49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

February 20, 2011
Judging Alex Smith by Harbaugh's criteria

By now, Jim Harbaugh's sales pitch to Alex Smith is obvious: If you're looking for a fresh start, you can find it here with the 49ers -- I will wipe the slate clean for you. Harbaugh has been consistent with that message. He's also mostly been consistent when listing the criteria he uses to assess a quarterback. They are as follows, according to several recent interviews:

1. Competitive nature/toughness
2. Athleticism
3. Accuracy
4. Quick-minded; makes quick decisions
5. Leadership ability

One of the major reasons for Harbaugh's wooing of Smith has to do with a potential lockout and has been written about extensively. But it's also obvious that Harbaugh sees value in Smith and believes he stacks up well when it comes to his measuring sticks. Does he? Let's take look. (Ratings based on a five-star scale).

1. Competitive nature/toughness. Perhaps Alex Smith's greatest achievement as a 49er is that he didn't get destroyed by the organization. He's been sacked 128 times, has had both shoulders separated and has endured two surgeries to his throwing shoulder. That's the kind of abuse that ruins a young quarterback by shattering his confidence and making him gun shy. To his credit, Smith has fought through one of the roughest stretches any young quarterback ever has endured and appears to be no worse for the wear. Smith is not boisterous and he's not a loudmouth. But he is a competitor. Urban Meyer discovered that when he arrived at Utah and tried to replace Smith, who not only didn't go away but ended up being Meyer's star quarterback. That Meyer-Smith relationship also may be something that appeals to Harbaugh: When Smith is paired with savvy offensive coach, he excels. 4 ½ stars.

2. Athleticism. Following the 2005 draft, I spoke with a personnel official on an AFC team who said, in that team's opinion, Smith was overrated as an athlete. At Utah, Smith ran for 631 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2004, but the team official didn't think he'd be nearly the runner he was in college. He was right. Sure, there have been some nice scampers here and there, but he's not like Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo or even Aaron Rodgers. He doesn't consistently buy himself extra time and no defense goes into a game against the 49ers worrying about Smith picking up big yards with his feet. Smith does not have the speed and quickness of one of Harbaugh's college protégés, Josh Johnson, or the power of his other one, Andrew Luck. No, Smith does not have elite athleticism but he is an above average athlete. If you paired his athleticism with razor-sharp instincts - like Drew Brees', for example - he would be very dangerous. But Smith had had trouble allowing his athletic instincts to override his thinking brain (more on that later) and has only shown flashes of being dangerous in this regard. Harbaugh likely isn't looking for a quarterback who runs a 4.4 40 and who scores 10 rushing touchdowns a season. He wants someone who moves well in play action and who can pick up a first down with his feet if there's an opening. And in that regard, Smith is adequate. 3 stars

3. Accuracy. This one is vexing because it's counterintuitive. Smith is capable of throwing beautiful passes, ones that drop softly into a receiver's hands between the linebacker and the safety. He threw this type of pass consistently to Vernon Davis in 2009. His touchdown throw to Ted Ginn in Week 17 - it was Ginn's only receiving TD of the season - also was a work of art. What's odd is that Smith is not as accurate on the shorter, and seemingly easier, throws. When he misses, he tends to miss high, which leads to tipped passes, which, in turn, lead to interceptions. Compounding this issue has been Smith's tendency to check down to his closest receivers. That is, he doesn't trust himself to make the ambitious throws down field, which he is good at, and settles for the safer throws close by, which he is bad at. Of course, other offensive shortcomings factor into Smith's accuracy, such as his protection and the quality of his receivers. Both were extremely poor when Smith first arrived with the 49ers but have been getting progressively better. Still, his top wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, has been among the league's leaders in drops in 2009 and '10. Over the last two seasons, Smith has about a 60 percent completion rate, which would put him in the lower/middle of the league standings. 2 ½ stars.

4. Quick minded. Alex Smith is an excellent student. He took a lot of advanced placement courses in high school. It took him only two years to earn his economics degree at Utah. But the type of smarts that allow Smith to excel in the classroom aren't the kind of smarts needed on the football field. In fact, there is a belief that Smith's cerebral and analytical nature keeps him from reacting as quickly as he should. That is, he tends to process all of the information at hand instead of just reacting. It should be noted that this was one of the reasons he was selected No. 1 overall in 2005. Mike Nolan and the 49ers did not want a gunslinger. They wanted someone who would follow directions and be an extension of the offensive coaches. They wanted a good student. The problem is that the offensive coaches changed every season and Smith typically had to start from scratch. Another way to put it is that Smith is very careful with the ball, an attribute that would be positive if it meant he rarely threw interceptions. But that hasn't been the case. He's thrown 53 interceptions in 50 starts. 1 star

5. Leadership ability. This is what bothered Mike Singletary the most and is something he was still lamenting last month at the Senior Bowl. Singletary didn't think that Smith was a leader, or at least he wasn't the type of leader Singletary wanted at quarterback. Smith's rebuttal - and it was a good one - was that Singletary wanted his quarterback to act like a middle linebacker - to yell, to be animated, to fire up the troops - and that middle linebacker was an entirely different animal than quarterback. A quarterback has too much responsibility, too much to think about. He can't afford to act like Ray Lewis. Smith's approach has been to be unassuming and to lead by example. He's a tireless worker in the classroom and the training room, he gives huge amounts of money to charity, he does his media work dutifully, he says all the right things. And to his credit, the offensive players - especially the offensive line - support him. But there is also something to be said for Singletary's gripe. Smith is not animated. He doesn't lay into teammates when they mess up on the field. He doesn't use the media to air issues and foment change. In an interview last year, Rich Gannon said he saw plenty of positives in Smith but thought he could stand to be more of jerk. He's not alone in that belief, and there have been some inside the locker room who have voiced the same observation. 2 ¼ stars.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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