SANTA CLARA — If form holds at the Oakland Coliseum today, Alex Smith's headset will go out sometime during the 49ers' first offensive possession. Smith has played enough road games in the NFL to expect the unexpected when behind enemy lines.
"Sabotage or something, I swear," Smith said this week. "I hope we're doing it to the other teams, because it happens to us like every other week."
Every NFL quarterback must occasionally deal with a bum headset, which is why the 49ers focused on an "ownership" drill inside the red zone this past Wednesday. In ownership, the coaches head to the sidelines and stop yelling instructions at their players. On offense, it was up to Smith to call the plays. He hit wide receiver Josh Morgan with a touchdown pass in one session, though the next ended with a pair of incompletions.
NFL play-callers are allowed to communicate with their quarterbacks as soon as the 40-second clock is set. (In San Francisco, quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson relays the play from offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, who is stationed up in the box.) The radio transmitter is cut off at the 15-second mark, giving coach and QB about 25 seconds to get the play call in — or less.
"If you're getting in the huddle at 15, you're breaking at 10, you're up to the line at 7 or 6 ... you're still behind," Smith said. "I mean, you'd want to be breaking the huddle before 15, you know, to really get to the line of scrimmage and have a chance to assess the defense and not be in an absolute rush."
And as Smith noted, the radio system sometimes fails altogether. That's what happened during the first exhibition game at Indianapolis. Smith's headset went out for a three-play stretch, then another five plays. And it can happen at home, too. Smith was again without the voice in his ear during much of the 49ers' opening drive against the Vikings at Candlestick Park last Sunday, a possession that ended with a touchdown.
Smith also gets to call his own plays during 2-minute drills. If there is a clock stoppage, the play comes from the sidelines. When the offense goes to hurry-up mode, the QB makes the call at the line of scrimmage.
Despite the surprisingly frequent need to improvise, calling plays isn't something that comes naturally to Smith. He didn't do it at Helix High in San Diego, or under Urban Meyer at the University of Utah.
"When I was younger in my career, I was very uncomfortable with it," Smith said. "It was kind of the mind-set of &‘you call it and I'll make it work.' was my job."
Smith's growing comfort with calling his own plays is indicative of his growth as an NFL quarterback, and especially the change that has come over him in the past six months. Teammates talk about the new confidence with which he carries himself, and it's easy to see he's in charge of the huddle and the line of scrimmage.