Smith Gives Hope to 49er Fans
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 12, 2005

THE NEW FACE of the 49ers, Alex Smith, will get his first start tomorrow night in the exhibition season opener against the Raiders, and if he looks as good in the game as he has in practice, the 49ers future will be much brighter.

First, a caveat: In practice, no defensive players are allowed to hit the quarterback, and until you see how a quarterback stands in against the pass rush, it’s difficult to evaluate him.

Ken Dorsey is an example from the recent past. Many of us were excited about Dorsey after watching him in training camp last summer, where he hit receivers consistently and showed a good command of the offense. When he got in games, he was exposed. When he can step into his throws, as he can when there’s no pressure, he’s an accurate passer. When he faces a hard rush, he can’t step into his passes and they become wobbly ducks and easy interceptions.

Smith has yet to face a hard pass rush, but he has two advantages over Dorsey. One is that he has a stronger arm, so even off-balance, he can get something on his throws. The other is that he is much more mobile. In college, he often ran for yardage out of the spread formation. He may do the same with the 49ers.

Significantly, in camp this summer, Smith has run plays out of the Shotgun, a formation that has seldom been used by the 49ers in recent years but one in which Smith is obviously comfortable. It would not surprise me if coach Mike Nolan puts in plays which give Smith the option of passing or running.

He’s not as good a runner as Steve Young, but he’s at least as good as Joe Montana in his youth, and in 1981, when undersized Dan Audick was playing offensive tackle, Montana was able to scramble out of trouble to make a play – including “The Catch” with Dwight Clark in the NFC Championship game.

Offensive coaches have had to counteract the blitz packages from defensive coordinators, and one way to do that is with a mobile quarterback. Smith is much more in that category than returning starter Tim Rattay.

Young made big plays with his running. Though he ran for good yardage in the 49ers’ second Super Bowl, against the Miami Dolphins, Montana generally used his feet more to buy time to complete a pass. Smith is more like Montana than Young. I don’t expect him to rip off many 20-yard runs, but with an occasional run, he will be able to slow down the pass rush, and he’ll be able to use his feet to evade the rush, as Montana did.

In camp, he has shown a very accurate arm, on all types of passes, whether they’ve been deep throws or swing passes, which are much more difficult than most fans realize. I still remember how Daryle Lamonica could hit a receiver in stride on a 60-yard pass but then overthrow a back coming out of the backfield by five yards.

THE OTHER imponderable with a young quarterback is how fast he will learn to read defenses.

Quarterbacks no longer have to call plays but there are still many decisions to be made after the snap. A defense that lines up one way can shift into something much different, and a quarterback has to be able to react instantaneously to those changes. When Steve Mariucci coached the Niners, he would occasionally show me a video from the previous game, shot from behind the quarterback, and I used to marvel at the quarterback’s ability to react to those shifting defenses.

Usually, that takes a fair amount of playing time. On a pass play, a quarterback has less than three seconds to process all the information about defenses and potential receivers. That’s not a thinking process because, if he stops to think, he’s on the ground. He’s reacting to what he’s seen, and he has to have seen it before, often many times, before he can make the right decisions.

That’s why rookie quarterbacks throw so many interceptions: The defenses are able to fool them with something they haven’t seen before. So, Smith will throw his interceptions, and we’ll all say, “What was he thinking?” because, from the stands and press box, we can see the field clearly, a luxury a quarterback often does not have.

The key is how Smith will react to those interceptions. Will he get discouraged, or will he learn from his mistakes?

I’m betting it will be the latter. Though he’s only 20, he seems to be very mature, very confident. Not overconfident. He talks frequently of his learning experiences, and how he has so much more to learn.

COACH MIKE NOLAN is doing his best to speed up the learning process. He has given Smith probably 50 per cent of the snaps in training camp, and now, he’s starting him in the first game of the exhibition season.

From the start, Nolan has approached this sensibly. Many thought he should trade the top pick in the draft because there was no “franchise quarterback” available, but Nolan knew he had to pick a quarterback because that position is so important. When he did try to make a trade on draft day, it would have only been one which gave him the chance to draft another quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.

Once he had Smith, he started a program which would get him in the starting lineup right away. Unless Smith screwed up royally in camp, he was going to start the exhibition opener. Unless he screws up royally in the exhibition games, he’ll be the starter in the regular season opener.

Nolan also constantly reminds the media that one player doesn’t turn a team around. The 49ers still need more good players, and I think it will take three good drafts, hopefully including the most recent one, to take this team to the championship level again.

But Smith is the bright new face of the franchise, and he gives hope to 49er fans.


NOTE: I’ve been overwhelmed by e-mail this week, mostly on the Krueger/Alou/KNBR fiasco, so please be aware that I may not be able to answer all of it.

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