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Harbaugh goes all in with Smith

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Nancy Gay

Nancy Gay is the Senior NFL Editor at FOXSports.com. She has been covering the NFL and other major sports for more than two decades. The first female member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, Nancy also is an Associated Press All-Pro selector. She has covered 20 Super Bowls. Follow her on Twitter @nancygay.

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SANTA CLARA, Calif.

Jim Harbaugh ran plenty of game-salvaging two-minute drills during his 14-year NFL playing career. So it’s no surprise the quarterback known as “Captain Comeback” for his ability to rescue a game in the final minutes took advantage of a prime opportunity in late April to make his first significant save as an NFL rookie head coach.

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On April 29, during the waning hours of a court order that temporarily lifted the contentious NFL lockout, the league announced that teams could conduct business with their players and first-round draft picks for a brief 36-hour window.

Harbaugh jumped on the phone with quarterback Alex Smith, the 49ers’ No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft. Fifteen minutes later, Smith was inside the 49ers’ practice facility.

Oh, and that technicality about Smith being an unsigned free agent at the time, and talk of the 49ers allegedly considering Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb or Matt Hasselbeck as his replacement?

Just a formality.

Harbaugh and Smith, two like-minded quarterbacks with similar photographic memories, competitive streaks and attention to detail, shook hands on it: Smith, they privately agreed, would re-sign with the 49ers once NFL business resumed.

Harbaugh handed Smith the playbook and a stack of video cut-ups from the previous season.

This was the understanding: Smith, 27, would tutor 2011 second-round draft pick Colin Kaepernick. He would compete with the former Nevada quarterback for the starting job. He likely would cede the 49ers quarterback role to Kaepernick for good at some point in the future; after all, the kid was drafted that high for a reason.

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With that, Smith — a quarterback without a contract — was put in charge of teaching Harbaugh’s playbook to his 49ers teammates in players-only practices at nearby San Jose State.

Smith conducted “Camp Alex” in two week-long sessions, with as many as two dozen players in attendance. They went 90 minutes a day at San Jose State’s Spartan Stadium, and wrapped up July 1. Using the cut-ups he received from Harbaugh along with the detailed instruction he received from offensive coordinator Greg Roman and other assistants, Smith also conducted film study with players and taped their workouts so that Harbaugh could study the progress when the lockout ended.

Smith, along with veteran teammates Vernon Davis, Justin Smith and Adam Snyder, installed much of the playbook the new coach devised. “Well . . . we didn’t get to red zone,” Smith said with a grin. “We’re getting to that now.”

Crazy? “All of this . . . yeah, it was a little bit of a leap of faith,” Harbaugh admitted.

On both sides.

Smith had to believe the 49ers really wanted him back, that Harbaugh’s West Coast offense would finally be the proper fit for his mobile skillset. Smith, after all, had been through six offensive coordinators in six seasons. Norv Turner was the only coordinator who utilized Smith’s ability to roll out of the pocket. Others stuck the one-time spread offense quarterback under center and forced him into five- and seven-step drops causing Smith to throw erratically off his back foot, or take a beating from a pass rusher.

Still, the question is out there: Why would Harbaugh, making his NFL head coaching debut after a successful run at Stanford, entrust his offense to a quarterback who seemingly had exhausted eight lives, a player many believe simply doesn’t have what it takes to be an NFL starter?

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“Look, we have a lot of players here . . . it wasn’t just Alex,” Harbaugh said of the 49ers’ crushing lack of success since 2002, the last season the once-mighty franchise reached the postseason.

As one quarterback to another, Harbaugh could see beyond the Smith passes that sailed wide. “I guess it was just his film study. Being around him. Having a gut feeling. I think that’s it,” Harbaugh explained.

“I’m glad we didn’t find out — and we’ll never know — but I think that Alex would have been a very sought-after free agent. So that says a lot that he would want to come back here.”

Interesting take. Would Smith have been valuable somewhere other than the 49ers? He never wanted to find out.

“When (Harbaugh) called me when the lockout broke, I met with every coach on the staff and we went through it all,” Smith said. “I knew it was up to me to put workouts together, and that’s your responsibility as a quarterback anyway. So it was a great time for me to get a head start on the fundamentals of the new offense.

“Obviously, I wasn’t doing all of that just for the fun of it. There was that faith there. I knew I had made my decision; I really wanted to stay and be a part of this. It was a no-brainer in my mind. It was an easy decision.”

Smith hasn’t looked spectacular the first week of training camp. The noodle arm has reappeared at times, and there have been loose passes and interceptions, enough to cause some eyes to roll and outsiders to hope Kaepernick catches on quickly.

Wide receiver Michael Crabtree, with his left foot in a walking boot, is missing with yet another camp injury. Newly signed wideout Braylon Edwards — a player Harbaugh will personally monitor; he knew Edwards’ father, Stan, at Michigan, where they all played collegiately — is struggling to hold onto the ball.

It’s early. “We have a lot of work to do. A lot of work ahead of us,” Smith admitted. “We’re at a disadvantage and we need to catch up.”

But Davis, 27, the playmaking tight end who grown from bombastic rookie into a poised, polished veteran leader, is convinced Smith is the right quarterback for the 49ers — right now.

“I know the passion he has for football. He’s a real player. He just has to have all the right things around him, whether that’s me, the coaches, the offensive coordinator, whatever it takes,” said Davis, who had a Pro Bowl season in 2009, catching 13 touchdown passes.

“I think this is going to work out for him now.”

Crabtree has gone on record questioning why everyone presumed Smith would start. Davis never has, and he won’t now.

“Alex and I have to have ownership of this team,” Davis said. “It’s personal for us.”

And it’s personal for Harbaugh, the teeth-gnashing competitor who fights the urge to put on pads and get back out there. He desperately wants to win as an NFL head coach despite his valuable first offseason being destroyed by a labor dispute.

Luckily for him, his hand-picked quarterback has given him a nice head start.

Tagged: 49ers, Justin Smith, Alex Smith, Vernon Davis, Colin Kaepernick

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