Born in the Gold Rush: The History of the 49ers Part 16: Alex Smith and the 2005 Draft
Alex Smith, who retired after the 2020 season, ended up having a decent career for himself, but the first six years in San Francisco were extremely rocky. First, over the objections of the fan base, the 49ers took him first overall instead of Aaron Rodgers, a Northern California kid who grew up a Niners fan. Then, Smith was rushed into action too soon, dealt with numerous injuries, and worked for a revolving door of offensive coordinators. Eventually, he would find stability, and with it, success.
Has a Niners draft pick garnered so much enmity as this one?
On April 23, 2005, the 49ers, by virtue of their less-than-stellar 2-14 record from the previous year, began Day 1 of that year’s draft with the first overall pick. It was all but certain that they would take a quarterback, after the Niners had ridden with the likes of Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, and Cody Pickett to survive the 2004 gauntlet. All three had been San Francisco draftees. All three of them were seventh-round draftees. All three of them arrived in San Francisco over a four-year span.
All three were terrible.
You could argue that the dynastic years of the 49ers effectively ended on September 27, 1999, when Arizona Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams slid past Lawrence Phillips on a blitz and planted Steve Young into the Sun Devil Stadium turf. Young suffered a concussion on that play – he had endured a half dozen of them over his career – and it brought a sad and unceremonious end to his career. And, yes, Jeff Garcia did emerge and proceed to give the 49ers five solid seasons of quarterback play, leading the team to back-to-back postseason appearances in 2001 and 2002. But Young and his predecessor, Joe Montana, were both future Hall-of-Famers. Garcia was more than capable: a tough-as-nails competitor from San Jose State and the Canadian Football League who rose from obscurity and was a nice underdog story. He was selected to three Pro Bowls and piled up an impressive suite of numbers: twice, he threw 30-plus touchdowns, and his completion percentage hovered north of 60 percent, good enough to appear near the top of NFL leaderboards.
But Garcia was no Montana or Young. The same could be said of the assorted flotsam and jetsam that washed ashore at Candlestick Point to take over the signal-caller duties post-Garcia: Rattay. Dorsey. Pickett. A fan base spoiled by more than two decades of solid-to-phenomenal quarterback play was suddenly forced to watch, well, whatever the hell that was. The 49ers were in desperate need of a franchise player at that position.
The 2005 draft – and San Francisco’s position within it – represented a golden opportunity for the front office to fix this glaring hole. There was a glut of promising prospects who dotted the draftniks’ various rankings. The only question was who would the 49ers take to kick the whole thing off?
As draft day approached, there was only one obvious answer: Aaron Rodgers.
It made sense. Rodgers grew up in Chico, California, a die-hard 49ers fan. A two-year starter at Pleasant Valley High School, Rodgers amassed over 4,000 yards passing and once tossed six touchdowns in a single game. Unrecruited due to his small stature, Rodgers began his college career at home, attending nearby Butte Community College before moving on to the University of California in a rare sophomore-year transfer. Over his two seasons with Jeff Tedford’s Golden Bears, Rodgers threw for 5,469 yards and 43 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions. When he declared for the draft after the 2004 NCAA season, it seemed all but certain that he would soon be living out his boyhood dream of zipping footballs to open receivers crisscrossing the Candlestick Park turf.
As it turned out, Aaron Rodgers would indeed be realizing that dream, but as a 49ers opponent.
To the shock of all and the dismay of the fan base, the 49ers opted not for the Nor-Cal kid, but for University of Utah quarterback Alex Smith. Smith, too, possessed an impressive college résumé: a 21-1 record as a starter, including a pair of bowl game victories; a fourth-place finish in the 2004 Heisman Trophy voting, and 2004 Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, but he did all that while facilitating Urban Meyer’s spread offense. A potent attack, to be sure, but in those days spread-offense quarterbacks simply didn’t transition to the pros.
It was a decision that did not sit well with the Faithful. Had Twitter existed in 2005, the amount of sheer venom and vitriol would have caused the ol’ bird site to melt.
Why did the 49ers choose Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers?
Mike McCarthy preferred Rodgers, who ran a pro-style offense at Cal, but the Niners’ offensive coordinator had little input in the matter. The ultimate judgment rested with the newly hired head coach Mike Nolan, who had spent much of the previous dozen years as a defensive coordinator with various teams. The forty-six-year-old Nolan, whose father had been the Niners’ head coach in the late Sixties and early Seventies, was an old-school, no-nonsense individual who brokered no dissent or contradiction from any subordinate. And in his pre-draft conversations with Rodgers, Nolan sensed he was dealing with a young man who might challenge his authority.
Smith, on the other hand? He wasn’t that type. He was quiet, and cerebral, the kind of football player who would go about his business and do whatever the coaches asked him to do.
Appearing on the NFL Network in April 2016, Nolan reflected on his decision. “[Smith] was a good kid – a very good person, a safe choice, always trying to please,” Nolan said “On the other hand, Aaron was very cocky, very confident, arrogant. So, you can say, ‘Why didn’t you take him to begin with?’ Because that’s really what your best quarterbacks look like. They aren’t very pleasing. They aren’t very safe.”
Nolan went on to explain that they thought Smith would be a better long-term choice than Rodgers; he may have overthought it – “paralysis by analysis,” as he called it – but there was also something to Rodgers’s throwing mechanics. Cal head coach Jeff Tedford, known as a quarterback guru, taught his charges to hold the football up near the back ear when dropping back and looking downfield. It was supposed to cut down on arm motion and create a lightning-quick release, but it was nonetheless an unusual quirk that ran counter to what NFL QBs did, and other Tedford quarterbacks who had gone pro, such as Trent Dilfer, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller, and Akili Smith, either ditched it or disappeared from sight.
Scouts were convinced that Alex Smith would end up being the better prospect. “I think [Rodgers] has a good chance of being a bust,” an anonymous NFC scout told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Just like every other Tedford-coached quarterback. Thing I struggle with him is he gets sacked a lot. He doesn’t have great ability to change the release of the football. He’s mechanically very rigid. Brett Favre can change his release point and find different windows. There will be more growing pains with Alex Smith, but in the end, he has a much better chance to be much better.” Said another anonymous NFC scout, “The guys that Tedford has had, what have they developed into? They’re too well-schooled. So mechanical. So robotic. I don’t know if they become good pro players. I think Rodgers is in that same mold.” A scout of AFC persuasion called Rodgers “a clone of Harrington and Boller. They all throw the same way. What have those guys done? Nothing.”
“Smith is the better athlete,” said another scout.
One thing that a young quarterback needs when entering the NFL is stability. Alex Smith did not have that, and it had a destructive effect on his growth.
In his first six seasons, Smith played for two head coaches (or three, if you count Jim Tomsula manning the final game of 2010). He also played for six – six! – offensive coordinators. In order of appearance: McCarthy, Norv Turner, Jim Hostler, Mike Martz, Jimmy Raye, and Mike Johnson.
The other thing a young quarterback needs is health. Alex Smith had little fortune with that, as well.
What follows is a year-by-year recount of Smith’s tortured first six seasons, from 2005 through 2010:
2005: Head coach – Mike Nolan. Offensive coordinator – Mike McCarthy.
Alex Smith’s rookie season was a rough one, health-wise. It was, in general, a rough year to be a 49ers quarterback.
Smith did not win the starting QB job in training camp. That honor went to Tim Rattay, a Niners draft pick in 2000 who had played sporadically for his first four seasons and was elevated to starter when Jeff Garcia, due to salary cap restraints, was released in March 2004. Rattay wasn’t particularly good in 2004, and he did not present himself as anything better than an average backup through the first few games of 2005. Finally, in early October, with the Niners at 1-3 but still only a game out of the lead in the NFC West, Nolan pulled the trigger and named Smith the starter for San Francisco’s Week 5 game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. It was going to be a tough ask for Smith, going up against a tough Indy defense featuring the likes of Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Gary Brackett, and Bob Sanders, and Smith knew it. “I’m a rookie,” he said on the Wednesday leading up to the game. “I’m young. I’m probably going to take some shots and get knocked down, but I just have to get back up and keep going forward. Everything is not going to be golden for me, and there are going to be some bad times. That’s not unexpected.”
Boy, was he ever right.
Smith completed just nine of 23 attempts, threw four interceptions, and was sacked five times as the 49ers lost 28-3 to fall to 1-4. “It doesn’t feel good to throw so many interceptions,” Smith said after the game. “No one said this was going to be easy. I have a long road to go down.”
Smith made one more start – a 52-17 loss at Washington – then suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss the next four games. Ken Dorsey, a University of Miami product who attended Miramonte High School in the East Bay Area suburb of Orinda, started against the Tampa Bay Bucs at Candlestick, sprained his left ankle, which paved the way for third-stringer Cody Pickett to start the next three games (all losses) before Dorsey was able to return. Smith retook the reins in Week 12 and finished the season the No. 1 quarterback. His stat line for those final five contests was less than impressive; he completed 53 percent of his passes for 675 yards, a touchdown and six interceptions. The Niners finished the 2005 season with a 4-12 record, which included a seven-game losing streak through November and December during which Smith, Dorsey, and Pickett all saw action.
Outside of rookie running back Frank Gore, who emerged from the shadows to rush for 608 yards on 127 carries, the 49ers’ offense was listless, lethargic, and incapable of doing anything more than curing insomnia, as they finished last in the NFL in yards gained and thirtieth in points scored. “We weren’t throwing the ball downfield; defenses were on top of us,” Smith recalled in 2007. “It was like we were the passive ones and [the opposing defenses] were the aggressors.” The unit’s struggles could not be pinned entirely on McCarthy, however, since he was never able to establish his scheme with all the changes at the quarterback, receiver, and running back positions. Going through three different left tackles – Jonas Jennings, Anthony Clement, and rookie Adam Snyder – certainly didn’t help, either.
2006: Head coach – Mike Nolan. Offensive coordinator – Norv Turner.
Mike McCarthy was one and done as 49ers offensive coordinator, departing to take the head coaching job in Green Bay, where he and Aaron Rodgers would team up to deliver a Super Bowl championship in February 2011. Taking McCarthy’s place in San Francisco was a familiar foe, Norv Turner, who had been the offensive coordinator in Dallas from 1991 through 1993, winning a pair of Super Bowls, before spending seven years in Washington as the Redskins’ head coach. Turner had spent the 2004 and 2005 seasons piloting the Oakland Raiders’ offense to mediocre results before they fired him. At his introductory press conference after moving across the Bay, he joked to the reporters, “I haven’t talked to you all in a couple of weeks now. I miss some of you.” A budding humorist, it seemed, but the only way Norval would ever see the stage at Cobb’s Comedy Club would be as a spectator. Turner would need his sense of whimsy to survive working with what he was being handed in S.F.
If nothing else, Turner’s hiring would represent a momentous change in how the offense would operate. For the majority of the previous quarter century, the 49ers had been running Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense, followed by variations of it deployed by the likes of Mike Shanahan, Marty Mornhinweg, Greg Knapp, and McCarthy. The hope was that under Turner, the Niners’ offense would resemble something like the so-called “Air Coryell” scheme that Dan Fouts and the Chargers executed to staggering results under head coach Don Coryell in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Instead of reading progressions, Alex Smith would have the opportunity to air it out downfield. The running game would be more power than finesse. “It’s a system players can adopt pretty quick,” Nolan said upon Turner’s hiring. “I’m big on that.”
Turner wouldn’t be completely inflexible, however, as he vowed to let receivers run certain plays that they were comfortable with, even if it wasn’t a part of the overall scheme. “As we go through it, if a guy runs a particular route real well, we’ll give him a chance to do it,” he said.
The 49ers hoped that Smith would take considerable strides towards becoming a top-tier quarterback under Turner, provided he could stay healthy. The quarterback achieved the latter, starting all sixteen games.
The former? Ehh.
The 49ers did finish 7-9, a three-game improvement over the previous season. They scored 298 points, 59 more than in ’05. But Smith was inconsistent, which should not have been a total surprise, given it was his first full season in the starting role. Alex completed 58.1 percent of his passes, which was, well, okay; it placed him on the leaderboard alongside the likes of fellow youngsters Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, and just ahead of the immortal Joey Harrington. He threw for 2,890 yards, which, again, was just okay. Smith connected on 16 touchdown passes but also tossed 16 interceptions, including a brutal three-game stretch in Weeks 11 through 13 in which he threw seven picks, which displeased many of the fans as they began clamoring to see veteran backup Trent Dilfer instead. Mike Nolan would not entertain such thoughts. “I think it would be more of a setback if we [benched Smith for Dilfer],” Nolan said. “Dilfer, as competitive as he is and as bad as he would like to play, would be the first to say, ‘Coach, bad decision. You got this young kid here who’s going to be a hell of a quarterback. Make this kid learn.’”
“He’s going to be a heck of a player,” Brett Favre said after he, Mike McCarthy, and the Packers waxed the Niners 30-19 in Week 13, a game in which Smith completed 12 of 29 for 201 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. “I can see why they drafted him. In a year or two, he’ll be lighting them up.”
The 2006 season proved to be more of a boon to Gore than Smith, as the Niners focused heavily on the power running game in the campaign’s latter stages. The second-year running back became a feature player in Turner’s scheme, rushing for 1,695 yards to break Garrison Hearst’s franchise record, set in 1998. “I love playing in this offense,” said veteran fullback Moran Norris, who had the responsibility of clearing the running lanes for Gore. “Norv Turner is a good offensive coordinator; he calls the right plays.”
As for Alex Smith, he did take noticeable strides forward, but Turner’s passing scheme ended up leaving much to be desired, especially in third-down and short-yardage situations. The 49ers ranked twenty-sixth in third-down conversions and twenty-ninth in red zone production. However, Smith still would need to seriously cut down on the interceptions, which killed far too many drives. He would have a chance to do so as he grew more familiar with the Air Coryell scheme. Could an All-Pro selection be in the offing with another year under Norv Turner?
2007: Head coach – Mike Nolan. Offensive coordinator – Jim Hostler.
There would not be another year under Norv Turner.
For the second season in a row, a Niners offensive coordinator departed to take a head coaching job elsewhere. Last time, it was Mike McCarthy taking over the Packers. This time, Norv Turner accepted an offer to lead the San Diego Chargers. The 49ers promoted from within, tabbing quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler to replace Turner. Hostler would bring about a return to the West Coast scheme, he had monitored Smith closely as his position coach, and he also had some coordinator experience, even if it was but a single year at tiny-ass Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania (which counts Football Men Art Rooney and Jim Haslett, as well as journalist/Phileas Fogg fanatic Nellie Bly, among its most prominent alumni). “Jim had the most comprehensive view of the offense as the quarterbacks coach. That was big to me,” Nolan said – apparently with a straight face – after the hiring was announced. “He also has had a relationship with Alex for the last two years.
“In interviewing Jim, I was very impressed that (making game plans) is exactly what Jim has been doing the last few years,” Nolan continued. “He brought out the game plans that he had been putting together every week. I never saw them, because all I wanted to see the last two years was our actual coordinator’s game plan, but Jim brought his to me. They were laminated.”
Said Hostler, “What I’ve learned from Norv (is) how he balances the game, how he understands and can react to what the game is asking him to do.”
Despite gifting Alex Smith new weapons in the form of receivers Darrell Jackson, Jason Hill, and Ashley Lelie, the Jim Hostler Experience ended up being a dumpster fire, though it wasn’t entirely his fault. The 49ers regressed to 5-11 and finished last in the NFL in points scored. Gore ran for just over 1,100 yards and the 49ers, due to injuries, started four different quarterbacks: Smith, Dilfer, Shaun Hill, and thirty-five-year-old former minor league baseball player Chris Weinke. The 2007 season ended up being particularly turbulent for Smith, who injured his shoulder in Week 4 when he was sacked by a Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman. Smith missed the next two games, returned for three, played poorly, and was shut down for the rest of the year. He then found himself at odds with Nolan, who somehow believed that the quarterback’s injury wasn’t all that serious. As Kevin Lynch, who was the Niners’ beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate.com at the time, described the fiasco in October 2008, after Nolan was fired:
Smith went to Nolan. He told him he felt he was no longer helping the team, and he said he was going to say the strength staff ruined his rehab. Nolan told Smith he couldn’t say that. Smith agreed, but he wanted Nolan to say what he had just told him that his injuries were making him ineffective, which seemed evident to even the casual fan.
But Nolan never held up his end. Instead. he insisted that Smith was medically cleared to play and his bad quarterbacking had nothing to do with his injuries. Smith was stunned and he didn’t know what to do. He finally told the press he was frustrated that Nolan kept saying he was healthy when he wasn’t.
Smith would undergo surgery on the shoulder in December.
In the meantime, as Smith was battling his head coach, Frank Gore was voicing his discontent with Hostler. “Whenever [Norv Turner] said something, we wanted to do it,” Gore said at the time. “Now I feel that a lot of people, when Coach Hoss calls something, it gets in the back of their heads, ‘Is he calling the right play?’”
Dilfer disputed such claims. “I totally disagree that there is a lack of trust in Hoss. I would partly agree that there is probably a lack of trust in one another. And that happens every single time (when) you go on a bad skid or you’re not playing well offensively.
“I promise you that Jim Hostler is as prepared, is as smart, as diligent, as any offensive coordinator I've been around,” the veteran backup QB continued. “Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t have the credibility to go through a failure period. ... And that is very unfair.”
Dilfer was certainly right on the last point. Hostler didn’t have the credibility. He took the job lacking the bona fides of someone like Norv Turner, who helped win a pair of Super Bowls as Dallas’s offensive coordinator. And as the Niners struggled throughout 2007, especially during an eight-game losing streak, it looked increasingly like Hostler would not be long for the job.
The same could perhaps be said for Nolan.
2008: Head coach – Mike Nolan/Mike Singletary. Offensive coordinator – Mike Martz.
The Greatest Show on Turf.
That was the nickname bestowed on the St. Louis Rams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when they went to two Super Bowls in three years, winning one. Deploying a wide-open Air Coryell-style offense, the Rams of that era set records, including 7,335 total offensive yards in 2000 (since broken by the 2011 New Orleans Saints).
The architect of that offense? A silver-haired, avuncular, bespectacled man named Mike Martz.
Martz installed his scheme under head coach Dick Vermeil in 1999, and when Vermeil retired, Martz assumed the post and left the play calling duties to a veteran assistant, Bobby Jackson. With Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Marshall Faulk leading the way, the Rams continued to pile up the yardage and the points, but all good things eventually end. By 2004, Jackson and Warner had moved on and both Bruce and Faulk were on the wrong side of thirty, the Rams finished 8-8 and were nineteenth in the NFL in points scored. Martz missed much of the 2005 season for health reasons, then the Rams fired him. After two forgettable seasons as the Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator, Martz found himself in San Francisco. If his predecessor, Jim Hostler, lacked the credibility to be a coordinator, as Trent Dilfer put it, then at least Martz was bringing with him an offense that birthed a catchy nickname.
The problem, of course, was that once again Alex Smith would have to contend with another sharp shift in philosophy, going from Mike McCarthy’s version of the West Coast offense to Norv Turner’s Air Coryell to Hostler’s ineffective fusion of McCarthy and Turner, and now back to an air-raid attack under Martz.
It was enough to make a guy’s helmet spin.
Also, Martz would not have the weapons he had in St. Louis. Bruce, now thirty-six, had signed on in San Francisco to reunite with his old coach, but he was not the electrifying force he had once been. Bryant Johnson, the ex-Arizona Cardinal, was certainly no Torry Holt, and nobody was going to mistake either Josh Morgan or Arnaz Battle for Az-Zahir Akeem.
In the end, Martz would have no effect on Alex Smith. First, Smith lost the camp battle to J.T. O’Sullivan, who had played for Martz in Detroit. Then, after feeling pain in his surgically-repaired shoulder during a practice, Smith went to see Dr. James Andrews, who performed an MRI that revealed a fracture. Smith underwent surgery and would not take a snap for the 49ers the entire 2008 season.
Mike Nolan was fired on October 20 after a 2-5 start. Defensive coordinator Mike Singletary took over as the interim head coach, and the team responded by going 5-4 to close out the campaign. However, he and Martz were a poor fit: an old-school-football type, Singletary preferred a conservative ball-control offense to the wide-open, deep-passing approach that Martz featured. In late December, after the team’s final game and after he shed the interim tag by signing a multi-year contract, Singletary called a meeting with Martz and, to nobody’s surprise, fired him.
“I am not what he is looking for offensively,” Martz admitted in the aftermath of his dismissal. “I understand that. This is just a part of professional sports. I had an outstanding conversation with Mike Singletary this afternoon. I believe he will be an outstanding head coach.”
2009: Head coach –Mike Singletary. Offensive coordinator – Jimmy Raye.
Singletary had signed a four-year agreement after the Niners’ final game of 2008, a come-from-behind 27-24 victory in which Shaun Hill completed 21 of 30 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown, and somehow managed to get sacked only once. The victory was the culmination of a five-game finishing kick in which the Niners went 4-1, boosting their record from a horrendous 3-8 mark to a merely mediocre 7-9. His first move, as described above, was to fire Mike Martz, a move that one executive-turned-journalist thought was a blunder.
“Everyone I talked to here in Tampa on Monday [at the Super Bowl] agree[s] that the 49ers will not recover from their decision to fire Mike Martz, and whomever they hire will not be as good or as effective,” said Michael Lombardi, who had been a scout with the Niners from 1984 to 1987 and served as a personnel director or general manager to five other teams. “Martz may take a lot of hits in the media, but he’s an outstanding offensive coach.” Singletary would interview seven candidates to replace Martz, including Hue Jackson, Dan Reeves, Scott Linehan, Rick Dennison, and Rob Chudzinski.
Singletary settled on the eighth man he interviewed, sixty-three-year-old Jimmy Raye II. Raye had a past with the 49ers: he was their wide receivers coach back in 1977, his first coaching gig in the NFL. Since then, he had bounced around the league, amassing a lengthy curriculum vitae:
Running backs coach, Detroit Lions
Wide receivers coach, Atlanta Falcons (two different stints)
Offensive coordinator, Los Angeles Rams
Offensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Offensive coordinator, New England Patriots
Wide receivers coach, Los Angeles Rams
Running backs/tight ends coach, Kansas City Chiefs
Offensive coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs
Senior offensive assistant, New York Jets
Offensive coordinator, Oakland Raiders
Running backs coach, New York Jets
It can be difficult to know what to make of a coach who seldom sticks with one team for more than a year or two, along with the fact that Raye alternated between coordinator and position coach as frequently as he did. His longest shift as a coordinator was with the Chiefs, with whom he began as a position coach in 1993 before being promoted to coordinator in 1998, a job he would hold for just three seasons under two different bosses, Marty Schottenheimer and Gunther Cunningham. His offenses in those years ranked fourteenth, eighth, and ninth in points scored. In 2000, when the Chiefs had the NFL’s fifth best passing attack, Raye’s top assistant was the quarterbacks coach, a guy named Jim Hostler.
Now, after a three-decades-long journey, Raye and his ever-present fishing hat once again had an office at Candlestick Park, and he was looking to bring a balanced attack. “We would like to be a physically tough-minded team,” he said during the May minicamp. “We’d like to have an offense with enough versatility to take care of the contingencies of the defense ... I don’t see it as run-oriented or pass-oriented.
“We would like to determine what our best facet is,” he added. “We’d like to have a balance ... To play the game, it takes a certain amount of mental and physical toughness. You don’t need to be physical only to run. We want emotionally strong players, mentally and physically.”
The Niners added to their offensive arsenal in the draft, taking Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree in the first round, Alabama running back Glen Coffee in the third, and Ball State quarterback Nate Davis in the fifth. Raye expected Davis to compete with Alex Smith and Shaun Hill in camp.
“He’s a rare talent in terms of arm ability,” Raye said of Davis. “He played in a system at Ball State that accentuated what he does. He has a defined characteristic, which is to throw the ball. He does have innate arm talent to throw the ball.”
(I dare you to find a phrase that football coaches and scouts love to utter more, with regard to quarterbacks, than the grossly overused “arm talent.” Raye does deserve points for simply saying “the ball” instead of the football.)
For Alex Smith, who in March agreed to a reduction in salary to stay in San Francisco, he was desperate to finally prove himself. Injuries and the constant churn of coaches had robbed him of anything vaguely resembling linear development, and now he would be entering his fifth training camp with yet another new coordinator. “He wants to win the job for people [owners John and Denise York] who reduced his salary by more than half,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ray Ratto. “He wants to win the job by persuading an offensive coordinator [Raye] he barely knows. He wants to win the job to prove that the man [Nolan] who drafted him first overall four years ago was wrong about him. He even wants to win the job to prove that his hands really aren’t too small.
“It’s as if having had Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jeff Garcia playing one system for a quarter-century, they are now being flogged by the law of averages,” Ratto continued. “They have overturned quarterbacks, coordinators and philosophies with preposterous frequency, to the point where it makes almost perfect sense that having spun in circles so many times, they have returned, dizzy and a little nauseous, to Smith.”
Shaun Hill won the starting job. In the season opener, he threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Frank Gore to give San Francisco a 20-16 win over the Cardinals and boost his career record to 8-3. After four weeks, the 49ers stood at 3-1, with all three wins coming against their division rivals. Then it all unraveled, as Gore suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for two weeks and the 49ers dropped four games in a row. In the Week 7 loss at Houston, Singletary benched Hill for Smith after a scoreless first half in which Hill completed only six passes for 45 yards and the running game, with Gore in his first week back from the injury, was suffocated by a mediocre Texans defense. Smith responded by completing 15 of 22 passes for 206 yards, leading three touchdown drives in four possessions as San Francisco nearly pulled it out, losing 24-21. The game was not only a much needed bit of redemption for Smith; it also featured a breakout performance from fourth-year tight end Vernon Davis, who had been derided by the fans for his inability to catch the ball and whom Singletary once banished to the locker room in the middle of a game (which preceded the coach’s famous “I want winners” tirade after the game). He was on the receiving end of Smith’s three TD passes.
Singletary would name Smith the starting QB for the rest of the 2009 season.
“I had to make a decision based on who I felt gives us the best chance to win,” the Niners’ head coach said the following day. “I feel Alex gives us the best chance to win. I think Alex has had a chance to regain some of the confidence, not that he ever lost it. It gave him a chance to settle in and watch Shaun Hill.”
Smith started the remaining ten games, with the 49ers winning five of them. His game-level stat lines went back and forth like a pendulum: in a loss to Tennessee, Smith threw for 298 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw three interceptions. The following week, a 10-6 win over the Bears, he threw for just 118 yards and was picked off once. At Green Bay, Smith threw three TDs and only one pick. Then, in consecutive weeks, he put up identical two-TD, zero-INT marks. In Week 15 at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles intercepted Smith three times in a 27-13 Philadelphia victory. Alex finished the 2009 season with 60.5 completion percentage, 2,350 yards passing, and 18 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. It was the first time in his career that he threw more TDs than picks.
In total, the San Francisco offense regressed slightly, falling to 330 total points from the 339 they rang up in 2008 under Mike Martz, and the points per game average fell from 21.2 to 20.6. They ranked twenty-seventh in total offense in 2009, but the absence of Gore, the quarterback switch from Hill to Smith, a shifting offensive line, and a midstream change to a spread-shotgun formation certainly didn’t help. A few changes in the offseason – such as a deep-threat receiver to compliment Crabtree and Davis and some stability in the trenches – would help immensely.
Stability in the coordinator position could also help, and in Jimmy Raye, Singletary found someone to lead the offense with whom he was simpatico. For the first time in, well, forever, it seemed, the Niners would go into a new season with the same offensive coordinator.
2010: Head coach –Mike Singletary/Jim Tomsula. Offensive coordinator – Jimmy Raye/Mike Johnson.
WE WANT CARR!
WE WANT CARR!
WE WANT CARR!
If you were to identify out the lowest point in Alex Smith’s early career, it would be on Sunday night, October 10, 2010. The 49ers, 0-4 on the year, were hosting the 2-2 Philadelphia Eagles – the same Eagles that had picked him off three times late in the previous year.