The return of Alex Smith: A preview primer

Alex Smith has acknowledged publicly for the first time that he's likely to return to the 49ers this season, and since he already has the team's 2011 playbook and is practicing informally with several teammates during the NFL lockout, it's time to start preparing for it to happen. Here's a primer of the many sides of Smith you should expect to see during his latest last chance with the team.

Alex the stand-up guy: One thing Smith got very good at during his six seasons with the 49ers is taking criticism and letting it roll off his back. It's something he does well, and something of which he has had a lot of practice. Smith will have a very short leash this year from fans and media, who will crawl all over him at the first sign of things going wrong. But Smith will stand up to the heat and take it with aplomb. There is not one critical question he won't have an answer for. Go ahead. Fire away with all you've got. Alex won't flinch. His skin has grown thick and his upper lip has grown stiff since joining the 49ers.

Alex the student: Once the lockout is over, we will hear from Alex on practically a daily basis how much he is learning from new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and how much he is absorbing Harbaugh's variation of the West Coast offense. We will also hear from Harbaugh about what a bright student Alex is, and how skillfully he is picking up the offense, and how Smith's intelligence sets him apart.

Alex the good teammate: Smith will praise all his teammates at every chance, extolling their virtues and looking at the bright side of just about every issue. Likewise, his teammates will tell us how much they support him as their quarterback, how they are 100 percent behind the guy, how he has what it takes to get the job done at quarterback.

Alex the mentor: In part of his role as Alex the good teammate, Smith will willingly share everything he knows about the 49ers and quarterbacking with second-round draft pick Colin Kaepernick, even though the rookie is here to ultimately take Smith's job and be what Smith once was – San Francisco's quarterback of the future. While he fights for his job with the franchise, Smith will dutifully make it part of his job to groom the young QB behind him. Or in front of him, as the case may be.

Alex the hardened veteran: Smith has been through a lot since the 49ers selected him with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft. He's probably experienced more enduring cynicism and adversity than most 27-year-old NFL quarterbacks, perhaps ever. As a seventh-year veteran, he's not a young quarterback anymore, in relative terms. He's seen the machinations of the NFL through a wicked looking glass, and that has given him wisdom and maturity in the school of hard knocks.

Alex the gunslinger: Every now and then, Smith is going to let loose with a succession of pretty passes, uncorking a few well-targeted howitzers that will make everybody go, "Wow!" He'll show the ability to go deep down the field with tight spirals, and his throws will show a lot of zip. He'll show off a NFL arm and a NFL delivery, and toss around the football in a manner that suggests he belongs.

Alex the spray can: As much as he attempts to avoid it, Smith has seemed to always fall into a pattern of spraying the football around the field and missing open receivers when he is forced out of his comfort zone, forced out of the pocket or when the pocket collapses around him. This is not uncommon for quarterbacks amid those pressing conditions, but Smith seems to get rattled more easily than most, which brings into question his presence in the pocket, which all successful quarterbacks must ultimately possess.

Butterfingers Alex: The early-career concerns about Smith's hands being too small are not valid, but his ability to hold onto the football in crucial situations is, and that has plagued Alex throughout his 49ers career. Who can forget Smith, flushed to his left, simply dropping the ball without being touched during fourth-quarter crunch time in a Sunday night game last year against Philadelphia, a gaffe the Eagles turned into a gift touchdown that ultimately proved to be the difference in a 27-24 defeat that dropped the 49ers to 0-5?

The good Alex: After his fumble in that Philadelphia game put the 49ers in a 24-10 hole, Smith displayed the kind of things he can do when he finds his rhythm and gets in a groove, and he was at his best in directing two late fourth-quarter scoring drives that almost pulled out a comeback victory. You will see the good Alex at varying points of the 2011 season. That guy always manages to make a few appearances that keeps everybody longing for more.

The bad Alex: Smith, as a person, is undeniably a good guy, a bright, respectful, humble individual who would make a good face of the franchise for any organization. But Smith, as a quarterback, unfortunately falls into a lesser category if you are to summarize his time with the 49ers so far. Smith has a 19-31 record as a NFL starter. Those numbers don't lie. They are the bottom line. As much as you'd like to give a guy who has been through football hell the benefit of the doubt, it would be remiss not to expect Smith to play some bad football and have his moments as a bad quarterback in 2011. How much we see of the bad Alex the rest of this year certainly will determine if we ever will see him in a 49ers uniform again once the year is over.

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