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Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Alex Smith never had much of a shot


Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

 
 Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire
 After being placed on injured reserve, Alex Smith may be finished with the 49ers.

The 49ers' signing of quarterback Jamie Martin does more than give the 49ers one of the NFL's oldest players. It also foreshadows the end for Alex Smith in San Francisco.

Martin, 38, becomes the third-oldest quarterback in the league behind Dallas' Brad Johnson, 39, and the Jets' Brett Favre, who edges Martin by about four months.

Smith, 24, isn't finished in the NFL just yet. But his days as a 49ers quarterback surely ended when the team placed him on injured reserve Wednesday. That is sad for all involved. Every quarterback drafted first overall since 1967 had started in his fourth season. The cycle ends with Smith, whose star-crossed career never had much chance for success.

You'll sometimes hear a coach talk about how a quarterback finally becomes comfortable in his third season running an offense. That appears to be happening for Jay Cutler in Denver. Matt Hasselbeck struggled as a starter for Seattle in 2001 and 2002 before he broke out with 26 touchdowns in his third season starting. Troy Aikman threw more touchdowns than interceptions for the first time in 1991, his third season as a starter. Marc Bulger's third season as the Rams' starter was one of his best and better than the first two.

Hasselbeck, Aikman and Bulger were the first three quarterbacks whose names I entered into searches to see how they fared in their third seasons. Cutler comes to mind for obvious reasons. The third season can indeed be the breakthrough year.

As for Smith? He went through four offensive coordinators in four seasons. He endured confidence-shattering beatings, including the one that underlies his current shoulder problems. No question, Smith could have done more on the field, too. He could have been more assertive as a leader and played better when given the opportunity. But lots of things beyond his control made that unlikely.

I asked a defensive coordinator about Smith over the summer. He thought Smith would need a full season with good pass protection to become a confident player again. No team is realistically going to give that chance to Smith anytime soon. His best bet would be to get healthy and sign as a backup somehwere without expectations. His former coordinator, Norv Turner, seemed to like Smith and work well with him. Smith is from California, so a fit with the Chargers seems natural at some point, at least on the surface.