In 2011, Alex Smith had the best season of his career, yet was dismissed by some as a “game manager.”
Yes, he led his team to a 13-3 season. Yes, he led several fourth-quarter comebacks, including his dramatic plays to beat the Saints in the playoffs. And yes, the San Francisco Niners went all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
But when that “game manager” label is slapped on a quarterback, it’s not a compliment – it means the quarterback is just a cog in a well-run machine, not a difference-maker.
Yet now that Smith has returned to the 49ers, agreeing to a three-year deal to stay with the team that took him with the No. 1 overall choice of the 2005 NFL Draft, it’s very possible that Smith will look like a much different quarterback in 2012. Longtime Bay Area columnist Mark Purdy, for one, believes the 49ers QB could be well positioned to be even better.
- Last season, the first under new head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Smith and the offensive unit – coming off a lockout and limited preparation time – were trying to absorb the just-installed West Coast offense. It was a learning process, and Roman’s entire playbook never was completely used. If 2011 was Offense 101 for Smith and the Niners, expect 2012 to be an upper-division course. Expect to see more diversification.
- For the first time in his seven-year NFL career, Smith will have both his head coach and offensive coordinator back for a second year. This will be the first year he’s operated in the same system for the same leadership since he came into the league. As Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group wrote, “Most comforting for Smith’s sake is that the coaching carousel has stopped.”
- At the end of last season, the 49ers’ corps of wide receivers was thin and ineffective. The team has addressed that need, signing free agents Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to join Michael Crabtree and tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. And, the team’s not done. The 49ers very well could add more depth in free agency or the draft. That should give Smith many more options than he had last season.
- The Niners’ offensive line – which became one of the team’s most dependable units – returns four-fifths intact. The team is still looking for a replacement for Adam Snyder, who signed with the Cardinals, but expect an addition at the spot before training camp.
All in all, as good as Smith was in 2011, he could be even better in 2012. He’s still just 27, and he’s showed a toughness and resilience many critics didn’t think he had just two seasons ago.
As Smith told reporters Wednesday, he’s eager to get to work preparing for the coming season.
“I’m excited for those two additions (Moss and Manningham),” he said on a conference call with Bay Area media. “And I’m really excited about this offseason – to put the work in, to put the time in. To have an offseason to build on what we did last year and get better because we certainly have room for it and need to get better.”