More 49ers: Mr. Robinson's new neighborhood
OAKLAND, Calif. – Alex Smith may very well end up in the Pro Bowl some day as one of the game's elite quarterbacks. But the amount of praise he received after the San Francisco 49ers' preseason opener might have been a bit premature.
Legendary Niners coach Bill Walsh called Smith's performance "outstanding" in the Aug. 11 win over Chicago, applauding the 2005 No. 1 overall pick's "poise and presence." Those qualities weren't so evident during last Sunday's 23-7 loss to the Raiders. TV viewers might have wondered whether they were watching footage of Smith from last year's disastrous rookie campaign in which he bounced in and out of the lineup.
"Alex Smith had the one long pass to Antonio (Bryant), but outside of that, it wasn't the same game he had a week ago," San Francisco coach Mike Nolan said a day after the defeat to Oakland. "More than anything else, I think he made it hard on himself. He tried to make some difficult throws when he had easier ones he could have taken. He decided to go with the difficult. That's poor decision-making from that standpoint and he needs to do a better job of that."
Nolan and his coaching staff didn't have to wait long before coming up with critical plays to critique. On the first play from scrimmage, Smith's screen pass to Bryan Gilmore was thrown behind the line of scrimmage, creating a live ball and resulting in a fumble and a 12-yard loss.
Things went downhill from there. Smith completed half of his 12 passes, but 46 of the 81 yards came on Bryant's only catch of the game – a well-placed pass that hit Bryant in stride. Smith also threw two interceptions in a clear regression from his Chicago outing.
"A little mix between man and zone," Smith said in regards to the Raiders' scheming that caused him some difficulty. "A couple times, [I was] on a different page with the receivers. There were probably three or four plays I would like to have back."
Regardless of how accurate or flawed the assessments were of Smith following the win over the Bears, the reality is that San Francisco is greatly depending on him to deliver. The franchise is building around the 22-year-old with more youth in tight end Vernon Davis and running backs Frank Gore and Michael Robinson.
Backup quarterback Trent Dilfer, who was acquired in a trade last May, played reasonably well in the second half against Oakland, completing six of his eight attempts for 71 yards and a touchdown. The 49ers figure Smith can learn some valuable lessons from Dilfer, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback with 12 years of NFL experience, but if Dilfer had to take over as the starter, it would definitely be a setback for the organization.
"I wasn't around last year, but I do know one thing – he can play," Bryant said of Smith. "He's a player that will make plays for you and help you along the way."
Not only have the 49ers brought in more of a supporting cast to help Smith, but they also hired former Raiders coach Norv Turner as their new offensive coordinator. Turner, credited in part with helping develop Troy Aikman into a Hall of Fame quarterback with the Cowboys, is working on ways to fine-tune Smith's game.
Turner doesn't intend to turn Smith into a running quarterback, that's for sure. Smith has been credited with just two carries for one yard in the preseason, but Turner does plan to put the young quarterback on the move with some bootlegs and rollouts.
"We are going to take advantage of his ability and he throws extremely well on the run so that's the first thing," Turner said. "Plus, it really helps your running game if [opposing defenses] have to account for him on the edge because then they can't over-pursue on the run."
Last year, the 49ers didn't have enough of a support system to take the pressure off Smith. Gore, a fellow rookie last year, made some contributions, but he was worked into the offense at a slower pace than Smith. Brandon Lloyd was the go-to receiver, but he's not an ideal No. 1 target and has since departed. Tight end Eric Johnson missed the entire season with a plantar fascia (heel) injury in his right foot, and Arnaz Battle and Kevan Barlow also were slowed by injuries.
Now comes Year 2 and reasons for optimism. Bryant, while limited to just one catch on Sunday, has formed an instant connection with Smith. Davis, an incredibly gifted athlete, figures to open things up over the middle. And a healthy Gore and versatile Robinson should upgrade the running game.
So last season should be a distant memory for Smith, right?
"I hope he never forgets last year," Nolan said. "I think that's really important because those are great lessons to learn."
What's important for the 49ers is that Smith play like the QB that got Walsh all excited – not the one that brought back nightmares of 2005.