Spander: Niners’ QB questions linger after Smith’s rocky season

With one game left in the 49ers’ season of “What do you mean we haven’t made progress?” here are unavoidable conclusions about young Alex Smith, the quarterback who keeps getting his passes batted down by lineman and his future kicked around by journalists:

– He hasn’t figured out Jimmy Raye’s squirrely offensive system or, in fact, he has figured it out and understands, with the plays being called, even the sainted Joe Montana couldn’t connect on a crossing pattern.

– He was as much a product of Urban Meyer’s spread offense when both were at Utah as he was of his own talent, and what this means for Tim Tebow — Meyer’s QB now at Florida — and the NFL team that drafts Tebow is open to a voice vote.

– He appears more concerned with not losing games than he is with winning them, perhaps a result of playing for Mike Nolan before Jed York, acting president, zapped Nolan and elevated Mike Singletary to be head coach.

– Smith, after finally regaining his health and starting position, hasn’t made us as uncomfortable as that kid in fifth grade who rubbed his knuckles on the blackboard. But watching Alex, one is whipsawed between hope and dyspepsia.

– Yes, he’s been with five different offensive coordinators in five seasons. Yes, he’s had two major injuries. But Smith has yet to make us believe he could go out there like Joe or Steve Young, or John Elway or Jim Plunkett, and actually win a game.

Maybe he does it this week. Maybe next year. Maybe he never does it. Maybe Alex turns out to be adequate, not spectacular, and when you’re the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and were given the endorsement of numerous scouts, adequate isn’t enough.

A month before the 2005 draft, Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.com wrote that a scout told him Smith “had the best quarterback workout he had seen in 10 years,” and another compared it to the great audition in 1989 of Troy Aikman.

Smith is intelligent (he graduated in three years), athletic and delightfully stable. Meyer built his offense around him at Utah, turning Alex into a runner to slow pass rushes. In his junior season, his final season (2004), Smith threw for 32 touchdowns with only four interceptions.

But it’s fair to ask whether it was the Meyer system that made Smith so effective or Smith that made the system so effective. Two decades past, that was the genesis of Niners debates, the involved parties then being Montana and Bill Walsh.

Singletary has been marginally complimentary of Smith, taking the high road as it were, which translates as: “Well, he’s not Brett Favre but he’s also not Jim Druckenmiller.”

“Alex has done a good job of getting the ball out,” Singletary said the day after the Niners wobbled before finally beating the Detroit Lions, the NFL’s worst defensive team, only 20-6. “He has an understanding of being in the right place.”

Are the 49ers the right place for Smith? Is he the right quarterback for the 49ers?

“He’s being careful,” Young said of Smith on KNBR (680 AM). “He never wants to be the reason they lose.”

Better he becomes the reason they win.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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