SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Of all the cutting-edge calls contained in the playbook Jim Harbaugh brought down the peninsula from Stanford to the head coach's office at the San Francisco 49ers' headquarters, none was more surprising than his decision to give Alex Smith a copy last April.
Now that was an audible. During this offseason of labor strife, the quarterback picked No. 1 overall in the 2005 NFL draft (now remembered not-so fondly in the Bay Area as the Aaron Rodgers(notes) Green Room Experience) and considered a goner last winter by every Smith in the San Francisco phone book – including himself – became the conduit between the franchise's splashy coaching hire and the players with whom Harbaugh was prohibited from communicating.
As Smith said earlier this week from 49ers training camp, where he is still the team's starting quarterback against all odds, "Yeah, who knew? It's funny how things work out."
The humor was lost on legions of frustrated 49ers fans, who lusted over Harbaugh's collegiate success only to learn that the New Andrew Luck was the same old same old. To them, it was as if the spacey valet-parking dude who kept denting Escalades and Benzes had just been handed the keys to the whole hotel operation.
The lockout, which limited the team's options, may have saved Smith's job, but Harbaugh's hand wasn't entirely forced. Clearly, the new coach has a higher opinion of the maligned passer than virtually anyone in the region. Otherwise, during the brief period after the draft during which the lockout was lifted by court order (before being reinstated by an appellate court less than 24 hours later), Harbaugh wouldn't have summoned the seventh-year free agent to Santa Clara, given him a crash course in his system and assembled a gift bag that included the playbook and video cut-ups, with an understanding that Smith would preside over the team's players-only workouts during the labor dispute.
"Yeah, there was a bit of a leap of faith," Harbaugh concedes. "But I knew there was a leap of faith that he was taking, too."
Smith essentially committed to re-signing with the Niners despite the fact they had just traded up in the second round to draft their presumptive quarterback of the future, former Nevada star Colin Kaepernick(notes). It was the second time in three offseasons that Smith would return after relocation seemed a given. He took a vastly reduced, two-year deal following the 2008 season.
A year ago, Smith believed he was staring at his last chance to succeed in San Francisco. When he lost his job seven games into the season to Troy Smith(notes) (no relation), and again in late December after a two-game revival (coach Mike Singletary was fired days later), there wasn't much sense in pretending. Asked about his future by reporters after leading San Francisco to a season-ending victory over the Cardinals, Smith said he wouldn't rule out returning to the 49ers.
Afterward, Oakland Tribune columnist Monte Poole stopped Smith on the way to the parking lot and wondered whether he sincerely believed staying with the team was a possibility. Smith laughed and replied, "Are you being serious? Uh … no."
Yet shortly after Harbaugh was hired, he and Smith met in his office and talked football, and a connection was formed. Harbaugh was impressed by Smith's intelligence – "how book smart he was, and how football smart," the coach recalls. Smith felt comfortable with Harbaugh's candor and, oddly enough, his refusal to make any promises about Smith's role.
Many coaches preach an allegiance to pure competition and claim that they'll start the best player, period. For those of us who've known Harbaugh since his playing days, when he emerged from perceived mediocrity to Captain Comeback and nearly lead the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl, he's a lot more believable than most.
"There's no 'play the young guy,' or 'play the veteran,' or 'play the draft pick,' " Harbaugh insists. "You play whoever's playing better, whoever's practicing better, whoever gives the team the best chance to win. No games. No politics. Just play the best guy."
Says Smith: "I definitely believe that. He's been upfront from day one with me. No b.s. And I appreciate that."
Given his strained relationship with former head coach Mike Nolan, the frequent benchings he endured during Singletary's tenure and the steady stream of offensive coordinators who've messed with his mechanics and mind (including the disastrous Mike Martz training camp of '08), it's no wonder Smith says, "You get a little schizophrenic at times. I've been taught so many different ways to do things by so many different coaches."
Smith knows he'll have to convince his new coaches that he's a better option than the mobile, strong-armed but obviously raw Kaepernick. Harbaugh believes that's a healthy situation.
"I think quarterbacks in particular don't want to be anointed," the coach says. "I think they want to compete and make it clear-cut who the starter should be. They have something in 'em that wants it to be earned. I think they relish that opportunity."
Harbaugh, however, didn't hesitate to anoint Smith as his de facto stand-in during the lockout. The quarterback organized and ran a pair of weeklong sessions at San Jose State that included the installation of part of the offense and film study of the workouts.
"It was different at first," Smith says. "It was really weird. I mean, I'm the free agent, and I'm calling guys to get them together."
Says Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis(notes): "He took on a lot of responsibility. He took us into the meeting rooms, went through the plays, kept us up to speed. So I came into training camp with some knowledge of the playbook – and I really appreciate that."
How far did Smith take his coaching duties? "I had a fanny pack," he says.
He was kidding – at least, I hope he was.
"A lot of players on this team saw the investment he was making, and that can only be a good thing," 49ers general manager Trent Baalke says. "It's called sweat equity, right? And he made a lot of it this summer."
Whereas wideout Michael Crabtree(notes) openly questioned Smith's hold on the starting spot in June (he was unavailable for comment earlier this week), two of the team's other prominent pass-catchers seem highly supportive.
"I know exactly what he's going through, because I faced a lot of the same things in Cleveland," says newly signed wideout Braylon Edwards, who was drafted third overall – two spots behind Smith – by the Browns in '05. "You get drafted high by a team that's sub-average and struggles to win. There are huge expectations and you're not fulfilling them.
"The fans get on you. It becomes nerve-wracking. You start doubting yourself and let outside opinions influence you, and you worry more than you should. My career kind of mirrors his, and I know he just needs a chance for consistency. And it seems like he's finally getting a fair shot."
Davis, who reportedly upbraided Crabtree for what he perceived as uneven effort in practice last September, believes that Smith, too, is in position to become more vocal with teammates.
"Alex was a leader all offseason," Davis says. "He had to come into his own, and he did that. Now he just has to finish the process by getting it done on the field."
That, says Smith, is the plan, assuming he can adapt to yet another system before the real games begin.
"I have to embrace it," Smith says. "I have no choice. I'm trying to go all in with this – like I do every year."
After an offseason like no other, we'll soon see if Harbaugh's unforeseen audible succeeds.