In the end, Harbaugh and Smith found a way. (Getty Images)
Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young knows very well what it's like to come into the San Francisco 49ers environment as the first-round heir apparent to a quarterback history established by Joe Montana and Bill Walsh through the 1980s. It is a legacy that demands excellence as the low baseline and perfection as the expected result. More often than not, that's what the 49ers got from Montana when they most needed it from 1981 through 1989 — a near-decade that produced four Super Bowl championships. Young came over from Tampa Bay in a 1987 trade as Walsh's hand-picked replacement for Montana, and he had to sit and wait his turn. Until he won his own Super Bowl at the end of the 1994 season, Young was nothing more than a visitor to that tradition.
Current 49ers quarterback Alex Smith almost missed his shot at that ring of honor — when first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh took the job in January of 2011, it was a meeting with Smith that convinced both men that the best path was the one they could take together. Before that, Smith had been an unmitigated bust. The first overall pick in the 2005 season, he spent most of his first half-decade in the NFL bouncing from one dysfunctional coaching situation to another, and most of 2010 having people wonder what on earth the 49ers were thinking when they took him and left Bay Area product Aaron Rodgers on the board way back when.
A year later … well, what a difference makes. The first quarterback to help the 49ers to a winning record since Jeff Garcia in 2002, Smith gained a new reputation an effective and efficient (if not spectacular) signal-caller under Harbaugh's tutelage. His new coach's 15-year tenure in the NFL paid great dividends, especially when Smith had to hurl the ball around against the New Orleans Saints in a furious and exciting back-and-forth that saw four lead changes in the game's last four minutes. When it was all over, the Smith-to-Vernon-Davis touchdown throw with nine seconds left was the difference in San Francisco's 36-32 win.
The 49ers, one of three teams to run more than they passed in the regular season, had more completed passes (24) than rushing attempts (22). For once, Smith was the difference.
"There's a lot of situations that you go through," Harbaugh said on Wednesday of Smith's situational development. "The understanding that he can't take a sack, we can't have a penalty as a unit, and you can't have a turnover. Those three things will absolutely bring down the percentages of executing a two-minute drive and winning the football game. Understanding what the defense is trying to do in those situations. Executing the offense, playing focused and loose at the same time. Alex does a tremendous job of that. Then you let the chips fall where they may. You either will or you won't.
"I think he's got that kind of mentality as well. There's times that no-conscience throws have to be made. He's done a spectacular job with that all season long. I don't know how many comebacks we're up to now, five or six. Is it six? That's a lot for any team, for any quarterback. Speaks volumes about how he's understanding those situations."
Young, who participated in a media call on Wednesday, recently interviewed Smith for ESPN. As an obvious observer of the 49ers, he's seen a different Smith under center this season.
"You have to have thick skin," Young said of Smith's overall experience. "The guy has been through hell as far as quarterbacking. He's been through quarterbacking hell where you ‑‑ different coordinator, different language. He was trying to describe like learning French and then learning Spanish and learning Japanese and just learning every weird, new language and having to be held accountable without the support.
"And this year, all of a sudden, he gets all of the support and he feels like, 'Geez, I feel like I'm doing less. I feel like it's easier.' But yet, now he's doing remarkable things and that's what happens when you get the system put in place where it's a quarterback‑centric system, not coddled, but quarterback‑centric."
Steve Young was once caught in the middle. (Getty Images)
And that's the key. After all those different systems, it was as "simple" as Harbaugh fitting the system to the player. Young once had to retrofit his incredible raw abilities to Walsh's hyper-disciplined offense, and as he said, it's never as easy as some may think.
"You have to have gone through this, where I was in Tampa Bay and came to San Francisco and Bill Walsh. When you're with a coach who has a philosophy that if my quarterback is successful, we'll all be successful; and that's not because he's better or more important, it's just the nature of how I want to coach. I want to coach and call plays that make the quarterback sure that he's comfortable and make him successful -- if I do all of those things, we'll be good.
"Alex suffered through a long period of time without that. And so when he got with Jim, immediately, it changed everything. And so it's as if the light turns on and Jim says. 'Look, we are going to be successful and I'm going to call plays and you and I…' The way Alex described it to me, made a lot of sense. It seemed like I'm doing less than I used to do, because the pressure was so much greater because of the lack of institutional support. He always seemed like he was carrying the load of everything, which was not necessarily true, or appropriate. And now, he describes it as, look, I feel that I'm doing less, but he's doing way more, which proves the point that [the] quarterback‑centric system [is] the truth in football."
Asked if this season is an "I-told-you-so" to his onetime detractors, Smith remained focused on the challenge of the New York Giants in Sunday's NFC championship game, and whoever he might face in the Super Bowl is he can help his team get past that challenge. "I think if we win this game and go to the Super Bowl it will say it in itself," he said on Wednesday. "I'm not thinking about that right now. I really feel like winning games as a quarterback this time of year speaks for itself. That's how you do your talking. So, just focused on this game, preparing myself all week."
Sounds like a franchise quarterback? After all these years, the words finally match the deeds.
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