One big reason for optimism about the 49ers this season: Their quarterback situation is settled. Alex Smith is the man, and the only competition is for the No. 2 spot, between veteran David Carr and second-year player Nate Davis.
Coaches like competition at other positions, but it seldom works well at quarterback, because the starter doesn’t get enough work.
Last year, Smith and Shaun Hill battled through spring workouts and training camp. Hill was named the starter, but his performance steadily declined as other teams learned his shortcomings.
Smith was made the starter at halftime of the game in Houston. The offense had to change dramatically to fit Smith’s strengths — and weaknesses — and both Smith’s play and the 49ers’ team play fluctuated for the rest of the 8-8 season.
To make certain that wouldn’t happen again, the 49ers traded Hill in the offseason and brought in Carr; though Carr said he was coming in to compete for the starting job, that wasn’t what he was told. In spring workouts, it’s been obvious that he’s here only as a veteran backup if Smith gets hurt.
Smith is taking almost all the snaps in these workouts, which is critical. In the NFL, offensive and defensive schemes are put in during the spring and summer. During the season, teams concentrate on game planning for the next opponent.
It’s comforting to Smith to be in this position, after the roller coaster he’s been on since he was the first overall draft pick in 2005. “I’ve learned not to worry about things which are out of my control,” he said when we talked after a workout. “My first year, I worried about everything, but there wasn’t anything I could do about most of those things. Now, I’m concentrating on just working on the things I can control.”
He has some added help this year. When I asked him how he felt when the 49ers drafted offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati in the first round, he had a big smile — but then said, “We already had a good group of offensive linemen but you can always use more good ones. You need the depth because of injuries.”
In a sense, the 49ers are adding three quality players to the offensive line because Joe Staley, who was injured for almost half the season last year, will be back. Davis and Iupati are struggling to learn the offense, but I’d be very surprised if both aren’t starters this fall.
Michael Crabtree, the best receiver the Niners have had since Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens left, should be even better because he’ll have the time to learn the offense — and Smith’s moves. “It’s a lot of little things,” Smith said. “Knowing when to make the cut, knowing the exact pattern.”
Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye made an interesting comment about Smith last year, that Alex needed to physically run a play before he fully understood his role.
He’s getting that chance this spring, working for the first time with the same offensive coordinator for two seasons. I fully expect him to show he can be a quality NFL quarterback, and to lead the Niners back to the playoffs.