Drafting Alex Smith was the best decision Mike Nolan has made as 49ers coach. Success in the NFL starts with the quarterback.
Smith’s ability was obvious from the start to those of us who watch practices as well as games. But the question remained: Would he be tough enough mentally?
Nolan thought so, as he proved when he made the gutsy move of trading away Tim Rattay early last season, putting it all on Smith’s shoulders. That was tough for Smith because, for most of the season, the 49ers’ offensive line was very shaky. The wide receiver group was so-so at best and tight end Eric Johnson was on injured reserve for the season.
Not surprisingly, Smith was overwhelmed by everything he had to learn and he played poorly. But that didn’t break his spirit.
This year, he got a big boost when Norv Turner was hired as offensive coordinator. Turner changed the offense to take advantage of
Smith’s ability to roll out and throw on the run — and also to run if a play broke down.
Still, Smith’s progress was uneven, and many Niners fans and writers and broadcasters grew impatient with him. They had, after all, seen two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in succession, Joe Montana and Steve Young, so they held Smith to a very high standard.
Neither Montana nor Young had immediate success, though both had played four years in pro-type offenses in college — Smith had had only two years in a spread offense — but that was largely forgotten.
Bill Walsh developed Montana cautiously. Originally, he used him only when the 49ers were near the other team’s goal line. Montana was given a play on which he had only one receiver. If that receiverwas covered, Joe ran with the ball. It wasn’t until midway in the 1980 season that Montana became a starter.
Montana’s coming-of-age game was the 14th of the 1980 season. Montana led the 49ers to four touchdowns in the second half to overcome a 35-7 New Orleans Saints lead, and Ray Wersching kicked a game-winning field goal in overtime.
In the 14th game of this season, the 49ers trailed the Seattle Seahawks, 7-3 going into the fourth quarter on a rainy night in Seattle. Smith led his team to three touchdowns in the final 15 minutes, doing everything.
He showed his arm strength with a pass that went 60 yards in the air to Arnaz Battle. He threw a bullet pass over the middle for a key first down on the next drive. He shook off a blitzer and rolled left to throw a touchdown pass to Frank Gore. On a naked bootleg, he ran 18 yards untouched for the final 49ers touchdown. He took command.
“The boy became a man tonight,” said Gore.
The 49ers lost the last two games of the ’80 season, but that remarkable comeback win was the first sign of what was to come.
Last week’s win over Seattle has great symbolic importance, too, because it was the first real glimpse of how good Smith can be.
Nolan has been criticized for picking Smith, and the young quarterback has been judged harshly, too. I’d suggest that the naysayers should hold their tongues, because they will look very foolish if they continue their criticism. Alex Smith is the best decision Nolan has made.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.