NEW ORLEANS — After half a season watching Colin Kaepernick take the San Francisco 49ers to places he couldn't, quarterback Alex Smith will get a chance to help another team. According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, the 49ers will try to trade Smith in the offseason, and if that doesn't work out, give him his release as early as possible "out of respect."
Smith, who said earlier this week that losing his job was a "tough situation," has also said and done all the right things. San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh has remarked that Smith, who lost his job to Kaepernick after suffering a concussion against the St. Louis Rams in November, has been as much a part of Kaepernick's progression as a starter as anyone else on the team.
"He’s prepared and been involved in the game planning, in preparations... he’s prepared himself as the starter each week," Harbaugh said of Smith earlier this week. "That’s what he’s done, that’s what we expect of him and that’s what he has delivered. [He's] another person really to credit in Colin’s success because Alex has really helped coach Colin and has been right there by his side. Sitting there in meetings every single day. He coaches Colin now more than I do, and that speaks high of the kind of person and teammate that Alex Smith is.”
Other teams will certainly notice. And though Smith has a lower ceiling than the ultra-mobile Kaepernick, there are many NFL teams who would see him as a serious upgrade.
It wasn't always that way. Selected first overall in the 2005 NFL Draft, Smith took over a 49ers offense that was one of the worst of the modern era, and didn't do much until Harbaugh became the team's head coach in 2011. Harbaugh tightened up Smith's game, managing his liabilities and maximizing his strengths. It paid off with a trip to the NFC championship game in 2012, but it was clear that Harbaugh wanted more from the position.
That's why he took Kaepernick out of Nevada in the second round in 2011, and that's also why Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman had a major stake in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes before the Denver Broncos spirited Manning away. Smith resigned with the 49ers for this season, but it was always going to be a strange marriage -- the 49ers wanted more, and Smith wanted (and felt he had earned) a legitimate chance to be someone's franchise quarterback.
On Wednesday, Smith started to outline what that picture might look like.
"It's not just a playbook," he said. "It’s how it marries with the personnel. I think the biggest thing often times is not being cookie-cutter. The offensive coordinator can see what the strengths of his team are, see the strengths of the quarterback and all the guys around him and really tailor it to them. I think that’s the best thing. Not something that someone picks up and plops it down over here.
"I don’t know if there is one system. I think when you get a lot of these playbooks next to each other, a lot of the plays are the same. We call them something different and use different words. It really comes down to how it’s taught to the players and how good the teachers are, the coaches. Those are the important things. I think a lot gets made of the X’s and O’s, and for sure that’s a part of it. But I really think the teaching and then the executing from a player standpoint is the most important.”
That might lead Smith in the direction of the Cleveland Browns, who recently hired Norv Turner to be their offensive coordinator, and whose front office is not reportedly all-in on current quarterback Brandon Weeden. Smith and Turner worked together in 2006, and that was Smith's best season until Harbaugh showed up half a decade later.
Smith remembers Turner fondly, as most quarterbacks do.
“Loved my time with Norv. A very, very friendly quarterback system. For them there, it’s going to be a terminology change going from a West Coast system to the digits [three-digit playcalling system], but very, very quarterback- friendly -- big play potential for the offense with a lot of chunk plays. He’s a great play-caller. I just remember he had a great feel for the game on gameday and a great feel for what the defense was doing.”
Smith also remembered Turner as the first coach who really gave him a way to advance in the NFL.
“Obviously, I’d gotten a whole year of football under my belt. I got back to playing football. It was structured but it wasn't. He gave you freedom as a quarterback to go out there and if you saw something to take risks, take shots and things like that. He wasn’t necessarily so rigid that you couldn't do that, but it was fun. It was fun to play in that system because if the system worked for you, you felt like there were plays out there. It was fun. I loved it.”
One advantage Smith has is that he's played in multiple systems, and though he's not always done so at a high level, he's at least had to master a lot of different playbooks. From the pseudo-spread he ran under Urban Mayer at Utah, to the occasionally misguided West Coast leanings in the 49ers' recent down years, to Turner's old-school three-digit verticals, to Harbaugh's power-running attack with passes sprinkled on top, there isn't much that Smith hasn't seen. He's now a very efficient, if unspectacular, quarterback who has learned to be relatively mistake-proof. 30 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions in the last two seasons talls that tale very nicely.
Other NFL teams will prove attractive to Smith, and he to them. Andy Reid needs a new quarterback in Kansas City, and Chip Kelly may be in the market in Philly. Smith has run aspects of both types of offenses -- from Reid's vertical take on the West Coast system to Kelly's rapid-fire "spread the field" mantra. One thing Smith knows -- he's more mobile than people think, and if a team is looking for that kind of offense, he can do that as well.
“That’s a big question," he said, when asked if the option stuff he learned under Meyer would transfer to the pros. Everyone knows that it has now, but to what degree?
"I think everybody has been asking it. I’ve been asked it since the day I was drafted. Could it work? Could it work? The big question is can the quarterback stay healthy? The quarterback is going to take more hits, potentially, in a system like that. Can you stay healthy? For me, I think that’s the big question. What we’ve done this year, Kaep’s done more of it. I think it’s definitely there. Can you live in it down-in and down-out? I don’t know.”
There's a lot Alex Smith doesn't know right now. He doesn't know if he'll play a single snap in the Super Bowl, and he doesn't know where he'll be when the 2013 NFL season starts. One thing he does know: He's done everything possible to be a good soldier through the second half of the 2012 season, and he's about to find out just how much that's worth.
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