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