Urban Meyer's words were prescient, and they haunted the 49ers franchise for six years. A few hours after the 49ers drafted Alex Smith in 2005, Meyer, Smith's head coach at Utah, predicted that Smith would be "nonfunctional" until he was entirely comfortable with an offense.
"He is a guy that, until he understands it, he is nonfunctional," Meyer, who had just been hired at the University of Florida, said in April 2005. "He is a guy that, I keep hearing how Brett Favre kind of makes something out of nothing and is a person that runs around to make a play. Alex Smith is not that kind of player. Alex Smith is a person that, once he is taught, he has to learn it all."
Smith, of course, has had a nightmare scenario for any quarterback, especially him - seven different offensive coordinators in as many seasons. But this year he appears to finally have found a good match. His completion percentage (63.3) is nearly six points higher than his career average, his touchdown-to-interception ratio (8 to 2) is his best since Utah and his 49ers are 5-1.
I caught up with Meyer, who is now a college football analyst at ESPN, to revisit his 2005 comments and to talk about Smith's resurgence.
Why do things seem to be different this year with Alex?
UM: "I follow the NFL a lot with Alex, Tim (Tebow) and other players. It's amazing to me in the NFL that if you're on a really bad team - bad offense, bad defense, bad kicking game - then it's the quarterback's fault. Because I told Alex. Alex was like my son. I was real close to Alex. I watched coordinator after coordinator come out of there. The defense was ranked near the bottom every year. It's a really bad team. And all of a sudden, it's, 'Well, Alex can't play.' And I'm thinking, 'What are you talking about? Alex certainly can play.' It's the same thing with Tim. So quarterbacks, they get far too much credit and far too much blame. The best thing about Alex right now - he's on a really good team with a really good coaching staff, and he's a member of a team. I give so much credit to that. I don't know the whole situation, but they're playing really good football."
Are you familiar with those coaches, Harbaugh or his assistants?
UM: "Not really. Obviously, I know of the Harbaugh family. I know them a little bit. And I respect them, but, no, I don't really know them."
How often do you talk with Alex?
UM: "In the offseason we speak every once in a while. I don't really talk much during the season. I did right away when he first left (Utah), but I don't really talk to him until the summertime."
Did he ever express frustration to you after leaving Utah?
UM: "Oh, I spoke with him and with his mom and dad - we're really close. And, yeah, he was frustrated. You know, he's a perfectionist. He's a guy that grasps things so fast. He wants to learn and he's a relentless worker. So he was very frustrated. He was used to winning. He did it in high school. He had a great high school program. Then he goes to college and won a lot of games. The biggest frustration was losing. He really liked Norv Turner. When Norv Turner was there it was like a second life for him. And then Norv left to be a head coach and it just devastated him (Smith). But he always stayed positive. He always wanted the best for San Francisco."
Did he or his family talk to you about the decision to remain in San Francisco after the 2010 season?
UM: "A little bit. He had really liked Mike Singletary. He was a loyal person. That's the way he was raised. He really wanted to see it through. The San Francisco 49ers gave him a lot by making him the first pick. He really liked Mike Singletary. He's someone who wants to see things through."
You said he grasps things so fast. Doesn't that run counter to what you said about him in 2005 about him being 'nonfunctional'?
UM: "Mentally, he's on a different plane. He graduated from college in two years. I've always said he has like a photographic memory when we game-planned with him. But he went through so many different coordinators in San Francisco that he would try to - I don't want to say overanalyze it - but it was like ... he made the comment to me going into his sophomore year that, 'I fully grasp everything in the system.' My comment when they first drafted him in San Francisco is that he wants to know every little thing about quarterback. He's a perfectionist. He wants to know why, what everyone's doing on the field. And if everything kept changing on him, it would be very slow. That's probably what's happening now without knowing the whole story. From what I understand, he's very comfortable with the system."
Knowing what you know about Jim Harbaugh, do you think he and Smith are a good pairing?
UM: "One thing about Alex - he's a tough guy. We ran him a lot. We would always start the game, when I was coaching Alex, he would want to run off-tackle power with him carrying the ball. And he would just drop his pads and get in there. How many quarterbacks do you know who do that? Jim Harbaugh's that kind of coach. He wants tough guys. So that made perfect sense."
Are there similarities between Alex and Tebow?
UM: "Very much. The way we evaluate quarterbacks and always have is the No. 1 thing we look for is competitors. And both of them are as competitive of guys as I've ever been around. The No. 2 thing is toughness. The No. 3 thing is intelligence, then leadership and the ability to make the play. I think when people make mistakes. When you hear criticism of Alex or Tim or others - 'He doesn't throw the ball one way or he doesn't do this.' At the end of the day, they're going to find a way to win. That's what those two guys share."
For the full transcript of Meyer's 2005 discussion of Smith, click here.
-- Matt Barrows