He was wearing a 49ers hat the other day, to which you would say, of course. But Alex Smith more often is seen in a Giants hat. Or on occasion, as a salute to his first love, a team of which he always will be a fan, the San Diego Padres.
“I’ve always worn something,” he said about his personal preference.
In the past, it seemed everything — fans, media, former coaches — was wearing on Smith. But no longer.
This is the season for which he waited, the season all that nonsense about small hands — you saw that hit he took a few weeks ago against Washington and held on to the ball — and lack of arm strength has become irrelevant.
This is the season Jim Harbaugh, a quarterback himself, took over as Niners head coach, and found ways to maximize Smith’s skills and minimize his defects, which is what a coach is supposed to do.
The enlightened choice of Harbaugh, who proved his brilliance and arrogance at the University of San Diego and Stanford, seems more intelligent by the moment.
At Stanford, Harbaugh was only a few miles away from the confusion and misconceptions prevalent at 49ers headquarters. But what did he know about Alex, other than Smith had worked with new offensive coordinators in all six of his seasons and what was available in the media (and you know how accurate that might be).
“No, I had not met Alex Smith until I got the job here,” Harbaugh recently said. “I was looking through a keyhole, so to speak.
“I respected him as a player. I think people that know football and understand the game appreciate Alex Smith as a very talented quarterback. He’s every bit the elite quarterback as there is playing the game right now.”
Dare we say, hats off? Or hats on?
“I came up here a Padres fan,” Smith said. He grew up in La Mesa, a San Diego suburb — and was a Helix High School teammate of Reggie Bush. Yes, they were winners, going 27-1 while in the same backfield, although Smith says Reggie was the reason.
“I’ve just watched a lot of Giants games, watched a lot of Sharks games,” Smith said of his transition. “All of a sudden, I find myself a Giants fan, a Sharks fan. But obviously when the Giants and Padres play each other, I find myself rooting for the Padres.”
At last, 49ers fans find themselves rooting for Smith. They wanted him to succeed from the very moment San Francisco made him the first pick in the 2005 draft. But quarterbacks selected high invariably go to bad teams who don’t improve with the addition of one man.
Not that everyone understands. The onus was on Alex, as became apparent from the booing after every interception, every overthrown pass.
Three years ago, September 2008, Smith was placed on injured reserve, out for the season and presumably off the Niners forever. His career in San Francisco was over. Or so we believed.
But Alex, who had an A-plus grade average in high school, is as tough and resilient as he is smart.
He was gone, except he wasn’t gone. And once Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman showed up, Smith was going where he never had gone before, up the ladder in the NFL quarterback ratings.
Smith is asked if five, six years ago, this is what he thought the NFL might be, finding Vernon Davis on a crossing route, handing off to Frank Gore, getting the wins, getting the accolades. That next sound you heard was a
“This certainly is what you hope it will be,” Smith said. He is 27, and the pain, literal from the shoulder and arm injuries, and symbolic from the criticism, has not affected his spirit.
“You want to win games, win championships and there’s a long way to go” he said, “but yeah, no question, when you’re growing up you’re thinking about those things, what we’ve been doing.”
In the past, 49ers coaches and quarterbacks — notably Frankie Albert and John Brodie — often found it difficult to go out in public. Smith, for all the pounding he took at Candlestick or in the media, contends he never had a confrontation.
“Really,” he said. “Nothing bad. The fans have been great when they recognize me, very supportive.”
And that’s no hat trick.
|2008||Did not play due to injury|