SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It's not as if Alex Smith needed the captain tag in front of his name. As quarterback, he's long been considered the leader of San Francisco's offense anyway.
He spent the offseason showing everybody why. Smith altered his schedule to take time to throw to different receivers who needed work. He committed countless hours to studying at team headquarters and picking the brains of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye and quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson.
"He's the quarterback. He's the captain of the whole team," receiver Michael Crabtree said Thursday. "He runs the ship. He is a captain."
Now Smith actually has the title. Coach Mike Singletary made the call this week heading into the 49ers' season opener Sunday at Seattle. It's the first time in Smith's six NFL seasons that he's been a regular captain -- and he joins Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis and star linebacker Patrick Willis, among others. Early in his career, Smith was a captain on occasion, but the duties shifted game to game.
"I voted," Singletary said of his decision, which he announced to Smith on Wednesday.
Smith is in a new yet old position, beginning this season as the starter for the first time since a Monday Night opener in 2007. But he got hurt in Game 4 that year and missed nearly a month, then made only three more starts the rest of the way before sitting out injured all of 2008.
The No. 1 draft pick out of Utah in 2005, Smith reinjured his surgically repaired throwing shoulder a few days before the '08 season opener. He was set to be the backup to J.T. O'Sullivan.
Smith began last year as the No. 2 quarterback behind Shaun Hill but took the job at halftime of the Niners' Week 7 game at Houston -- a big chance to resurrect his career.
Considering all the ups and downs he's faced in a relatively short NFL tenure, Smith doesn't take anything for granted. Like his starting spot. Or captain privileges.
"I guess you get the title of it, I guess everybody feels in some way they have different leadership skills and how they do things," he said. "Obviously, getting acknowledged for it is nice. I guess either way, it felt like I had a leadership role on this team, especially on offense. ... You still have to go out there and play."
This has to be considered a make-or-break year for Smith. He's in the final season of the two-year deal he restructured in March 2009 that sharply reduced his base salary. Money has never been his primary motivator. Winning has.
Smith threw for 2,350 yards and 18 touchdowns last season but also had 12 interceptions and was sacked 22 times for 134 lost yards.
He's prepared and comfortable in the huddle heading into this season, and the 49ers are greatly depending on him to end a seven-year playoff drought. Anything less than a postseason berth will be a huge disappointment.
"We know that our side of the ball, in the locker room, that he's a big part of this team," running back Frank Gore said. "We know in the huddle we've got to listen to him. ... He talks a lot and tells us what to do. Even when we don't do something right, he comes to us and says we should have done this or done that."
Said receiver Josh Morgan: "He's ready to go, man. It's the season opener. He doesn't really need the title. He's got it, so the sky's the limit."
Singletary certainly hopes so. He's been saying since last season ended -- with a disappointing 8-8 record and no trip to the postseason despite a strong start -- that Smith is the 49ers' guy, the incumbent No. 1. Even after another former No. 1 pick -- backup David Carr -- was signed.
Smith's dedication during the offseason to getting better, and making those around him better in the process, helped to convince everyone that he can handle the pressure of being the regular starter again. And that means playing behind an offensive line featuring a pair of rookie first-round picks, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati.
"I didn't name him a captain because he's a quarterback," Singletary said. "I named him a captain because he exemplified this offseason the things that I wanted our captains to do. I think when you talk about the identity of the 49ers, Alex really put in the time. You know he was out here when no one was out here. He was the guy that got the receivers together and threw to them, and (he) changed his schedule around to meet with some other receivers. So he was not just doing it once a day, he was doing it twice a day, as well as in the classroom. He was wearing Jimmy Raye and Mike Johnson out all offseason. Those are the things that we need."
Smith insists he hasn't strayed far from the approach he's always taken as a quarterback. He just committed himself to doing even more at this stage of his career, no longer having to focus so much of his energy on getting healthy or competing every snap of every practice to earn a job.
"You try to push yourself and constantly improve, and that's on and off the field as a quarterback," he said. "But, really, I kind of just continued to do what I've always done: work hard and be the guy I am. I'm not trying to be anyone I'm not. I think it naturally happens just from the stability that's been here this last year."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press