Article Title: Centerpiece Competition is a Reality..
The new and improved 2008 San Francisco 49ers have an MTV Reality Show all in their own right with the dramatic and sudden competition that is being encouraged and orchestrated through both head coach Mike Nolan and offensive coordinator Mike Martz with veteran 2005 first round draft pick Alex Smith and NFL journeymen Shaun Hill and J.T. O’Sullivan. All have something most intangible to prove to their respected hierarchy in earning the starting position as the centerpiece of the San Francisco 49er offense.
From May mini-camps to June organized team activities these three athletes have pawed over countless Mike Martz offensive playbooks, film and on the field practice instructions from Mike and his offensive staff in an attempt to learn the fourth changing of the guard so to speak in offensive coordinators and philosophies of Mike Nolan’s tenure as the headmaster.
For three-year veteran Alex Smith the star search competition is in a new phase now in that he knows that “all eyes and ears are centered in and around on him.” His inability to conform to the offensive programs with utter and complete execution has many questioning the intelligence that is on record via Helix High School and the University of Utah. Alex Smith graduated from that university in two years with a 3.71 GPA. So where is that on the football field? We are all still wondering?
Is intelligence a fundamental benefit to the game? Of course it is. Smith’s ability to study and diagnose a playbook has been in evidence now for his three-year tenure as a San Francisco 49er, however his ability to execute consistently and remain durable are a short list that has dramatically grown longer with each passing season. Fellow 49er fans are left guessing which Alex Smith they see next from game to game and then some?
When Alex Smith went down in Week #4 of the 2007 NFL season courtesy of Seattle Seahawk defensive tackle Rocky Bernard with a separated throwing shoulder that at first was misdiagnosed as just needing rest to heal and later requiring immediate surgery to repair after playing with it in intense pain, questions surfaced about the role model’s entire image as our quarterback.
The suggestion by head coach Mike Nolan that there were no missed communications between Alex Smith and himself fell on inquiring minds and opened a can of worms that still hasn’t really been settled at all up and until this very day regardless of the press releases that have been put out by both men that “all is well between both of them.” Alex’s injury and slow recovery from that injury irked Mike Nolan that has no remorse for a player that can’t grit their teeth and rise above a physical injury, especially a key player that creates ramifications for him as a head coach.
The pop shots inside and outside the locker room although minimal became a maximum highlight reel of epic proportions as the media blew it out of context. Alex Smith disgruntled to believe his head coach had lost a bit of faith in him lashed out that their relationship was not as “normal as one would expect between a head coach and his quarterback,” in that collective communication was not conducted enough on a “one on one basis as needed.”
Here is a young and inspiring athlete that led his high school to a 25-1 record and two state championships? And here is a quarterback who finished fourth in the 2004 Heisman Trophy voting and led his university to a 12-0 perfect season?
The disappointments have materialized to be many for San Francisco 49er fans and to Alex Smith alike. Here is a man that was expected to take over and emulate the legacies of Joe Montana and Steve Young as the elite quarterbacks of this respected franchise. Jeff Garcia a two-time Pro Bowler and a consistent playmaker almost rekindled the glory before the salary cap axe fell on his collective head and in retrospect was a colossal mistake on ownership and management.
The Tim Rattay experiment was a bust and as it progressed Alex Smith was thrust into the limelight with less than ideal results in a three-way horror film with co-stars Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett. In his career thus far he has only thrown 19 touchdowns against 31 interceptions and since he was drafted the 49ers have a total winning record of 16-32, enough to make anyone sick.
The debate of can it be all his fault is written and replied to from countless message boards via 49er websites to actual opinion polls and other alternative football media communications almost on a daily basis. He is the talk of the season despite the recent NFL draft that surrounds him with even more opportunities to become great again as promised every season.
Mike McCarthy back in 2005 wasn’t able to capture that magic promised with the drafting of Alex Smith. There was too much chaos at that time. Norv Turner came in and made everyone think including Alex Smith that there were tell tale signs he had something special yet the team around him was still very much in transition. As Turner left first-time Jim Hostler was given the reigns only to fall flat on his face in utter self-destruction as the entire offense suffered the worst setback of its entirety as collective force with Alex Smith carrying the brunt of the shame.
Now enters a savior in Mike Martz a Super Bowl winning head coach now still an offensive strategist of epic proportions that incorporates almost anything of an offensive philosophy and molds it into his own recipe for disaster for a defense near you. His intimate connection with quarterbacks in psychologically thinking terms makes him a cut above the rest. New life appears to be in evidence with Alex Smith looking more polished and proven during mini-camps and organized team activities.
His first snaps with the first team indicate that the management is thinking Alex Smith but are compelled to still look at Shaun Hill who saved a sinking ship last season almost single-handedly when then veteran back-up quarterback Trent Dilfer went down to a serious concussion. Hill a West-Coast type quarterback gunslinger excited many a 49er fans in the waning days of the 2007 NFL season. His season ended in injury though as well but not until he sparked that possibility that “Hey maybe we have someone here?”
I was one that believed enough is enough. I craved change as I saw an Alex Smith still unsure of himself despite his devastating season-ending injury and a mediocre 2006 season prior to that in my opinion. I lashed out at the ownership and management of this franchise for making the tragic mistake of letting Jeff Garcia go and eventually end up being a winning quarterback yet again with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Maybe Shaun Hill is that next little Jeff Garcia that can be another underdog that can just make magic on the field happen with his arm and feet.
Shaun Hill seems to be little about being “just average,” though while on the practice field rather it is mini-camps, organized team activities and or training camp. He seems to perform much better in an actual game situation like he did when he was thrust into action late last season.
Hill’s stellar passer rating of 101.3 was a mountaintop achievement compared to Alex’s 57.2 despite limited playing time. Being thrust into the specifics of the Mike Martz system has been an incredible workload on all three present quarterbacks as the standard is to be the most complete quarterback you possibly can be under his direction. From books, film and on the field repetitions all three agree the process is most grueling with J.T. O’Sullivan being the most advanced because he was tutored by Martz back in Detroit as a fellow Lion.
Mike expresses the word, “accountability,” over and over again with his fellow quarterbacks. He is intense and demands a set standard from the leader of his offense while out on the field and expects that to be carried right over into the locker room. He has even gone the extra mile in acquiring tapes of both his former prodigies in Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger for them to study by on adapting to his pass heavy offensive system. Even college life seemed so less complicated then where they all find themselves right now under the eyes of the master magician in Mike Martz.
Alex Smith and Marc Bulger have had open discussions about Mike Martz and how his system is ever evolving and interchangeable with other systems. Smith is convinced that this is his year to breakout of the boredom and shackles he feels has been around him with a coordinator that is demanding and heavily involved in astute development of his quarterback. The optimism runs high for Smith as he knows the proverbial clock is ticking as far as patience is concerned from the front office all the way around the stadium of Candlestick Park and back again with fellow 49er fans.
Training camp for the San Francisco 49ers begins July 24th and a starter was expected to be set by then earlier in conversations with Mike Nolan. However that seems to have changed as all three increases their tempo with one another and push the process to be determined on the field almost as far as pre-season games will determine. One has to think and believe that in the minds of the coaches Alex Smith is still their guy to go with. However if he struggles at all and early doubts will turn to speculation that Shaun Hill and J.T.O’Sullivan are fully capable of handling an increased presence on the playing field.
One thing is for sure, should Alex Smith falter this will be his last season in a San Francisco 49er uniform. All the team has been meticulously assembled around him via free agency and the last three drafts. Legitimate and immediate improvement is warranted, and we should not accept anything else but that regardless of the ever changing faces on offense with coordinators.
Mike Nolan believes that Alex Smith is still the guy. He choose him over Aaron Rodgers who is the new starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers our arch rival of many seasons ago. Playing behind a fellow Pro Bowl and Super Bowl Champion quarterback like Brett Favre has its privileges doesn’t it? As much as there is talk that Frank Gore will be the one person Mike Martz builds his offense around, it cannot happen without the right quarterback to hand or throw the ball to him. Which rabbit of a quarterback will Mike pick out of his magician’s hat this training camp? We are all about to find out.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.