With the calendar now turned to June, it's time to break down the personnel the 49ers currently have…
Analyzing what Alex Smith is really saying
Smith technically still is a free agent, but he sure is sounding more and more like the man who will be leading the 49ers into the season as their quarterback later this year. He's already doing plenty of auditioning for that role now.
Smith says: "I wouldn't be (organizing practice sessions despite his free agent status) if it wasn't for the relationship there, to be honest with you. For the feeling I got from (coach Jim) Harbaugh, the offensive coaching staff, from every time I've been in there, from before the lockout, from when the lockout ended that day and a half… But I have such a good feeling. I feel they've been up front about everything they've told me."
Translation analysis: Smith is taking full advantage of the vacuum that has been created among the 49ers by the circumstances of the NFL lockout. He has been given an opening by Harbaugh to return as the starter and is taking the lead and running with it. Smith is no dummy. He sees an opportunity to get out front of this unique situation and is doing just that. If it happens to give him a certain leadership status he never has had with the team before, all the better.
Smith says: "I guess I've slowly dealt with (his possible replacement being on the field next to Smith in workouts Smith's arranging). I don't think I've had a year without competition, really, in the last four years. But yeah, with the new guy (Colin Kaepernick) drafted, it did remind me a lot of when I came in, and Tim Rattay, to be honest with you. That situation. And I did think back about how good Tim was. How easy it would be to be bitter and to be an ass. Those guys did it the right way with me and I'm going to do the same thing."
Translation analysis: Smith already has been through so much and had so many challenges to his starting job with the 49ers that he's barely even blinking after the team brought in an heir apparent at quarterback with its second-round draft pick this spring. And he's too big a person with too much integrity to freeze out Kaepernick, no matter how often it is said the rookie was drafted to be San Francisco's next franchise quarterback, a tag attached to Smith when he was drafted in the first round in 2005.
Smith says: "Yeah, it did feel good (that Harbaugh has praised Smith publicly). Here's a guy who's had a lot of success as a head coach, who played the quarterback position, an offensive mind. You know, this is the first for me, to have an offensive head coach, especially someone who played the position and really knows what it's like to sit back in the pocket and all the different things that can impact your play. This is the ultimate team sport and I really feel that the quarterback position is the epitome of that. You rely on so many people, coaches and players alike, to have a chance of success."
Translation analysis: Thank God, Smith is saying, that he finally will be playing for a NFL head coach who knows a little something extra about offense and a little something extra about what it's like to be inside the head of a quarterback. The way Smith has been pinballed between different offensive coordinators and different offensive systems since he joined the team may be the one most damaging thing that has held him back from reaching the next level as a quarterback. Smith isn't about to bolt from the scene just as an offensive-minded head coach who actually takes him seriously is arriving.
Smith says: "No question (Smith has considered moving on to other teams as a free agent). Absolutely. Yeah, without a doubt. It's been such an awkward offseason, because the day I became a free agent was the day the lockout began and I wasn't allowed to talk to anybody... Obviously you try to find out what's out there and potential destinations. I think the nice thing is just getting away for a little bit and clean your head and trying to make an unbiased decision. What's the best place for me? For my career, where I'm at right now? I really believe I've done that, in my head."
Translation analysis: Smith has had some offseason feelers from other teams, and he certainly could find a new destination once free agency actually begins. But the feelers aren't actual bites that are promising Smith a starting position. Smith has come to the realization that, yes, he could find another home, start over and try to work his way up again, but San Francisco still offers him his best shot – and perhaps his only shot – to be a starting NFL quarterback in 2011.
Smith says: "It is different, no question, that I'm the guy, I'm not even on the roster and I'm calling up guys to get this together."
Translation analysis: Again, Smith is taking the ball and running with it. He has to show the new regime that he can take command of a situation and have his teammates rally around him. And besides, what better way to ensure that the Harbaugh regime keeps its spoken commitment to Smith than for him to take charge during this offseason uncertainty to the point that the team can't comfortably move forward in 2011 without him?
Smith says: "The biggest thing is… from the little bit I've been around (Harbaugh's offense)… is decision-making, the details of decision-making. That's something that has come and gone for me, year to year, based on the system I've been in. But I do look forward to how much detail they do have in the decision-making process, both in the run game and the pass game. There's going to be a lot of things done with the game plan. It's going to be complex and going to need a quarterback that can make decisions and can handle a lot of volume. And I feel like that would be to my advantage."
Translation analysis: Smith's biggest fear – and the biggest challenge facing him – is that he won't be able to handle the quick decision-making that is essential to becoming a successful quarterback in the West Coast system. Since decision-making has been one of the weaknesses in his game for six NFL seasons, Smith is hoping he can rely on his intelligence and veteran ability to absorb change while he attempts to nail down this vital element of Harbaugh's offense.
Smith says: "Nothing against decisions that other guys have made in the past, I feel like it's such an easy way out (to find another NFL team after experiencing adversity with their first). I don't know of any other guy that has ever attempted to do what I'm doing. If there's anything that I feel like I stand for as a person, not even a football player, it's that. A lot of decisions would've been easier, to go to a new place, a fresh start, and maybe I should've. But at this point, I'm happy with where I'm at and really attempting to be about something different in this league."
Translation analysis: Smith is milking his last-chance comeback with the 49ers for everything it's worth. Since his last chance with the team was supposed to be last season, he's feeling pretty heady about the current situation. He's starting to buy into the hype that getting another shot with the 49ers after so many years of failure makes him something unique and that the odds of him making it, finally, must be swaying in his favor since the team hasn't already completely erased him from its future plans.
Smith says: "For us, learning a new system here… given the playbook and stuff, it's a different task. It's trying to become familiar with as much as you can before you get coached. And that's a fine line. Because the details of it you don't have. You just have the bigger picture. So for me at this point, it's becoming familiar with the terminology, the formations, the motions, the concepts, things like that. So that whenever this thing ends, you're not having to re-learn that, you can move on to the real bulk of the coaching. Verbiage-wise, (Harbaugh's offense) is very different. Most similar to my rookie year with Mike (McCarthy). Everything since then's been a variation of the digit-system, using numbers. This is all different now. Words for pass plays, mostly numbers for protection. So basically totally reversed."
Translation analysis: Man, there's a lot to learn with this new offense, and Smith and the rest of his offensive teammates already are falling behind. Having a copy of the new playbook has made Smith realize that he better do everything he can to pick it up fast and work it as much as he can with his receiving targets before performing before the watchful eyes of coaches.
Smith says: "I wanted to have a good enough grasp of the offense so that when we do get together I could at least give these guys something and help them out. So we're going to be getting together here shortly and probably do a series of minicamps depending on how long this lockout goes. I don't know if we'll be doing 7 on 7 competitive, versus the defense. We might get to that. But early on, it's literally going to be kind of our own shop. Really, we've got enough on our plate. We don't need to be going against those (defensive) guys. Calling the plays, getting lined up right, running them on air. Getting familiar with all that. Snap counts, huddles, all the procedural things, the foundations of the offense… I think you're trying to get as much under your belt as possible before this ends."
Translation analysis: As can be expected, there really is no organized plan once a larger group of Smith and teammates are assembled on a Bay Area practice field. The terms "minicamp" and "organized team activity" are being tossed around, but unlike more established NFL teams that saw their veterans map out the logistics and implementation of such workouts much earlier and more efficiently, the 49ers are basically putting theirs together on the fly and without a blueprint.
Smith says: "I've called ( Michael Crabtree), yeah. (And why isn't Crabtree here at the workouts?) Great question. Asking the wrong guy, honestly."
Translation analysis: Smith has done his part to reach out to the enigmatic wide receiver and get him on board, but just like everybody else Smith is wondering why Crabtree doesn't put out the extra effort to join Smith and teammates to build a rapport in the passing game that was obviously missing last season. Smith can't answer for a guy who is in town but stays away, even though Crabtree's game can certainly use the work after the first two offseasons of his career basically were a wash.
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