If Alex Smith weren’t playing quarterback in the NFL, his former coaches figure he’d be a big-time lawyer or head of a large corporation somewhere.
“He’s maybe the most intelligent guy I’ve ever met,” said Urban Meyer, Smith’s coach at the University of Utah.
As it is, Smith, 27, is a football player, one who’s had to keep his active mind plenty engaged. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback will make his postseason debut Saturday against New Orleans, and he’ll do it with his seventh offensive coordinator in seven seasons. That means every year of his pro career, Smith has had to learn new offenses, new wrinkles, new techniques.
“He’s just so analytical and smart about all that stuff. That’s probably why it’s taken a while for him,” said Dan Mullen, Smith‘s former offensive coordinator at Utah. “Every year, he’s starting from scratch and wants to learn all the ins and outs.”
Now, Smith appears to be as comfortable as ever. Working under first-year Coach Jim Harbaugh, Smith put up career marks this season in passing yards, total touchdowns (passing plus rushing), completion percentage, passer rating and interception percentage — all while being sacked 44 times, more than any other NFL player. By comparison, the other quarterback who will be on the field Saturday, the Saints’ Drew Brees, was sacked only 24 times.
Smith entered the year uncertain about his status. Harbaugh took over for Mike Singletary and brought his coordinator from Stanford, Greg Roman, with him. Smith was set to become a free agent this spring, and 2011 season seemed to be a tryout of sorts, to determine whether he really had a future in the NFL as a starting quarterback.
“When we evaluated him in the offseason, we saw a lot of things that we really, really liked,” Roman told reporters in San Francisco recently. “We put a plan in place on how we were going to bring this thing and get it moving forward, and he’s been there every step of the way.”
Analysts say the 49ers have worked around Smith’s skills, and San Francisco has won largely because of its defense, ranked first in the NFC, and run game. Though Smith’s numbers — an average of 197 yards and just more than one touchdown per outing — pale in comparison with the league’s elite passers, Harbaugh says Smith is one of the three best quarterbacks in the NFC, alongside Brees and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
“I think people that understand football understand that there’s a lot more that goes into the job of a quarterback than those statistics,” Harbaugh said.
This season 26 quarterbacks averaged more yards per game than Smith, and Saturday’s foe happened to break the record for single-season passing yards. In winning 13 games, Smith didn’t top 300 yards once this season and broke the 200-yard mark only seven times. Brees, on the other hand, threw for 300 yards in 13 games and never threw for fewer than 250 yards.
Smith said this week he’s not worried about how many passing yards Brees tallies Saturday or whether he can keep pace.
“I really don’t care,” he said. “I’m looking to outscore him.”
“Our number one stat,” Roman said, “is winning.”
Former 49ers coach Mike Nolan made Smith his first draft pick in 2005. Since then, Smith has worked with a new coordinator every year: Mike McCarthy, Norv Turner, Jim Hostler, Mike Martz, Jimmy Raye, Mike Johnson and now Roman. Those who know Smith say he’s the type of learner who must perfect every detail of an offense before it translates neatly to the playing field.
“You always hear how Brett Favre was a gunslinger who’d just go out and make things happen. Alex has to dissect it and really understand it,” said Meyer, now the head coach at Ohio State. “Once he does, watch out.”
Said Mullen: “He’s just hungry to learn. For us, he was in the office 24-7 — ‘What else can I do? Show me, teach me.’ I can’t imagine what he’d be like right now if he’d had the same coach for his first six years in NFL.”
Each season, when Smith finally found a level of comfort, the deck was reshuffled and the organization found a new coach to lead the offense.
“The coaching transitions, the different coordinators, the different styles of teaching — he was very frustrated,” Meyer said. “But when Coach Harbaugh got there, I had a good feeling.”
Smith didn’t have the benefit of an offseason to learn Harbaugh’s system, and it wasn’t until midseason that the organization began to talk about a new contract and publicly said Smith would play in San Francisco beyond this season.
Regardless of what he does next year, after winning the division title, Smith will likely return for the 2012 season with more stability and consistency around him than ever.
“In Alex’s case, he’s going to be in the office with us at night nailing things down,” Roman told reporters in San Francisco this week. “I told him next year or in the future, he might be able to get home and get to bed a little earlier, if we ever get an offseason together.”