SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers have their new quarterback: old familiar face Alex Smith.
Smith signed his one-year free agent contract Friday as expected, giving new coach and former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh an experienced starter for 2011.
"Did I have any of you guys fooled?" Smith joked.
Smith walked away after the final game last year unsure where he would land for 2011. It certainly seemed like a long shot he would return to the 49ers, but the lockout — and Harbaugh's high-profile hiring in January — changed everything for both sides.
"That's kind of why it's not good to make decisions right then. It's emotional, you just went through a long season," Smith said. "It's healthy to get away from it and make a sound decision. A lot changed. It started with Coach Harbaugh coming in, sitting down with him, talking with him. It really went from there. For me just making a good decision. There was a lot left here for me. Everything came together and I knew this was the right decision."
Within minutes of completing his deal, Smith was on the sidelines for the team's first training camp practice — even though he can't formally take part in physical activity until Aug. 4 under the new labor requirements. Smith, not in uniform, shagged balls for Harbaugh during a quarterback drill.
Defensive tackle Ray McDonald signed a five-year contract and guard-center Tony Wragge received a one-year contract.
Smith took it upon himself to organize workouts and meetings for his teammates during the lockout, sessions that became known as "Camp Alex." Harbaugh noticed and appreciated the QB's initiative. Yet Harbaugh had already anointed Smith as his likely starter months ago, even though he was a free agent with no guarantee of re-signing.
The former Stanford coach was confident enough that an agreement would be reached that he handed over his playbook to Smith, whose deal is for a reported $5 million.
Smith, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2005, has faced constant change during his up-and-down tenure with San Francisco and has been regularly booed during his struggles. He has worked for different offensive coordinators every year, too.
"Alex, I think he's gotten a lot of undue negative publicity about him," cornerback Shawntae Spencer said. "He's been through so much in his NFL career, different offensive coordinators, different systems, things like that. It has to be tough. I went through three or four defensive schemes. It's tough on me and he's been pretty much double that. I can only imagine. It seems he and coach Harbaugh have a really good relationship and respect each other. Coach Harbaugh played the game, he understands the position and understands what Alex is going through."
Smith passed for 2,370 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games and 10 starts last season, but he also threw 10 interceptions and was sacked 25 times. The 49ers finished 6-10 after a surprising 0-5 start and haven't had a winning season or reached the playoffs since 2002.
Smith took over the starting job midway through 2009 and was entrenched as the starter heading into 2010. After separating his non-throwing left shoulder Oct. 24 at Carolina, former coach Mike Singletary turned to 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith for the next five games — even after Alex Smith was healthy again. Troy Smith went 3-2 as a starter, then it was Alex Smith's turn again for two games, including a commanding win over eventual West champion Seattle.
After a flop at San Diego, Singletary turned back to Troy Smith for a must-win game with the Rams on Dec. 26. That 25-17 loss cost the coach his job with one week to go. Jim Tomsula, serving a single-game stint as interim head coach, went with Alex Smith for a win against Arizona in the season finale.
From what Harbaugh saw from afar with Smith leading the way this summer, he has high hopes for his man behind center.
"It's obvious that they were a great benefit," Harbaugh said of the Smith-run minicamps.
Rookie Colin Kaepernick, the team's second-round draft pick out of Nevada, plans to do his best to win the starting QB job out of camp.
The 26-year-old McDonald has started only nine games in his first four NFL seasons, all in 2008. But he is likely to slide into the starting left defensive end spot as a starter — and McDonald is eager for the new challenge and responsibility.
"It really shows that they wanted me back here. I really wanted to be back here," McDonald said. "These past couple years have been tough because I've been kind of a role player. Now I get to go in there, get out on the field every snap and have a chance to make a bunch of plays for my teammates to win ballgames."
Also Friday, the Niners parted ways with veteran center Eric Heitmann and kicker Joe Nedney after they failed physicals.
The 31-year-old Heitmann was placed on season-ending injured reserve last November in his ninth NFL season because of a neck injury that wasn't healing as quickly as the Niners had hoped. He later underwent offseason surgery.
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When he went on IR, Heitmann hadn't played at all in 2010 after breaking the fibula in his left leg early in training camp on Aug. 9. He was expected to miss up to two months and returned to practice Sept. 29. David Baas took his place on the starting offensive line.
Baas is now gone, departed to the New York Giants, so Harbaugh has some decisions to make on an O-line that features leader Joe Staley and returning 2010 first-round draft picks Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati, who started every game as rookies.
Adam Snyder is slated to move into the center position to fill the void left by Heitmann.