. And next thing you know, Harbaugh presented Smith with bouquets, figuratively and literally.Harbaugh praised Smith repeatedly. Then, he handed Smith a playbook when the lockout briefly lifted on April 29. Smith taught the new offense to his teammates over the next few months, when the coaching staff could have no contact with players. Along the way, Harbaugh got NFL approval to visit Smith and his wife, Elizabeth, in the hospital after the couple's first child was born.
Mateo, my man.Funny you bring up Alex Smith. Because if you, and he, look across the Bay, you'd both see Alex's mirror image in the Raiders' quarterback Jason Campbell.I know, I know, their skill sets aren't exactly the same, nor are their immediate backstories with the Niners and Raiders. For one thing, coming into this season there was never a doubt Jason was the starting QB. Some poor TV reporter made the mistake of asking Hue Jackson at training camp in Napa who his signal caller was and Hue let him have it."You did not ask me that question," Hue bellowed. "He did not ask that question out here today. Does anybody know who the starting quarterback is of the Raiders? Are you kidding me? Doesn't he wear No. 8? His name is Jason Campbell. He is the starting quarterback of the Raiders. Period! Any other questions?"See what letting Bruce Gradkowski and Tom Cable walk gets you in Wine Town? A no-doubt-about-it vote of confidence.But I digress. Where Jason and Alex are the same is in each of them having a revolving door of offensive coordinators to deal with and offenses to learn EACH AND EVERY season of their NFL careers. At least Jason gets a break this year. He has the same play-caller in Hue and a familiar OC in Al Saunders, who dropped his legendary 700-page playbook in Jason's lap when both worked in Washington a few years back.
Alex Smith gets a break, too. Finally, his head coach is a person with an offensive background. If anybody should know what it's like to be Alex Smith, it's Jim Harbaugh.In fact, it's uncanny how similar their careers began. Both Smith and Harbaugh started 50 games in their first six seasons. Harbaugh completed 57.4 percent of his passes for 9,565 yards with 43 touchdowns, 45 interceptions and a passer rating of 74.6. Smith's completion percentage is 57.1 for 9,399 yards with 51 TDs and 53 interceptions, and a passer rating of 72.1.The best hope for Smith to succeed this season is an upgrade in coaching. Harbaugh is not going to turn Smith into a Pro Bowl quarterback overnight, but he can put him in more favorable positions to succeed.
Yeah, same thing with Jason Campbell. Hue Jackson gets a lot of credit for turning Joe Flacco into more than a serviceable quarterback in Baltimore. Granted, Jackson was never a quarterback in the NFL, like Captain Comeback on the 49ers sideline I just remember his leading the Colts' upset of the defending AFC champion Chargers in the 1995 playoffs. But Al Saunders was also behind the scenes with the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis.Jason has what appears to be some quality coaching behind him so he should be able to continue his upward trend.Consider: Since his rookie year of 2005 (yes, the same as Alex), Jasons passer rating went up every year, from 76.5 in 2006 to 77.6 to 84.3 to 86.4 before it dropped a bit to 84.5 last year, his first year in Oakland. But you could make a case that his emotions being toyed with by a trigger-happy and, some would say, Bruce Gradkowski-obsessed Tom Cable contributed to that.Jason had to constantly look over his shoulder after every incomplete pass, every interception, every check-down, to see if he was being pulled. After Gradkowski was put on IR, Jason's confidence flourished.And that's where he is now the unquestioned starter who looks more comfortable than he's ever looked in Silver and Black, with a coach who has his back...without question.
Smith and Campbell are very similar, indeed. Although they were both first-round picks, the difference is that Smith was the No. 1 overall selection.People tend to forget that one of the people pushing hardest for Smith was a guy by the name of Mike McCarthy, who the next year became Green Bay Packers head coach. And because of the quarterback he didn't want, Aaron Rodgers, McCarthy is now a Super Bowl-winning coach.It's been a difficult road for Alex Smith. His detractors -- and there are a few -- have a word for the many obstacles that were placed in front of him in his first six NFL seasons: Alexcuses.Yes, it's doubtful that many (any?) quarterbacks could've endured all the weirdness, including nearly two full seasons on the sideline with shoulder injuries.But Smith certainly has not shown many flashes of brilliance, either. He has never put the team on his back and won a game. He has never taken advantage of his opportunities.Until late last season, Smith had never thrown for more than 235 yards in a 49ers victory. But he did it twice in a month, registering 255 and 276 yards in wins over Seattle and Arizona.
Yeah, I remember when the debate in the Bay Area was on who was the bigger No. 1 pick flop Alex Smith or JaMarcus Russell? We all know who ended up winning (or was it losing?) that debate. It reminded me of pro football in L.A. In 1985, when there was a contest as to who was the worst quarterback in the Southland the Raiders' Marc Wilson or the Rams' Dieter Brock?Thing is, Jason Campbell has not had such a harsh spotlight on him in the NFL.True, he was a surprise first-round pick, the third QB taken at No. 25 overall, one pick behind new NFL Golden Boy Aaron Rodgers. But Jason was never truly seen as a franchise quarterback. Indeed, the book on him was that he was solid if unspectacular, at best. He did not have to win a game on his own; just don't lose it.But when he came to the Raiders in that 2010 draft weekend trade for a fourth-round pick in 2012, he was signed to a one-year extension. And in his first training camp, he was compared to Raiders icon and two-time Super Bowl champ Jim Plunkett by no one other than Al Davis himself.Now that's some serious pressure to perform.
It is truly amazing that Smith has remained with the 49ers all these seasons. The reason he remains with the organization that drafted him is because he has done all the right things off the field.He does not show up late for meetings -- or fall asleep once inside. He's the proverbial first player in the building and the last to leave. Harbaugh trusted him with the playbook, film and PowerPoint material to install the offense to his teammates during the lockout.His teammates really like him. And, I believe, they have trust in him. But trust only goes so far. When the 49ers' players selected a team captain for offense after the final cuts, running backFrank Gore was chosen -- not the quarterback who organized everything at San Jose State in the offseason.Still, it's Smith's show. He is the starter. The two backups are rookies who simply are not ready to play, yet: Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien.Now, that's some serious pressure to perform, too.
True enough, Jason Campbell is well respected in the Raiders locker room. But only to a certain point...though it's growing.Say what? Well, center Samson Satele spilled the beans in camp when he mentioned that guys were actually staying in the huddle the whole time to hear him make the call, rather than walking out to the line of scrimmage before he was done. Yeah, that's disrespectful, but at least it's changed, right?Besides, Campbell got more kudos this offseason when he teamed withRichard Seymour to organize the players-only workouts in Atlanta during the lockout. Campbell got the offense together while Seymour was in charge of the defense.Before that, Campbell had receiversDarrius Heyward-Bey, Louis Murphy and Jacoby Ford to his house for workouts, Murphy and Ford crashing on his couch and spare room.Respect has to be earned, and it seems like Jason is on his way, especially now that he's in the last year of his contract and is expected, to some degree, to help tutor young Terrelle Pryor.
Ah, are we already peaking behind these quarterbacks to see who might replace them?It's pretty clear the 49ers are counting on Alex Smith in 2011. Sure, they went after Matt Hasselbeck in free agency. Hasselbeck said it was a difficult decision, but he signed with the Tennessee Titans instead.They also brought in veteran journeyman Josh McCown, but they cut him before the start of the regular season. And Jim Harbaugh declined to comment whether the 49ers have interested in David Garrard, whom Jacksonville released this week.So, right now, the 49ers have Alex Smith as the starter and the two rookies. In other words, the 49ers are working without a safety net at the game's most important position.And it's not as if Smith was exactly durable in his first six NFL seasons, eiher. He missed four games as a rookie with a knee injury. He played every snap in 2006. But then he missed 10 games in 2007 and the entire 2008 season with injuries to his throwing shoulder. Last year, he was on the shelf again with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder.The 49ers' hopes of ending their eight-year playoff drought hinge on Smith remaining healthy and playing the best football of his career.
As I mentioned earlier, Jason Campbell is in the last year of his contract and the Raiders used the supplemental draft to get their developmental QB of the future in Terrelle Pryor. So, no, it's never too early to peek behind the curtain.Especially when the backup quarterbacks are always the most popular guys on the team. And especially with Jason getting dinged up so often last year.It started in the preseason against yes, the 49ers, and continued throughout with assorted stingers and various nicks. In fact, the Niners against sent Jason to the sidelines this preseason when he took a knee to the helmet.Like any quarterback, so much of Jason's success is in staying on the field and staying healthy and, to some degree, the confidence flows from within.

Mailbag: Which 49ers vets are on shaky ground?

Mailbag: Which 49ers vets are on shaky ground?

The 49ers’ new regime heads to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week with the first major wave of offseason activity set to kick off.

Already, the 49ers have made roster improvements. And there figure to be plenty of activity ahead in the coming weeks.

Here are some questions submitted by readers on Facebook for this edition of 49ers Mailbag:

Do you see the 49ers cutting ties with larger contracts like Bethea, Torrey Smith and Ahmad Brooks?‬ (Blair Wilkins)
The 49ers have approximately $75 million in space under the salary cap – and that’s before any adjustment of Colin Kaepernick’s contract. So it’s not as if the organization needs to create cap room.

Any decision made to part ways with veteran players will be made solely on how that player fits into what the 49ers envision on the field.

And that’s what general manager John Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff are doing now. They are studying the video from last season to determine which players fit their ideals.

Safety Antoine Bethea is scheduled to earn $5.75 million. Bethea, 32, enters the final year of his contract. There is no question he is everything the 49ers want in a player off the field. If one of the younger guys is not better than Bethea, there is no reason to get rid of him.

Brooks is on the books to earn $5.3 million in 2017. That’s not a huge amount for a starting outside linebacker or defensive end – whichever spot he might fit best. The 49ers must look to upgrade their pass rush. Brooks turns 33 next month. He’s good for six sacks a season. Again, it’s not as if the 49ers can’t afford him. And, as of now, it’s not as if the 49ers have anyone better.

Smith is scheduled to earn $8 million. He has been vastly underutilized in his two seasons since signing with the 49ers. He’s the most interesting case of the high-priced veterans.

Kyle Shanahan’s offense is predicated on using the running game to set up the play-action shot down the field. Smith is limited. He’s not a possession receiver. He’s not going to make plays over the middle. He is an outside receiver whose contributions come in the vertical passing game. But that’s what Shanahan wants.

If Smith is paired with a strong tight end, a running back who catch the ball out of the backfield, a slot receiver with short-area quickness to get open underneath, a very good receiver on the other side and an accurate quarterback who can throw the deep ball, there should be a role for Smith in the 49ers’ offense.

Will the 49ers continue to be aggressive pursuing free agents this offseason? If so, what positions?‬ (Bradley Lodge)
The 49ers have zeroed in on two veteran free agents and they signed them both.

The organization has already spent more money than it did all of last offseason on veteran free agency with the four-year, $16 million deal to sign defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, whom the Miami Dolphins recently released.

Nickel back K’Waun Williams has a history with 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley. The 49ers did not have to make much of a financial investment to sign him.

The 49ers will definitely go after a veteran quarterback or two in free agency or via trade. Pass rusher, inside linebacker and wide receiver are other positions the 49ers can be expected to look during free agency.

The opening of the new league year – when free-agent signings and trades can occur – is March 9. The draft is seven weeks later.

The 49ers must fill as many of their needs with smart deals that fit into the long-term plan with veteran acquisitions. Then, the draft is about taking the best players on their board when it’s time to select. Teams that reach for need generally strike out.

What are the chances of drafting a QB with first pick and playing them behind a Kap / Cousins until they're ready to become starter?‬ (Hillory Broussard)
If Colin Kaepernick returns, it will not be as a no-questions-asked starter. Just read what Lynch said on KNBR this week about the team’s needs:

“Do we have some places – probably the ultimate position, quarterback – where we need to improve? Absolutely. And we’re committed to doing that.”

That statement can easily be interpreted that Lynch does not believe the 49ers had a starting-caliber quarterback on the roster last season.

But if the 49ers were to go out and swing a trade for Kirk Cousins or Jimmy Garoppolo, it’s going to take a big commitment – in terms of draft picks and a suitable new contract. Then, the 49ers would have that player.

Cousins or Garoppolo would unquestionably fill the 49ers’ need at quarterback for 2017 and beyond -- at least in the minds of the 49ers' new decision-makers. There would be no reason for the 49ers to then draft a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick – if the 49ers even had the No. 2 overall pick at that point.


49ers have already spent more in 2017 free agency than a year ago

49ers have already spent more in 2017 free agency than a year ago

Under the 49ers’ new regime, the club has already invested more in the free-agent market than a year ago under then-general manager Trent Baalke.

Just a reminder: The free-agent signing period does not officially open until March 9.

The 49ers on Friday reached a contract agreement with veteran defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, who is penciled into be a starter in the team’s new 4-3 base scheme under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

"As soon as Earl hit the open market, he became a priority for us to sign,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said in a statement released Saturday morning. “A man of high character, he represents everything we want to be as a football team. Earl is a tone-setter who plays the game with a tremendous passion and the effort necessary to win in this league. We believe those qualities are contagious and will help to make our team stronger. We look forward to the impact Earl will have on the field, in the locker room and in our community.”

It was the first significant move under Lynch, who also signed a player with NFL experience earlier in the week.

The 49ers also added cornerback K’Waun Williams to a one-year contract. Williams served as the Cleveland Browns’ nickel back for two seasons. The Browns released him before the start of last season and he was unable to play due to an ankle injury.

Mitchell was available to be signed before the start of the new league year because the Miami Dolphins released him last week in a move to save the team $4 million in cap space.

Mitchell took four free-agent visits and after wrapping up his tour with the Atlanta Falcons on Friday, he and the 49ers quickly agreed on a four-year, $16 million contract that includes $5.5 million of money in the first year, according to a source.

Last year, Baalke did little to improve the roster for coach Chip Kelly. The 49ers, who finished 5-11 in Jim Tomsula's one season, dropped to 2-14. Just hours after the season concluded, the 49ers announced the firings of Baalke and Kelly.

The only veteran free-agent addition who stepped on the field for the 49ers last season was offensive lineman Zane Beadles. The 49ers signed Beadles in late-March to a three-year, $9.75 million contract with a $1.75 million signing bonus. Beadles had a good season for the 49ers, starting 12 games at left guard, two games at left tackle and the final two games at center.

The 49ers have already shown more willingness to be aggressive under Lynch’s leadership.

Mitchell, 29, is a seven-year veteran who began his NFL career from 2010 to ’13 with the Houston Texans. He was a rookie in Saleh’s final season as assistant linebackers coach in Houston.

Mitchell joins DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Quinton Dial on the 49ers defensive line. The 49ers view Mitchell as a high-energy player who bring good character to the locker room. The signing of Mitchell could be an indication the 49ers are moving on from Glenn Dorsey, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

With 5.5 sacks in seven seasons, the 49ers do not figure to use Mitchell in passing situations. The club must try to bolster its pass rush in free agency or the draft. Last season, Buckner and Ahmad Brooks shared the team-lead with six sacks apiece. In 2015, Brooks and Aaron Lynch both led the way with 6.5 sacks.