When Jim Harbaugh revealed two weeks ago that he had given a 49ers playbook to Alex Smith, eyebrows shot upward. Not only is it uncommon for playbooks to leave an NFL team's headquarters, the recipient was Alex Smith. He's an unrestricted free agent not officially on the team. The act was unconventional and a bit risky.
Yesterday on a cool, damp practice field in the South Bay, it was clear why Harbaugh made that move. Smith spent about an hour and a half throwing passes to three receivers who were running routes straight out of that playbook. Is that a substitute for the minicamps and OTAs that would be occurring this month and next if there was no lockout? No. The players I spoke with Tuesday were clear on that point - having coaches guide them through the playbook is vastly better than learning on your own.
But familiarizing themselves with the plays - especially the lexicon, which is mainly what makes one playbook different from another - can't hurt. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the presumed starting quarterback for 2011 is the one leading the sessions. Smith and his core group of receivers - the constants have been Josh Morgan and Kevin Jurovich - have been throwing together for several months now. Over the last two weeks, they have they been using Harbaugh's playbook. Smith, who ran a similar system as a rookie, is in the best position to decipher the plays and be the de facto coach.
The timing of yesterday's session also is compelling. It came just as the 8th Circuit Court made it as clear as it could that it would rule next month in favor of the owners. Such a ruling would continue the lockout. Of course, the players and owners could come together at any time and agree to a new collective bargaining agreement. But progress on that front has been minimal, and the prospect that the impasse lasts deep into the summer continues to be very real.
Which makes these player-run practices even more important when it comes to the 49ers' prospects in 2011. Roughly 15 players have been taking part in these private workouts. (Click here for the names). The on-field portions, however, mostly have been limited to the quarterback and receivers. Yesterday, Smith threw passes to Morgan, Jurovich and rookie Ronald Johnson, whom Jurovich contacted following the draft. Safety Curtis Taylor was the de facto center in the second half of the session.
Players have said that they'd like to have more complete, team-wide sessions like the Saints had recently. That's been difficult, however, because most of their remaining teammates are spread around the country. Receiver Michael Crabtree, whose chemistry issues with Smith are well-documented, is in the Dallas area. Tight end Vernon Davis, the team's leading receiver in 2011, has been travelling the globe and is now in his native Washington, D.C.
Players are bound to trickle into the Bay Area as time goes on, and the 49ers practice sessions are likely to become more complete. As previous NFL work stoppages have shown, the teams that stick together the best through the impasse have a real advantage when play resumes.
-- Matt Barrows