Jim Harbaugh just might be a miracle worker. A week ago, the quarterback situation was looking a little rocky in San Francisco, but the 49ers have circled the wagons and come out in perfect position to build on last year’s surprise NFC Championship game appearance.
After Peyton Manning chose the Broncos over the 49ers, and Alex Smith was talking contract terms with the Miami Dolphins last weekend, there were concerns that untested second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick could be the only man left behind center in San Francisco.
But now, Alex Smith is re-signed to a three-year deal, the 49ers picked up Josh Johnson to provide a backup with experience in Harbaugh’s system, and it looks like one big happy family. Johnson even joined Harbaugh, Smith and Kaepernick for a racquetball game this week to welcome him aboard.
“It was guys just getting to know each other and becoming teammates,” Johnson said Friday. “The team aspect is more important than anything. We all have to be comfortable with each other.”
“Even though everybody wants to play, the team is more important.”
And that’s exactly the type of attitude that took the 49ers so far last season. Smith rolled through the 49ers-Manning flirtation and not only come out with the starting job and a new contract, he even came out of it with a little new-found swagger.
“Not offended at all. I would have relished the opportunity to compete for the starting quarterback job with Peyton Manning,” Smith said. “I feel I’ve been through way worse than this. Free agency is always going to be a little crazy, maybe this year more than most. You get to a point you stop worrying about that stuff.”
While it might sound presumptuous to talk about competing with Peyton Manning for the starting job (Denver traded Tim Tebow within 24 hours of signing Manning), Smith’s confidence is at an all time high, and rightfully so. He had the best year of his career last season, leading the 49ers to within sniffing distance of the Super Bowl while throwing for 3,144 yards, 17 TDs and just 5 INTs. He had the 9th best passer rating in the league (90.7), rounding out the best year of his career both statistically and in the win-loss column.
And most importantly, for the first time in his professional career, Smith will be going through an off season with the same offensive coordinator from the previous year… and one he excelled under. Since 2005, Smith has had 4 different head coaches and six different offensive coordinators, forcing him to learn a new system every year.
On the heels of last year’s success, the 49ers have focused on upgrading their receiving corps and added Mario Manningham from the New York Giants and future Hall of Famer Randy Moss at wide receiver. When Smith looks around at Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Moss, Manningham and Michael Crabtree, he has to feel very good about the 2012 season.
The team is happy to have him back as well. “We are pleased that Alex has chosen to continue his career as a 49er,” general manager Trent Baalke said. “His contributions were instrumental to our success in 2011, and we look forward to the continued growth of our offense under his leadership.”
Asked about how his relationship with Harbaugh stands, following the Manning pursuit, Smith responded, “As good as they’ve always been and getting better.”
“The thing from Day 1, when I first met coach Harbaugh, is he’s always been up front and always been honest with me. He’s continued to do that during this entire process. That’s one of the reasons I love playing for him, so no question. Now, obviously looking forward to having an offseason with him.”
Last year, the 49ers success was a surprise for several reasons. They didn’t make wholesale personnel changes to the roster that finished 6-10 the previous year, it was Harbaugh’s first season as head coach, and due to the lockout, he didn’t have much of a training camp to work with his players. The strength of the immediate bond that formed between Smith and Harbaugh is largely responsible for last year’s success, at least on the offensive side of the ball.
Harbaugh and Smith met for the one day that the lockout was lifted by court order, and Harbaugh handed him the playbook, even though Smith wasn’t under contract at the time. Smith taught himself the offense, and then taught the rest of the team. He was rewarded with a one-year, $4.9 million contract. After last season, he received a sizable raise. He just signed a three-year deal that will pay him $8 million per season, with incentives that could earn him up to $33 million over the contract.
Smith talks about the new deal with his characteristic modesty. “Really the money wasn’t the issue. Money is great for security but I’m not a guy who has a bunch of flashy cars,” Smith said. “Since the season ended I wanted to be back here. It dragged out a little bit but I’m glad it’s over. Glad it’s done. Glad to get back to work.”