Column: Alex Smith joining ESPN for next step on football journey

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Now we may find out what Alex Smith really thinks when he’s talking about football.

The San Diegan who went first in the 2005 NFL Draft has joined ESPN as an analyst. There’s down time built into the versatile gig, as Smith transitions from a 16-year NFL career at quarterback.

“It’s not something I thought of or planned or expected when I was playing,” said Smith, who hung up his helmet in April.

Not telling how this will turn out.

Some former NFL players have the gift for Gab. Others talk the game to death.

Don Meredith, the late former Cowboys quarterback, crooned and cracked wisely in the “Monday Night Football” booth. America tie it up.

Tony Romo was a revelation. I have lapped other former NFL players in no time. How? Romo put you inside the quarterback’s helmet. But he didn’t go overboard with jargon.

As a player, Smith skewed toward bland in media interviews. That was planned.

“When you are the face of a franchise, you really feel, especially as a young quarterback, you’ve got to put this person up there,” he said by phone. “You’ve got to reflect well on the franchise. You get older, you get better at being yourself and doing both things.”

With ESPN he’ll be paid to speak his mind. And there’s decades of football in there, waiting to be tapped.

“Being myself, that’s the exciting part,” said Smith, the NFL’s recent Comeback Player of the Year and a three-time Pro Bowler. “I don’t want to just be talking surface stuff. There’s enough of that out there.”

I’m eager to hear Smith because he understands all types of quarterbacking.

If the NFL was slow to immerse itself in the hybrid style popularized by college and high school quarterbacks, Smith had been at the party for many years.

His mastery of spread football under Utah coach Urban Meyer — now a first-year NFL coach with Jacksonville — translated into a 12-0 record with the 2004 Utes.

In the NFL he replicated his college playmaking, but not before he struggled under expectations to perform as a traditional pocket quarterback and holster his good speed (4.71) and agility.

“When I came to the league,” he said, “I still remember the stigma that I had, that I played in shotgun and I played in a gimmicky offense in college, and could I be this pro quarterback, right? Could I be Joe Montana — or Peyton (Manning)?”

“For a lot of years,” he said, “I tried to be somebody else.”

Smith can tell you plenty about how Tom Brady, the quintessential pocket quarterback, reads a defense. Smith was comfortable enough in the pocket to lead the NFL in passer rating four years ago.

Someone who ran for 15 touchdowns and 4.5 yards per carry in his career, he also understands how the mobile playmakers operate. Such as friend Patrick Mahomes, his former Kansas City Chiefs protégé, and the likes of Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray.

“There’s just not a type any more,” he said. “This whole ‘what does this prototypical quarterback look like?’ — that’s out the window. That’s fun — to have all of these guys that do it a lot of different ways. To think of the spectrum of young quarterbacks that are starters in the league right now, they’re all so different. It’s fun to watch and it makes the game better.”

For Smith, the upcoming football season will be something different, that’s for sure. He’s not on a football team. Last time that happened, he was a young boy in San Diego.

“Everybody wants to say you’re retired,” he said. “Well, I’m not really done working. I’m 37 years old. I’m not just going to sit around the house.”

Joining ESPN is a step forward in his football journey. What comes of it, neither he nor ESPN seems overly eager to find out. They want things to breathe. Smith will appear on some pregame shows, usually as an analyst. He might interview a quarterback for “Sunday NFL Countdown.” He could appear on “SportsCenter” to talk about the topic of the day. He’s penciled to attend the Super Bowl and the NFL Draft.

He may take a crack at working a game in the booth, but it would be a Pac-12 game.

He won’t do a lot of traveling because he wants to stay home with his wife and three children. That’s also why he declined Meyer’s offer to join the Jags as a veteran mentor to Trevor Lawrence.

“For me this decision was about trying to find that balance,” said Smith, who lives in the Bay Area but also visits family in San Diego. “I love the game of football, I love talking about it and being around it. So that part of it was intriguing. It was a pretty easy decision going to ESPN. We’ve had a relationship for a long time, going back to college.”

Choosing broadcasting, he stayed on a track that’s parallel to Bill Walton.

They’re alums of Helix High in La Mesa and accomplished former professional athletes who’ve survived scary physical setbacks — Walton having said he contemplated suicide after years of excruciating back pain due to a basketball injury, before a surgical repair rejuvenated him; Smith having survived a terrifying bout with a flesh-eating bacteria that invaded his body after his lower right leg was snapped on the field in 2018.

We know this: Given a microphone, the methodical Smith won’t go on stream-of-consciousness riffs as meandering as a Grateful Dead concert.

He’s Alex, not Bill. Welcome to his new journey of him.