Smith learned from way he was treated by Rattay
The 49ers are headed toward a quarterback controversy sooner rather than later, but the two central characters in that drama don’t figure to get too caught up in the fuss. Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick already have begun their working association with a bond of mutual respect and admiration, and considering their nature, that’s unlikely to change much as the two QBs wage battle for the same job.
That’s not always what you’d expect in the NFL when holdover veteran quarterback is presented with a challenge from rookie high draft pick who’s ostensibly being brought in as the team’s heir apparent at the position.
That certainly resembles the current QB structure of the 49ers, who invested a high second-round pick – the No. 36 selection overall – on Kaepernick in the NFL draft two months ago. Top-50 selections in the NFL’s annual college lottery are expected to be players a franchise can build on, particularly when they are quarterbacks.
So you can imagine what must have been going through the mind of Smith – who once was in the same position as Kaepernick, when Smith was selected by the Niners with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft – when the 49ers and new coach Jim Harbaugh hitched their quarterback carriage to Kaepernick.
That carriage has been riding on the tail of Smith for most of the past six seasons, and only an unusual set of circumstances brought on by the NFL lockout – among other things – is giving Smith yet another chance to pull the cart in 2011, at least while Kaepernick is developing and waiting in the wings.
After all the turmoil and adversity he has experienced in his attempt to be San Francisco’s savior at quarterback the last six years, it wouldn’t be surprising for Smith to feel just a little bit reluctant in speeding up the development of a high draft pick who has assumed the Quarterback of the Future label that once belonged to Smith.
Besides Nate Davis – a talented fifth-round selection by the 49ers in 2009 who never could quite get with the program – Kaepernick is the only quarterback the 49ers have drafted since taking Smith No. 1 overall. And that means Kaepernick will be the most serious challenger Smith has faced since then for the job.
But from almost the moment Kaepernick was drafted in April – a time when Harbaugh already was making it known he was serious about bringing back Smith this year and giving him another shot as the starter – Smith has extended the olive branch to the youngster to ease his transition into the NFL.
“Alex is a great guy and he has been great with all of it,” Kaepernick said last week at the completion of four days of player workouts organized by Smith. “He's been helping me with everything. He told me right at the start: If you have any questions, just ask. I mean, the first day I worked out with him, he came up and introduced himself, said if I need anything, just ask him.”
Smith certainly understands that accommodating Kaepernick comes with his new 49ers job description. In addition to competing for a starting role at QB that used to be his birthright, Smith is expected to be a good mentor and role model for Kaepernick.
But the fresh air that has existed between the two from the start goes beyond that. Smith simply doesn’t have it in him to resent Kaepernick. Smith probably would work to find common ground with the rookie even if they were bitter rivals.
“It’s just not in my nature,” Smith said. “It might be advantageous for me to try to screw him over or not tell him things and not teach him. But it’s just not who I am. It’s really not. I’m definitely not the type to have any ill will toward him.”
Some say that’s the problem with Smith: He’s too nice. And that makes him too nice to succeed as a winning NFL quarterback, a position that certainly requires a hard edge. But Smith isn’t buying it. He’s going to help Kaepernick any way he can, because that’s the right thing to do, and that’s what real teammates on a real teams do.
Smith said that being shunned by veteran quarterbacks, “Wasn’t how I got treated when I was a younger player, and I know how much I appreciated that. It is hard coming in.”
Smith always said he appreciated the help of Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett, the three veterans who also played quarterback for the 49ers during Smith’s rookie season. Rattay’s laid-back personality and unimposing style never presented any threat to Smith, who was shoved into the starting lineup ahead of incumbent starter Rattay by Week 5 of his rookie season, even though Smith was far from ready for the job.
The 49ers then abruptly cut ties with Rattay, shipping him to Tampa Bay before the October trading deadline. Thanks for helping groom the rookie Chosen One, Tim. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Seeing the hard truth of the situation firsthand isn’t deterring Smith in his relationship with Kaepernick, who began meeting with Smith during informal workouts last month. Kaepernick did not participate in full workouts during the organized sessions last week because of a minor leg injury that required surgery in May, but he has been learning plenty from Smith over the past month.
“Alex has been great with me,” Kaepernick said. “Anytime there's something I don't quite understand in the playbook, I come to him. He’s been great with everybody, really just helping everybody along, doing a great job out here helping everyone.”
While Kaepernick appears to have the more aggressive personality, it already seems that the demeanors and egos of both quarterbacks won’t get in the way of their relationship or team harmony. Smith didn’t hesitate to praise Kaepernick last week.
“One thing I’ve appreciated from Colin is that he’s come in, he’s very level-headed, he’s down to earth and he’s willing to work,” Smith said. “He’s banged up, too, but he’s out there working. Hard. I appreciate his attitude a lot, the way he’s come in.”
But now comes the hard part. The best quarterback, ultimately, will be the one that plays for the 49ers. There are a lot of people out there who would like to see that be Kaepernick as soon as possible.
That dynamic promises to strain the Smith/Kaepernick relationship until the day comes that one of them no longer is playing for the 49ers.
“We’re going to deal with it,” Smith said. “The thing I’ve told (Kaepernick) and will continue to tell him, whatever happens is going to get left on the field. That’s the way professionals should deal with the thing. That competition should take place between the lines, and it should be left out there.”
Smith never has had a problem leaving it there during his 49ers career. Smith became such good friends with backup Shaun Hill, who beat out Smith for the starting job at the beginning of the 2009 season, that Smith was a member of Hill’s wedding party, just as Hill was a member of Smith’s wedding party when he got married.
Smith and Kaepernick may never become that close, but the foundation already has been set for them to coexist as peers in the best interests of the 49ers.