Niners give Smith second chance, but will they use him correctly?
Rarely do failed No. 1 picks get chance to redeem themselves in same city
Alex Smith thrived in a spread offense, but Niners prefer run-based approach
Smith: 'I have to go out there and produce. There's no more wait and see'
If he cares to, when Alex Smith looks across the field Sunday in Indianapolis's Lucas Oil Stadium, he'll see a fellow No. 1 overall draft pick who has been everything at the quarterback position he has not: Productive from day one, durable to the point of almost freakishness, and fortunate enough to be with a winning franchise and in an offensive system known for its pursuit of continuity and consistency.
In short, Peyton Manning, the first pick in 1998, has experienced the polar opposite of what San Francisco's Smith has known since being the first player selected in 2005. Separated by seven years, a Super Bowl ring and seemingly different NFL worlds, they represent opposite ends of the spectrum in quarterbacking.
Smith being back among the land of the living is Week 8's most intriguing storyline shy of you-know-who's return to Lambeau Field. Named the 49ers starter once again on the strength of his eye-opening relief job of the benched Shaun Hill on Sunday in Houston, Smith will be making his first start since Week 10 of 2007. That's a span of nearly two years, during which he was relegated to near-obscurity due to injury and ineffectiveness. Before his relief stint last week, he had sat out 28 consecutive regular-season games, prompting Texans defensive end Mario Williams to remark that he didn't even know who Smith was when he entered the game.
Talking to sources within the league this week, I found no one who could really come up with a similar situation from the recent NFL past, where a failed former first-round quarterback receives an unexpected second chance -- without having to change teams and start over in a new town. Jim Plunkett and Vinny Testaverde were No. 1 flops who had to move on in an attempt to start their career's second act. High picks like Jeff George, Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler, David Carr, Joey Harrington and Ryan Leaf all changed teams, but never really fulfilled their lofty promise elsewhere.
It makes me think that before all is said and done this season, maybe we're going to wind up having been focused on the wrong former No. 1 pick quarterback who in essence missed the last two seasons of his NFL career. Maybe it will be Smith's less-dramatic comeback that will emerge as one of the stories of the year in the NFL, not Michael Vick's.
"If Alex makes it in San Francisco, that would be truly unique,'' said former Baltimore head coach Brian Billick, who served as the color analyst for FOX in San Francisco's 24-21 loss at Houston on Sunday, and watched first-hand as Smith re-started his career with three touchdown passes in 30 minutes. "You just don't get that second chance really with the same team. You typically have to go someplace else and start over. Is that going to happen here? We don't know yet. But Alex was brilliant Sunday.''
Smith entered the game at the start of the second half with the struggling 49ers trailing 21-0, and immediately provided a spark. He led San Francisco to three touchdowns on his first four drives, all of them capped by passes to tight end Vernon Davis. Though his final desperation pass was intercepted by the Texans in the final seconds of the game, and the San Francisco rally fell just short, Smith became the first 49ers quarterback since Jeff Garcia in December 2003 to throw at least three touchdowns in a half. He finished his two quarters of work 15 of 22, for 206 yards and an impressive 118.6 passer rating, quickly earning the promotion from San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary on Monday.
But nobody's doing Smith any huge favors this week. He'll face the undefeated Colts (6-0), which happens to be the same team he made his starting debut against in Week 5 of his 2005 rookie season. That forgettable game -- four interceptions, five sacks and an 8.5 passer rating in a 28-3 loss -- served to set the tone for the first 30 starts of his NFL career.
But at the still-tender age of 25, here is Smith again, ready for his second close-up. Unlike the Smith who was burdened with the fortunes of a losing franchise from the day he stepped foot in San Francisco in 2005, and played like it, Smith against the Texans looked like a quarterback presented with an opportunity that may never come again. It was time to seize it.
"He was playing with house money the other day,'' Billick said. "What did he have to lose? It was like, 'What are you going to do? Shoot me twice?' But in that game, he's down 21-0, and they're throwing. But now it's back on his shoulders and the game's even [at] the start. Let's see how that goes.''
A different Alex Smith is what Singletary said he sees these days.
"Alex is a totally different guy today than he was even six months ago,'' Singletary said Wednesday. "I think his mindset is clear. The thing what spoke volumes to me about him was in the offseason he had a chance to move on and go to another team and make more money. But he decided to stay because he felt that he wanted to be a part of what was here. He wanted to finish what he started.''
Interestingly, Billick made a point of how much against the Texans the "new'' Alex Smith played like the "old'' Alex Smith from his high-flying spread-offense days at Utah. Forced to open it up by the 21-point halftime deficit, the 49ers gave their fans a taste of what might be possible in a quick-strike offense built around the first-round talents of Smith, Davis and rookie receiver Michael Crabtree, with the added benefit of play-makers such as running back Frank Gore, second-year receiver Josh Morgan and veteran pass-catcher Isaac Bruce.
"I was very impressed with Michael Crabtree in [his first game],'' Billick said. "He's ahead of the curve. And with what they have there now, I think they have the pieces to run that kind of offense. Gore is a solid, single-back runner who doesn't really need a fullback. If you want to give Smith the best chance to succeed, that may be the way you have to go. What you saw from Alex Smith last Sunday, that's the Alex Smith we saw in college. That's his game.''
But that reality has the potential to create a conflict of sorts in San Francisco, because Singletary and his veteran offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, have invested a great deal of time and energy into the notion of making the 49ers a tough-minded, defensive-oriented team that is determined to run the ball with authority and conviction. That approach doesn't appear to leave much room for San Francisco to spread the field with receiving options, and utilize Smith's strengths for making quick, quality decisions with the ball, and keeping plays alive with his mobility. For much of this season with Hill under center, the 49ers didn't even use many three-receiver sets, and almost never went to four wides.
Billick, who had both Singletary and ex-49ers head coach Mike Nolan -- who drafted Smith -- on his Ravens coaching staff, is skeptical whether the 49ers will be open to changing their offense to suit Smith's skills for a more wide-open approach. And that's despite the reality that at 3-3, with a two-game losing streak, the 49ers' chances to win the NFC West appear to be slipping away as first-place Arizona continues to roll.
"Mike likes to anchor the offense around Gore, and that's Mike's persona right now,'' Billick said. "They spent a lot of time in the offseason and in camp saying, 'This is who we are. This is our mentality, and we have Frank Gore to run the ball with.' Do I think they'll change it? No. And I think they're going to lose because of it. In this day and age, more than ever in the league, you've got to have a quarterback.
"On Sunday, you saw what Alex Smith does well. He doesn't have a huge arm, but he's smart and fairly efficient with the ball. That lends itself to spreading things out. It's about giving your quarterback as many options as possible, and then letting him find the open man.''
As an example of the importance of building the right offense around your quarterback, Billick cites Kurt Warner's re-birth of success in Arizona, after what appeared to be his demise as an elite quarterback during his stint with the Giants. The Cardinals offense allowed him to do what he does best, and opened up Arizona's game with the passing attack. The Giants under Tom Coughlin took a more conventional, run-pass approach to offense, and Warner didn't thrive playing that style.
"Can Mike [Singletary] give himself over to the so-called dark side?'' Billick said. "Can he say, 'I saw a style of play that can suit my quarterback, and we may have the complementary players to make that offense work,' and then embrace it? Or do they shove him in the I-formation and ask him to play that style? Because I'm not sure Alex Smith can prosper in that system any more than Warner did in New York, where you limit his options and ask him to make the big throw. I don't know that's who this guy [Smith] is, and he hasn't been to date.''
Once the 49ers fell behind with Hill at quarterback, their offense had little capability to play catch-up. But Smith nearly mounted a comeback from a 21-point deficit at Houston, and his skill set allows the 49ers to use their offensive weapons in a different way than Hill. In addition, Smith's mobility in the pocket allows the 49ers to cover up some of their shortcomings at offensive line, with him being able to duck under pressure and elude the rush far better than the pocket-passer that Hill is.
This much is clear: With these 49ers, Smith is surrounded by far more offensive talent than he has ever had at his disposal in San Francisco. Crabtree, Davis, Morgan and Gore could be something special together with the right quarterback pulling the trigger. But the time for talking about potential, Smith said, is over. It's time to play, and play well. His second, and maybe final chance has arrived.
"I probably had that excuse when I was younger,'' said Smith, of being judged more for his potential than his play earlier in his career. "Now I have to go out there and produce. Go out there and play. There's no more wait and see.''
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