All signs pointing to return of Alex

Alex Smith is throwing footballs regularly at the 49ers' team facility. New offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye is referring to Smith among the "both quarterbacks" on the roster he has talked with since joining the team. And coach Mike Singletary is now saying Smith is somebody the 49ers want back in 2009. That once unlikely scenario now appears only one more significant hurdle away from happening.

That, of course, is the not-so-minor detail of re-working Smith's contract, the one that came with being the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 NFL draft. And that means making nice with powerbroker agent Tom Condon, who could stand between Smith returning to resume his career as the team's possible franchise quarterback, although now Smith would be in an entirely different role as far as his place in the hierarchy to the starting throne.

But Smith already has overcome some of the major hurdles to a return to the team in 2009, something that seemed improbable back in September when Smith suffered a rare bone fracture throwing a pass during one of the team's final preseason practices, then was suddenly placed on injured reserve a few days after the season began.

Smith would face another shoulder surgery and a year of rehab before resuming his career. And, after his well-chronicled spat with coach Mike Nolan, Smith's future with the team was looking bleak since the 49ers had already paid him all the guaranteed money that came with his blockbuster rookie contract, and general manager Scot McCloughan already had said Smith would not be back as a backup at his current salary.

Oh, yeah. Smith's salary. Smith is signed for two more seasons, but his contract calls for him to make a base salary of $9.625 million in 2009. That would probably be a figure the team would gladly pay – if Smith had turned out to be the quarterback he was supposed to be by now. Since he's still a project, Smith will have to take a pay cut.

A considerable pay cut.

Maybe there's some other team out there – perhaps several – that's more established at the quarterback position and would consider it an opportunity to pay for Smith to join the team as a still-in-progress 25-year-old quarterback, which is what Smith will be when he has his next birthday in May. There are no doubt some takers out there for Smith's services.

That's the leverage Smith has when Condon and the team are talking price for 2009. Smith is under contract. Condon could force the team to release Smith if he declines the greatly reduced figure of compensation the team will be offering.

But Smith already has said he'd be willing to take the big pay cut to get another shot with the team this year. And why not? He's already set up his next generation of family with the money he's already received from the nearly $50 million rookie deal he signed in 2005.

And while nobody's talking about it, the relationship between player and team and new head coach and new offensive coordinator must be going smoothly.

Smith has been throwing passes at the team's Santa Clara facility as part of his rehab and is on course to be full-go for the team's spring minicamps. That's a significant step. Doctors have said he can make a full recovery, and that recovery is moving forward.

On the team's web site this week, Raye – hired as the 49ers' seventh offensive coordinator in seven years earlier this month – mentioned only Smith and Shaun Hill – in that order – when talking about the team's quarterbacks. Raye also said he has watched every play of Smith's 2006 season – when Smith became the first quarterback in the team's 63-history to take every snap in a season – and then watched them again.

"I have watched tape. I've watched every throw of 2006 that Alex Smith made," Raye said. "I've watched that one time through and have gone a second time through to make sure that I see what in my mind tells me I'm looking at and not what somebody else sees."

It was significant that the 49ers put in a waiver claim for young veteran quarterback Bruce Gradkowski when Gradkowski was released by the Cleveland Browns on Monday. That says the 49ers were ready to bring in another young quarterback that has starting NFL experience instead of a longer-tenured veteran to challenge Hill, an indication the 49ers also feel Smith is part of the equation and it could be Smith pushing Hill for the starting role this summer.

And, finally, Singletary appears to have come around to the idea of Smith coming back. That could be the most significant sign of all.

When asked about Smith during the final months of the season after taking over as interim coach, Singletary always answered abruptly, practically giving no-comment answers about what role Smith might have in Singletary's plans for the team.

On Dec. 31, when Singletary was asked during his season-ending news conference if he was prepared at that moment to address the subject of Alex Smith, Singletary replied, ‘No. No, I am not."

But Singletary was ready on Wednesday to speak with writer Matt Barrows about Smith. During their conversation, posted on Barrows' blog, Singletary said, "I think Alex Smith is someone we'd all like to see back in 2009. It's just a matter of working things out." When asked about a timeline for "working things out" with Smith, Singletary replied, "Sooner rather than later. I think the most important thing is that it gets done. I think Alex wants to be here from everything I know."

Singletary said he had spoken recently with Smith, adding, "Alex has always been positive about the 49ers. Like I said, sooner rather than later."

Sooner rather than later. That means the 49ers are actively trying to keep Smith around, which would give them more options for the third quarterback they plan to bring in for 2009, which could now more possibly be a draft pick if it's not a lower-tier veteran such as Gradkowski.

It's a deal they need to make, because Smith is worth another shot. Not just because of all the team has invested in him, but because he still could be just the quarterback San Francisco needs. There still is time to find that out, and it's the 49ers – not some other team – that should find it out first.

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