This season more than ever.
Despite Smith's shaky performance during the exhibition season, and his track record of never leading the 49ers to more than seven victories in a season since San Francisco made him the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft, the 49ers enter the first season of the Jim Harbaugh era with Smith not only as their starter again behind center, but also the only viable option to handle that role on today's roster.
Behind Smith on the depth chart are two unproven rookies who have yet to play their first NFL snap. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco's second-round draft pick this spring and the team's heir apparent at the position, is a project that didn't look close to being ready for front-line NFL play this summer. No. 3 QB Scott Tolzien is an undrafted rookie free agent who was claimed off waivers on Sunday.
In other words, it's Smith or bust for the 49ers. Again.
Keys to the season
Work the West Coast offense: Smith has bounced around from one offensive system to another during his career with the 49ers… and then to another, and another, and… Well, you get the point. He's on his seventh offensive coordinator in seven seasons with the team, and has had to learn and re-learn just about as many systems. Now he's back in the West Coast system, a version of which he played in during his rookie season, and it is an offense that fits Smith's skills and could give him a shot at success if he can produce within it. In last week's preseason finale, Smith was effective running the offense and moving the 49ers down the field with quick-hitting, precision pass plays that are the staple of the WCO. If Smith can get comfortable in the offense and simply work it the way it's supposed to be executed, both he and the 49ers have a chance.
Get rid of the ball and stay upright: This also is a key for the offensive line, which allowed 12 sacks during the exhibition season and several other plays in which they simply allowed Smith and Kaepernick and whoever else was behind center no time to set up and throw. But the QBs must also be aware of the heat and where it is coming from, while at the same time having some presence about them in the pocket and feeling how the pocket is holding up around them. Both Smith and Kaepernick can be effective using their feet and must do it more often when plays break down, even if it just means getting out of trouble and avoiding a sack. Another way of doing that is getting rid of the football when plays break down and a sack is imminent. Holding the ball too long was a Kaepernick characteristic during the preseason, and Smith also has been known to be guilty of that.
Develop a rapport with the wideouts: Smith has a nice rapport going with tight end Vernon Davis, but the 49ers won't be successful in the passing game this year unless Smith gets on the same page with the team's top wide receivers. That never happened last year with Michael Crabtree, who missed his third consecutive preseason this summer and is no closer to getting in tune with Smith than he was last season. And now Smith has another top target to learn and get comfortable with in Braylon Edwards. The WCO is based on timing and precision, so the QBs have to find that and develop it with the guys on the edges of the offense.
Manage the game: With the team's weapons at the skill positions, a game manager at QB could be all it takes for the 49ers to transform themselves this year into an effective offense. Moving the chains and giving their playmakers a chance to make plays could be the most important duties of San Francisco's QBs this year in the team's quest to find success in a new offense.
The bottom line
Smith looked good at times when given time to operate during the preseason, but 49ers opponents know by now that he can be easily flustered and they will be coming at him with schemes to do just that all season. The 49ers started 0-5 with Smith as the starter last year and weren't any better on offense without him after he was hurt. So San Francisco is pretty much in the same place at quarterback as it was last year at this time, putting faith in Smith to get the job done and having no real Plan B if he can't.
Unit at a glance
Starter for season opener: Alex Smith
Reserves: Colin Kaepernick, Scott Tolzien
Key new arrivals: Colin Kaepernick, Scott Tolzien
Key departures: David Carr, Troy Smith
Quarterbacks coach: Geep Chryst, first season with 49ers, 19th season of NFL coaching experience.
STRENGTHS: A mobile, athletic starter with a strong arm in Alex Smith, a veteran of 50 NFL starts. Still-developing young talent with upside potential in Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien.
WEAKNESSES: Smith has not proven to be a winning quarterback during his first six NFL seasons and his career has been plagued by inconsistency and a lack of stepping up big in key situations. He also has missed 30 games to injury the past four seasons. The backups are young and unproven and appear far from ready to be able to effectively step in for Smith in a pinch.
By the numbers
23.9: Rookie Colin Kaepernick's passer rating during the preseason.
33.2 San Francisco's team passer rating in four exhibition games, the worst in the NFL during the preseason and 25.2 rating points below any other team.
72.1: Alex Smith's career passer rating in 54 NFL games.
108.8: Average passing yards by the 49ers in four exhibition games, which ranked last in the NFL during the preseason and was 52 yards fewer than any other team.
112.8: San Francisco's team passer rating in the red zone during the 2010 season, which ranked first in the NFL.