SANTA CLARA — At the end of last season, Doug Smith never imagined his son would play for the San Francisco 49ers again, not after hearing the quarterback get booed out of Candlestick Park and yet another coaching change on the way.
Alex Smith sat down with his father to seek advice ahead of free agency. The 2005 No. 1 overall pick was intrigued by new coach Jim Harbaugh, an offensive guru at Stanford and a former NFL quarterback who embraced Smith instantly.
Still, the quarterback had his apprehensions about staying in San Francisco.
"It's easier to say, 'Well, the grass has got to be greener somewhere else,'" Doug Smith said by phone this week from his home in La Mesa. "As I reminded Alex, if he'd have turned the clock back two years to the post-Mike Nolan era, 'If they'd have hired Harbaugh instead of (Mike) Singletary, you'd have been doing backflips at that point, Alex. You wouldn't have had any qualms. You would have been anxious. You would have been eager.'
"So I said, 'OK, you had some bad years there that went nowhere. But here it is. What do you do? You could try it somewhere else. Here's a guy that's finally offensively oriented.'"
Every step since has been more surprising than the next.
Smith has started to shed his draft-bust label and turned around his career under Harbaugh, leading the 49ers (13-3) to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. They'll host the New Orleans Saints (14-3) in the NFC divisional round Saturday at Candlestick, a place fans smothered Smith with boos so often in the past.
"There are so many quarterbacks but they don't have that it factor. I'm starting to see a lot more of that in him right now and it probably has a lot to do with Jim Harbaugh because he played that position," said former 49ers receiver and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.
Smith has been by far the most surprising player for the NFC West champions.
The former Utah quarterback threw for a career-best 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions, anchoring Harbaugh's version of the West Coast offense with record-tying efficiency. San Francisco finished with 10 total turnovers, equaling the 2010 New England Patriots for the fewest in NFL history.
Smith, who has played under a different coordinator each season and only one previous offensive-minded coach in Norv Turner, has even started to sound like Harbaugh â€” refusing to relish any vindication and deflecting attention back to the team.
"I had a great season up to this point, but like I said, just got us a ticket to the dance like everybody else," Smith said.
Those who know Smith best believe the NFL lockout might've helped more than hindered the quarterback despite a shortened offseason and a new coaching staff.
Certainly, he had little chance to move elsewhere in free agency.
Before he even signed a one-year deal, Smith hosted a pair of informal minicamps at San Jose State during the lockout that some 49ers dubbed "Camp Alex," forcing him to assume a leadership role. Smith organized practices, led classroom sessions to teach Harbaugh's playbook and even played the part of security guard and public relations coordinator with fans and reporters.
Smith sought out advice on how to organize practices from his father and uncle, John, the former Michigan State coach. By the time training camp began, the 49ers had about as much of the offense installed as players could without Harbaugh's guidance.
Even still, he debuted with a preseason debacle at New Orleans — with six sacks in all by the Saints, including two on Smith — in San Francisco's 24-3 loss. There haven't been many hiccups since.
"I just see a guy that doesn't really care too much what people think," said kicker David Akers, who made an NFL-record 44 field goals this season. "He's broken records where people think, 'OK, well it's just passing.' Well, how about not turning the ball over? How about moving the ball down the field and having some long, sustaining drives where it wears down the defense, gets you in scoring opportunities? If we're able to have all the field goal opportunities, that means we're still moving the ball."
Smith also credits his approach this season to his expanded family.
His son, Hudson, turned 8 months old Wednesday. Smith split time with his wife tending to Hudson late at night during the lockout, inspiring him to reach out to the rest of his family with the uncertainty surrounding his football future.
"I think family helps keeps things in perspective for Alex, and that's the important thing," Doug Smith said. "Life deals you a whole bunch of cards, and some of those cards you can do something with, and some of them you can't. Family shows him there are bigger things in life."
During a family vacation in Santa Barbara for his father's 60th birthday July 13, Alex and his older brother, Josh, convinced their dad that they should all get matching tattoos.
The Smith men had an artist ink a Serbian-style cross with a symbol around each corner in a tribute to Alex's great grandfather, an Austrian immigrant of Serbian descent who immigrated through Ellis Island at age 12. The cross means "father" in Serbian.
Alex has one on his back. Doug has a smaller one on his right thigh with ski crosses on each corner, one of his favorite hobbies — besides watching 49ers games. Sisters Abbey and MacKenzie are expected to follow.
"It's painful. I'm not doing that again," Doug Smith said.
Same might've been said for another go-around at Candlestick for the Smith family.
After being the punching bag for the franchise's failures, the 49ers have trumpeted Smith's season â€” Harbaugh believed the quarterback should've made the Pro Bowl â€” and are already talking about bringing him back for the long haul. Games for the Smith family, which normally tries to "stay incognito," are understandably more enjoyable these days.
Even for the quarterback, too.
"We never would have thought he'd been there this year, to be honest with you, after what he had gone through last year," Doug Smith said. "It was kind of a surprise to us that he's even at the 49ers this year. But Alex is the kind of guy, he's a pretty loyal guy. A high level of determination is one of his best assets. He wanted to see this through."