When the 49ers’ new offensive coordinator, Jim Hostler, evaluates quarterback Alex Smith, he talks first of mental toughness. "We knew when we drafted Alex that it would take him some time to develop quarterback skills," Hostler said in an interview at the 49ers’ training facility in Santa Clara.
"He had played quarterback only in his senior year of high school and he was only throwing 8-10 passes a game — and many of those were just checkoffs to Reggie Bush. Then, he played two years in a [spread] system in college that is not known for developing NFL-type quarterbacks.
"So, knowing it would take time to develop him, we wanted to make sure he had the ability to develop into a leader."
When a quarterback comes to a bad team, mental toughness is an absolute requirement. David Carr, as one example, has taken a terrible physical beating, and he’s so emotionally beaten, it’s unlikely he’ll ever be a good NFL quarterback. Conversely, Jim Plunkett took a similar beating, but eventually recovered to lead the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins.
Smith also came into a terrible situation. "We were starting a left tackle, Anthony Clement, who wouldn’t have been on the roster of other teams," Hostler said. "Our best receiver, Arnaz Battle, was injured. And then Alex got hurt and missed six games when he could have been learning."
There was no way Smith could look good, and he didn’t.
"That first year, Alex would take a bad situation and make it worse by throwing a pass he shouldn’t have and having it intercepted," said Hostler. "Last year, he reversed that. He would take a bad situation and make it a good one, and he’d take a good situation and make it better."
Smith’s rebound from his rookie-year disaster showed Hostler that his quarterback has the mental toughness that’s needed. Another factor was his ability to shake off a poor start and finish strongly in a game, most notably in the wins over Seattle and Denver.
"The Denver win was almost a playoff-type environment," he said. "A quarterback has to function in that kind of environment to succeed in this league. The pressure a quarterback feels in a regular- season game is like having a man lay on him. In a playoff game, it’s more like an elephant."
What Hostler is looking for with Smith this season is continued improvement, more consistency and an ability to complete passes when the other team is looking for that.
"It’s relatively easy for a quarterback to complete a pass when the defense isn’t specifically looking for that, like on first down," he said. "When the defense is expecting you to throw the ball and you still complete the pass, well, that’s what guys like Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb do."
He’s making no predictions about Smith. "Nobody can say how good a quarterback Alex can be," he said, "but that’s true of any young quarterback. It’s easy to look at Peyton Manning now and say he’s a Hall of Fame quarterback, but it wouldn’t have been so easy when he first came into the NFL."
There’s one thing we can all predict: The 49ers will go as far as Smith can take them. "This is a quarterback-driven league," said Hostler. "If you don’t have a quarterback, you’re nowhere."
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. He will appear on Fox Sports Net’s Giants pregame show today at 12:30 p.m.
E-mail Glenn Dickey at firstname.lastname@example.org.