Smith Signing Raises Questions for 49ers
by Glenn Dickey
Jul 27, 2005

DID THE 49ers get suckered on draft day?

Before the NFL draft, coach Mike Nolan talked repeatedly of the “value” of the first pick, which suggested that he wanted to trade it. He also talked of the importance of having at least the bare bones of a contract worked out before the draft, and he had done that with Mike Sullivan, who is the agent for Aaron Rodgers.

Then, he drafted Alex Smith, and he did not have any kind of contract worked out with Smith’s agent, Tom Condon, who had negotiated the highest contract ever the year before with the New York Giants for Eli Manning. This week, Condon and the 49ers beat that mark as Smith signed a six-year deal for $49.5 million, which includes $24 million of guaranteed money.

Only Nolan knows for certain – and he will never say it publicly – but I don’t think this is the way he wanted it to go down. Many of those watching the draft, including me, thought he wanted Rodgers but thought Smith had greater trade value. In drafting Smith, he though he could make a trade so he could still get Rodgers – at a lower price. Specifically, he thought he could make a deal with the Tampa Bay Bucs.

But the Bucs did not make that trade, and when talks fell through, Nolan came out, smiling bravely, and said Smith was the quarterback he wanted all along.

Chalk that up to inexperience on the highest level of the NFL, where executives and coaches from other teams will throw up smokescreens and misinformation. Nolan has ample coaching experience, and a great pedigree because his dad, Dick, was a successful coach for a long time, but he had never been involved in this process. It was a learning experience for him, and a costly one for the 49ers.

The only real positive for the 49ers in this situation is that, for the moment, it sidetracks talk of how cheap 49er owner John York is. This is a big outlay of money. Most NFL contracts are less than they seem, because the team has the ability to terminate them after any year without paying any more, but this one has almost half of it in guaranteed money.

It will also have a serious impact on the 49ers salary cap position. They’ve been in Salary Cap Hell for much of the last six years. By investing so much in one player, they’re guaranteed to be struggling with cap problems for more years.

Smith had better be worth it.

THOUGH NOLAN will say all the right things about competition for the starting quarterback position, the fix is in. The Niners have too much invested in Smith, economically and psychologically, to give Tim Rattay an even shot.

Nor should they. Rattay is a gutty performer with some physical skills but he’s never shown that he should be anything more than a backup. He has value in that role because he can come in and play decently if the starter is injured, but the sooner the 49ers can get Smith into the starting lineup, the sooner they can start building for the future.

At one time, the conventional wisdom in the NFL was that a rookie quarterback had to sit and learn before he could play. But times have changed. Quarterbacks no longer call plays, which removes on element from the learning process, and with free agency, teams don’t want to spend time developing a quarterback for another team.

There have been quarterbacks recently who did well starting as rookies. Peyton Manning was the Colts’ starter from game one, and he’s set passing records. Last year, Ben Roethlisberger was a rookie starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who made the postseason.

Both Manning and Roethlisberger had advantages which Smith lacks. Manning had played four years in a pro system at Tennessee, and his father, Archie, was an NFL quarterback and a good one, though he was cursed with playing on bad teams. Roethlisberger played on a team with a stout defense and a strong running game, which took the pressure off him. Anybody who watched the Niners last season knows that’s not the kind of team that will be surrounding Smith.

With the 49ers, the comparison is always with Joe Montana. Though Smith had an abbreviated college career, he had much more consistent success than Montana, though against lesser competition than Montana faced at Notre Dame.

Bill Walsh eased Montana into the starting lineup, playing him only in specific spots in his rookie season and not making him the starter until midway through his second year – but Montana was only a third-round pick and the fans’ expectations were not high. Nolan doesn’t have that luxury because Smith was the very first pick in the draft. Fans will want to see what he can do immediately.

SMITH’S TASK will be more difficult, too, because he comes from a much different system, a spread formation where he took a direct snap from center, about seven yards deep in the backfield.

Everything will be different for him in the version of Walsh’s offense which the 49ers will be running. Smith is very bright, but there’s an awful lot for him to learn. That’s one of the reasons he took most of the snaps in the last mini-camp.

It will be a very rough ride for the young man early. His physical talents are obvious but it will be his mental toughness which will be most important for him, and the 49ers. If he can survive the tough times, he will eventually prosper, and so will the 49ers. Keep your fingers crossed.


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