EVERYTHING APPEARS to be in place for the 49ers to make a run at their first playoff berth in eight years. The defense allowed fewer points than all but three teams last season, the receiving corps features big-play threats in tight end Vernon Davis and wideout Michael Crabtree, and coach Mike Singletary has no qualms about keeping a foot in the players' backsides if they lose focus.
That leaves quarterback Alex Smith—the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft, who has yet to convert a spoiled fan base into believers—as the key to how far the 49ers will go. Though Smith might never win over the public after Joe Montana and Steve Young set the bar so high during their Hall of Fame careers, you get the sense that he is comfortable with that. He has been through the worst situation possible—five offensive systems in his first five years, two shoulder surgeries, a former head coach who questioned his toughness, an offensive coordinator who tried to break him mentally because he believed Smith had been pampered, and a $17 million pay cut—yet his will and confidence remain intact.
One reason is that he hasn't had to learn a new offensive system between seasons for the first time in his career; another is that he now has a coach and an offensive coordinator who not only challenge him but also believe in him. Singletary made that clear in the off-season when he didn't pursue a quarterback in free agency or use either of his two first-round draft choices on one.
Like coordinator Jimmy Raye, Singletary saw Smith grow as a player and a leader last season, when the QB returned to the lineup in Week 7 after missing 28 consecutive games because of injury and finished the year with career highs in passer rating (81.5), completion percentage (60.5) and touchdown passes (18) while throwing for 2,350 yards.
"It's almost ridiculous to think about how far he has come since I got here [in February 2009]," says Raye. "I don't mean for this to be derogatory," he continued, "but Alex wasn't close to being able to play in the NFL at this time last year. He had so many things to overcome. The biggest thing for him now is that for the first time the system didn't change. He's more familiar with the nomenclature. He understands what he's doing, and now he can take it and go. He believes what I believe about him, and he believes that [Singletary] has got his back. He's comfortable that way. That's the biggest thing that's going to propel him to the next level."
That, and the fact that he's surrounded by San Francisco's deepest team since he arrived five years ago. Davis led all tight ends in 2009 with 13 touchdown catches; Crabtree is a Pro Bowler--in-waiting after catching 48 passes for 625 yards and two scores despite missing all of training camp and the first five games in a contract dispute last year; and running back Frank Gore ranked third with 10 rushing scores and fifth in total yards in the NFC in '09. The team also upgraded the line by using the 11th and 17th picks in April's draft to select offensive tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati, who are expected to start immediately.
Secure in his knowledge of the 49ers system for the first time, Smith focused on fundamentals in the off-season with quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson drilling him on footwork, drops, resets and firming his base when releasing the ball. They also spent a lot of time in the classroom.
"He's understanding everything we're trying to do from a protection standpoint and a route standpoint, and it's allowing him to play faster," Johnson says. "Alex is a very competitive person, and he wants to prove to everyone that he was the Number 1 pick for a reason and warrants that type of respect. He has a tremendous amount of self-respect and pride and works harder than anybody I've ever coached. He's growing."
And he's hungry. Smith had a chance to leave the organization after the 2008 season, when he was a year and a half removed from his last game and coming off a second shoulder surgery. But instead of tucking and running, he allowed the 49ers to restructure his contract and decided to see if he could succeed in San Francisco.
"It would have been easy to leave, to go get a fresh start," Smith says. "But I don't know if that would have been the right thing to do. I know I can play. It's just about going out and doing it."