Niners need to admit their faults and cut their losses on Alex Smith
49ers should copy what Raiders did with JaMarcus Russell
San Francisco does not play football with particular urgency
Smith has been handicapped by team, but enough is enough
The San Francisco 49ers would never, ever stoop to taking advice from their cross-Bay rivals, the Oakland Raiders.
But the winless 49ers desperately need some words of wisdom. And the Raiders, who travel to Candlestick Park on Sunday for a rare regular-season matchup, can offer some.
Cut your losses.
The Raiders did just that with JaMarcus Russell in the offseason. The charade was over. Three years after taking Russell with the first pick in the draft, the Raiders dumped the unproductive quarterback before he dragged them any lower. They moved on. And they're better off for it.
The 49ers, in contrast, can't quit Alex Smith. Doesn't seem to matter what he does. Six years after taking Smith with the No. 1 pick, the 49ers are still wishing that something develops. Something materializes. Something changes. The 49ers ignore concrete evidence and hold onto futile hope.
But this is a franchise that is good at delusion. On Monday morning, the day after the team went 0-5 for the first time in 31 seasons, team president Jed York decided the moment was right to text an ESPN reporter with the news "We will win the division."
A game would be a realistic goal at this point.
The 49ers are not a franchise that plays football with particular urgency. They go about their weekly business as though the league might simply halt and wait for them to figure things out. Six years into their quarterback's career, the 49ers still think he's going to sprout Hall of Fame credentials. Winless nearly one-third of the way through the season, they think they can win the division title. The pressure that consumes the rest of the league is absent in San Francisco.
The team's baffling patience with Smith seemed like it might have run out Sunday night, before a national television audience. Smith had just committed one of the worst blunders in his mistake-filled career, when while trying to avoid a defender he ran backward and fumbled. The ball was scooped up by the Eagles and returned for a touchdown.
The hometown fans turned on Smith with a vengeance, their boos shaking the crumbling foundation of Candlestick. Coach Mike Singletary screamed at him on the sideline while backup David Carr warmed up.
But Smith returned to the field and rallied the team with two touchdown drives. The game, however, ended with Smith throwing an interception. It was his league-high ninth of season.
Singletary, who said Monday that Smith will remain the starter this week against the Raiders, claimed he was trying to prod Smith into action with the threat to bench him. "I really wanted to see what his response would be," Singletary said. "A quarterback that has anything in him is going to have something to say about that."
Smith responded. But it was essentially to an empty threat. He knows and Singletary knows that he isn't about to lose his job.
Why? Because the 49ers' entire plan is to have Smith succeed. They don't have any other ideas or contingency plans. They made a point to remove competition and pressure and cocoon him in job security. Again, not the way the rest of the league does it. But the 49ers are different.
"I wanted to make sure he had some consistency without trying to compete with somebody else," Singletary said last week. "I think the only person that Alex Smith needed to really compete with this year is himself."
So Shaun Hill went to Detroit. Donovan McNabb wasn't of interest. Carr was ordained the clipboard carrier with the understanding that he wouldn't actually compete for the job.
While the fans fume and daydream about Stanford's Andrew Luck, the 49ers continue to cling to the few moments of promise Smith has shown over the years. They are so few that everyone can recite them by heart: a late game drive against Seattle in 2006, a second-half rally in a loss at Houston last season, the waning moments of last month's Monday Night game against New Orleans. But Smith has never been able to build on those scattered flashes and turn them into any semblance of consistency.
Sure, Smith has been handicapped by the team. He hasn't had a true offensive mentor since Norv Turner left in 2007. He has worked for defensive-minded coaches who think quarterbacks are a necessary evil. Systems have changed. The personnel around him has been questionable.
But he hasn't performed like an NFL quarterback. In any other franchise, the plug would have been pulled long ago. The experiment ended. The investment swallowed. The team would have moved on.
The Raiders could explain the process to the 49ers when they arrive in San Francisco fresh off beating the Chargers for the first time since 2003. But the 49ers don't want to hear it. If they admit to being wrong about Smith, that means they must concede they're wrong about everything. That their vision is flawed. That they need to start over. Instead, they keep operating as though they have all the time in the world.
"I want to exhaust everything with Alex Smith," Singletary said.
They haven't done that yet?
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