It's 2005 all over again for Alex Smith. Jim Harbaugh's playbook is somewhat similar to Mike McCarthy's version, which Smith learned when McCarthy was his offensive coordinator in 2005. And Smith is having to navigate another veteran-rookie dynamic at quarterback. Only this time, it's Smith who is looking down the depth chart at a promising rookie, Colin Kaepernick, who was taken with a high draft pick.
In 2005 Tim Rattay was the starting quarterback and Smith, the No. 1 overall selection, was the heir apparent. Rattay, who had the misfortune of playing for some of the most god-awful 49ers teams ever assembled, lasted exactly three games that season before Smith was inserted during the fourth, a blowout loss to Arizona in Mexico City.
Smith noted Wednesday that Rattay could have been a jerk to him - he used a stronger word - that year, but wasn't. Rattay helped him along as best as he could considering that Rattay only had 12 starts under his belt when Smith arrived.
Smith said he would be similarly accommodating to Kaepernick, who began working out with Smith and other 49ers last week. Kaepernick has been participating fully in the weight-lifting portions of the workouts. (Those who said he was too skinny should see him after a lift. He looks like a defensive end). However, he is still not running after having a surgery on his left leg last month, and he is only doing some light throwing.
Smith has a one-year deal on the table from the 49ers, and his return this season is being viewed by the fans and the media as a bridge to the 2012 season when Kaepernick presumably would take over.
Smith, however, isn't looking at it that way. After Smith signed a two-year extension in 2009, he said he felt he had something to prove in San Francisco. "I really felt like I had unfinished business here," he said at the time. "This is the team that brought me out and gave me my first chance, and I really felt like I had a lot to prove here to myself, the organization to my teammates, to the fans and to really become the player I set out to become when I first came out of college."
He struck a similar tone on Wednesday. He noted that other top draft picks "jump ship" with their original teams because it's an easy way out. "I don't know of any other guy that has ever attempted to do what I'm doing," he said. "If there's anything that I feel like I stand for as a person, not even a football player, it's that. A lot of decisions would've been easier, to go to a new place, a fresh start, and maybe I should've. But at this point, I'm happy with where I'm at and really attempting to be about something different in this league.
Of course, we're getting waaaaay ahead of ourselves by suggesting that Smith could be back beyond the 2011 season. He's got two tremendous hurdles. One is the lockout, which is sure to hurt teams with new coaching staffs more than it will teams with coaching continuity. The other is Kaepernick. Still, a long lockout would reduce the chances of a rookie quarterback starting in 2011, and it certainly won't happen by the fourth game of the season.
-- Matt Barrows