How Soon Will Smith Start for the 49ers?
by Glenn Dickey
Oct 03, 2005

THE ALEX SMITH ERA may get a jump start, and frankly, it canít get here a moment too soon.

Forty-Niner coach Mike Nolan gave an indication of his thinking when he replaced starting quarterback Tim Rattay with 8:29 remaining in the fourth quarter in Mexico City last night.

Rattay is what heís always been, a good backup who shouldnít be starting in the NFL. The longer he plays, the more his weaknesses are exposed. He isnít very mobile, so a hard pass rush unnerves him. He often panics, throwing hurriedly and inaccurately. And he wilts under late-game pressure; 11 of his 18 NFL career interceptions have come in the fourth quarter.

Itís true that he isnít getting much help. The Ninersí offensive line has been hit hard by injuries, and that group was marginal when healthy. There is no go-to receiver; Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle are complementary receivers who would be 2-3 or even 3-4 on the depth chart of a better team. Inexplicably, the 49ers havenít used the receiving ability of Trent Smith, though a good receiving tight end is a huge help to a quarterback under pressure. Because of the OL problems, the 49ers havenít been able to get a strong running game going. Again, I question a coaching decision, because rookie Frank Gore should be used more often and Kevan Barlow much less.

But it all starts with the quarterback, and with Rattay in charge, the Niners are going nowhere. That was especially evident last night. The 49ers got off to a 14-0 lead because of two defensive touchdowns, recovered fumbles which were turned into scores, but could do nothing offensively to hold that lead. Rattay looked very shaky, throwing the ball poorly. While he was in the game, the 49ers never were able to run more than six plays before punting. The 49ers ran only 50 plays the whole game; Arizona had 83.

The time of possession tells the story: The Cardinals had more than a 15-minute edge, 37:48 to 22:12. Thatís too much of a burden to put on a defense, especially playing at a site almost 7,500 feet above sea level, and the 49er defense eventually yielded 483 yards.

At the start of the game, the 49er defenders rushed Arizona quarterback Josh McCown hard, often with blitzes, and forced him into the first fumble/touchdown and into errant throws.

But the defense wore down because it was on the field so much, and eventually, McCown passed for 385 yards and two touchdowns.

WHEN SMITH came into the game, he seemed much more poised than when he started the first two exhibition games, throwing the ball with more authority. He seems to be adjusting much better now to the speed of the pro game than he did earlier.

Smith has a lot going for him, with the size to look over a defender and the athletic ability to move around in the pocket and even run for yardage if the opening is there. Offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy used a Shotgun formation with Smith, who played out of a spread formation at Utah and is more comfortable taking a direct snap from center. The 49ers should continue to make frequent use of that when heís in the game. When the Niners work out of the regular T, they should add running plays for him. A quarterback draw, with Smith taking two steps back as if to pass and then running straight ahead, could be especially effective against a blitzing defense.

The rookie quarterback is very intelligent and a hard worker. Nolan has noted that Smith comes in early to the 49er facility to look at game videos. Smith still has to be able to transfer what he sees on the film to the action on the field, which isnít automatic, but the fact that heís working so hard on the mental part of the game is very encouraging.

The development of young quarterbacks is slow if they donít play. Thereís only so much they can learn from the sidelines, and in practice, the starter gets most of the snaps, so the backup has less chance to get familiar with the receivers.

The flip side of that with a young quarterback is that, if he plays too much in his first year, he could get beaten up, physically and mentally. The physical part is unpredictable; Smith looks almost frail, at about 210 pounds. I have no doubt about the mental/emotional part of the equation, though. From what I have observed in practice, in both group and one-on-one interviews, heís a very confident young man. He seems convinced that he can replicate his collegiate success in the NFL. Bad plays and bad games wonít deter him.

THE QUESTION now is how soon Smith will get significant playing time.

Almost certainly, Rattay will start the 49ers next game, against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at Candlestick, and probably for some time after that.

What weíll probably see is Smith getting more and more playing time as the season goes on. Nolan really has nothing to lose by accelerating Smithís maturation because the 49ers arenít going anywhere this year, despite Nolanís brave talk about winning the division. The sooner he can get Smith up to NFL speed, the sooner he can concentrate on building up the many other areas where the 49ers need help.

By next season, Smith should be the starter. He may even be starting by the end of the season.

It canít come a moment too soon.


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