In helping the San Francisco 49ers to a 13-3 record in 2011 and the franchise's first playoff win since 2002, quarterback Alex Smith finally managed to show some of the promise the team saw in him when it made him the first overall selection in the 2005 NFL draft. Smith's numbers weren't off the charts, but he was exactly the kind of efficient, mistake-averse (just five interceptions in 445 attempts) signal-caller preferred by first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. That said, there are those in the Bay Area who would prefer that the 49ers stepped up the talent level at that roster spot -- and you can start with one Mr. Jerry Rice.
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The best receiver of all time, and either the first- or second-best player in franchise history (depending on your feelings for Joe Montana) told the Marin Independent Journal on Tuesday that his old team should go all out for the kind of quarterback not seen in San Francisco since the salad days of Steve Young. Rice thinks that when the Indianapolis Colts release Peyton Manning instead of playing his $28 million option bonus (according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, that will happen on Wednesday), Harbaugh -- who was replaced by Manning as the Colts' starting quarterback in 1998 -- should be on that free-agency opportunity as quickly as possible.
"I think you go for it," Rice said. "A guy of that talent, you've got everything in place. You've got a defense that smacks you in the mouth. You just need a little more out of the offense. That's not knocking what Alex [Smith] did. [Manning] can take you to a whole different level.
"If he goes to the Washington Redskins, I guarantee they win 10 games. If he goes to Miami, they win 10 games," Rice said. Smith is also a free agent, which means that the 49ers could go in many different directions at the position.
That said, Rice wasn't totally discounting Smith's efforts and his potential as the team's franchise quarterback over time.
"If they're going to invest that much money in Alex and they feel he can get the job done, then do it. I know he made significant improvement this year and did what was asked of him. If he can get more weapons around him and knowing he has a coach that has confidence in him, that he doesn't have to look over his shoulder, it might bring the best out of him."
And when it comes to what ails the 49ers' offense, Rice knew right where to point the finger -- at a receiver corps that underperformed to a grievous level last season. In the NFC championship loss to the New York Giants, Smith threw nine passes to his wide receivers -- including five passes to supposed star receiver Michael Crabtree -- and completed just one pass for 3 yards. Meanwhile, Smith's tight ends and running backs were extremely productive.
Having watched Crabtree's game with intense concentration last year, Rice said that the young receiver failed to gain separation from enemy defenders, and cited route-running as a particular issue. Oof. That's like having Jimi Hendrix tell you that your guitar's out of tune.
"They need someone to strike fear into the opposing team and take the [defensive] coverage off," Rice said. "You've got that in [tight end] Vernon Davis. I thought [Crabtree] would be a little more productive last year."
Rice said that Crabtree would benefit from dropping 10-15 pounds to get off the snap quicker.
"That'll be up to him to make that decision. You have to sacrifice yourself and put your team's best interest at heart. I don't really know the guy so I can't really comment on his work ethic. They feel there's potential there but it'll be up to him to say, 'I want to be the best receiver I have to be and I'm going to have to sacrifice some things.'"
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Well, nobody did that with more proven production than Rice. If Crabtree wants the kind of role model he'll need to get better no matter who the 49ers' quarterback is in 2012, he couldn't do any better. Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area reports that the 49ers have targeted Mike Wallace and Vincent Jackson as possible upgrades, so Crabtree had better step it up. Because if Peyton Manning's your quarterback, and you perform at the level Crabtree did last season, you can bet on a thermonuclear explosion sooner than later.
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