Strong public backing from new coach Jim Harbaugh has put Smith in position to take command. This is the second consecutive offseason Smith has had the full backing of his head coach. A year ago, Smith was "taking ownership" of the offense during training camp. The 49ers did not open the job for competition. The way Smith commanded the offense impressed the teammates I spoke with, including Takeo Spikes and Joe Staley. Smith, like most quarterbacks, needs the backing of his organization to take a leadership role. He has that backing again this offseason and that is helping him.
None of it matters for the long term unless Smith plays well. I do think most of the 49ers like Smith and root for him to succeed. Smith is likeable, after all. He is diligent. Teammates also know the 49ers were not the most inventive team offensively last season. They know Smith faced significant challenges playing for a head coach with little feel for quarterbacks. They know the team had problems getting plays called quickly enough. They know Smith was working at a disadvantage. They also need to see better results on the field when it matters -- during games -- for the leadership angle to become more than just another positive offseason storyline.
Harbaugh has something to gain by backing Smith. He knows Smith has the football smarts to teach key aspects of the offense to teammates. He knows Smith will put in the work. He knows Smith is motivated to change his legacy with the 49ers. He also knows he can back Smith in the short term without betting any long-term capital. Harbaugh is in the first year of a five-year contract. The lockout is making it easier to sell 2011 as a season of transition. Everyone knows Colin Kaepernick is the quarterback Harbaugh wants to develop, making the present a transition period by definition. In that context, and without any options through veteran free agency, Harbaugh might as well make every effort to turn Smith into a success story.
The last six years have taught us to distrust feel-good offseason storylines as they apply to the 49ers. There is no reason to reject them entirely when they make sense. But healthy perspective is key.