Smith named 49ers' No. 1 QB
Jim Harbaugh is taking a big chance by giving quarterback Alex Smith a second chance.
Or third, fourth or fifth chance depending who's counting.
Smith has played for three different coaches and a new offensive coordinator in each of his seven seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
Change is all he knows. This time, he's thrilled about it.
Smith's new boss, Harbaugh, is confident that he can be the one to turn the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick into a consistent winner at last when previous 49ers coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary couldn't. Smith is back behind center this season for San Francisco when many thought - and much of the fan base sure hoped - he would be long gone.
The lockout helped his cause coming back, too.
And Smith's play very well could define Harbaugh's first year.
''I didn't have any expectations coming off last year and I didn't know what was going to happen,'' Smith said. ''To have him kind of have that trust in me and to see something on film that he liked and to have me come back, it definitely excited me. But it excited me, more so, just what he stood for, what the staff stood for, what they were trying to get done, how he envisioned the quarterback playing, all those things. A lot played into it.''
How long Smith lasts as the starter depends on performance. Rookie second-round pick Colin Kaepernick is waiting for his shot, and there are plenty of Smith skeptics who believe that time could come sooner than later.
Team president Jed York made the high-profile hire of Harbaugh in January and gave him a $25 million, five-year contract with the expectations of an immediate turnaround. Harbaugh pulled it off right up the road at Stanford, so why not now in the NFL?
''To be successful this season, there are a lot of things we have to do well, maybe there are 1,000 things and we're on step 50 right now,'' Harbaugh said. ''We're certainly more than three or four steps away and we're trying to improve on all facets of the game at this point.''
That could take a while, and Harbaugh knows it. Already behind because of the lockout, new general manager Trent Baalke faced criticism early in training camp about not making a splash in free agency as former key players signed elsewhere - though that quieted down once the team began making moves. While San Francisco gave experienced receiver Braylon Edwards a fresh start out West, the Niners also lost some key faces on both sides of the ball.
Cornerback Nate Clements. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Center David Baas.
There are also plenty of questions about the returning veterans.
Receiver Michael Crabtree missed his third preseason in as many years, two-time Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore is coming back from a fractured right hip that cost him the final five games in 2010, and the offensive line remains a major work in progress.
''It's still new,'' left tackle Joe Staley said of Harbaugh's system. ''I definitely feel like there's a sense of urgency and it's a clean slate for a lot of guys. We're embracing the change. We haven't had the success we've hoped.''
Last year's 49ers had plans to win the NFC West and were considered the favorite entering the regular season. Instead, they lost their first five games in a surprising start and spent the whole year trying to get back into the race in the league's worst division. Seattle won the West at 7-9.
The 0-5 start in 2010 was the worst since San Francisco dropped seven straight to begin a 2-14 season in 1979, in the late Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh's first year.
It was embarrassing.
''It's a different culture. It's a different atmosphere,'' linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. ''Everything's going to evolve over time.''
Harbaugh comes from an NFL coaching lineage that includes his father, Jack, and brother, John, coach of the Baltimore Ravens. But Harbaugh will have to prove himself again at this level.
The former NFL quarterback was among the most sought after coaches last winter after guiding Stanford to a lopsided Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
''On the offensive side of the ball, everybody is on the same page. When you watch the film, man, it just looks different,'' Gore said. ''It's not boring. I think Coach Harbaugh brings enthusiasm. We have fun. He lets you be yourself. It's all about football. If you mess you up, he still lets you know what you can do better. He brings you up. He never tries to bring you down. And that's a plus.''
Gore is confident he can bounce back in 2011. He is determined to put up some big numbers in his contract year - though he hopes to receive a new long-term deal before Week 1.
For now, Gore and Co. want to do what they can to make Smith look good.
The 27-year-old Smith threw for 2,370 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games and 10 starts last season, but he also threw 10 interceptions and was sacked 25 times. He shared the starting role with Troy Smith.
''I don't feel it's a risky gamble,'' Staley said of Smith as the starter. ''Coach has been clear that regardless what your name is, the best players are going to play on the field. If he feels Alex is the best quarterback, then he is going to play. We all 100 percent agree with any decision he makes as far as personnel goes.''